A few icy blocks into the heart of a seemingly endless row of drab, one-story businesses around 54th and Cermak, it begins to feel a lot like the Old Country. Three adjacent buildings suddenly appear, adorned with rustic wooden beams and quaint, pointy red-tiled roofs that tower over the neighboring taquerÃas and lingerie stores. A massive sign in red, medieval script unites the three buildings under one name: Klas Restaurant.
A Czech Chicago institution that’s been in the family since 1922, Klas looks like a cottage that some divine hand plucked from the streets of old Prague and gently laid on the streets of Midwestern America. Inside, the atmosphere is cozy enough to make an insomniac feel like taking a nap. A staggering number of vigilant deer heads line the walls, multiple paintings of slaughtered, ready-to-roast pheasants hang around the room, and several bronze statues of jolly, pot-bellied hunters stand carelessly brandishing huge firearms. It is almost impossible not to picture knights and other men of chivalry frequenting this joint for a night of ale and hearty eats.
Tours of the establishment are available upon request and are usually conducted by a server. Our tour guide, Fabian, led us valiantly through Klas’s magnificent Dr. Zhivago and Crystal rooms, among others. These large, rentable spaces are usually used for banquets, weddings, and baptisms. Each room is distinguished by picturesque murals and intricate engravings, all of which date back to the restaurant’s earliest days.
During the tour, Fabian let us in on the surprising darker side of the restaurant’s past. As it turns out, Klas used to be a favorite hangout of Al Capone and his cronies; Capone was said to play poker quite regularly with Mr. Klas himself. Meanwhile, another room, a seemingly normal and somewhat narrow room replete with old paintings and wooden chairs, was apparently used as a brothel. Fabian also told us that somewhere in the establishment there is a secret tunnel–its destination unknown–which Capone would use to make quick getaways. Our tour guide’s most intriguing revelation, however, concerned the cellar. “The cement down there is new,” he told us, “Nobody really knows what’s underneath.” Wild guesses are strongly encouraged.
The fare at Klas is truer to its Bohemian roots than it is to its alleged mob ties–it is simple, old school, and wholesomely good. Awaiting customers at the tables are baskets of warm, soft rye bread that foreshadow the deliciousness to come. Appetizers include classics like duck livers, onions, and potato pancakes, known as bramboraky. These crispy, golden-brown disks of coarsely grated potatoes are mild in flavor and livened up with a bold hint of raw garlic. They are served up with apple sauce, contrasting warm with cool, crunchy with smooth, and savory with sweet.
The entrees at Klas are not only good on the taste buds, but on the soul, too. A bite of the budweis, a tender pork loin dipped and then pan-fried in a unique potato batter that is both crunchy and tender, inevitably causes voraciousness in any diner regardless of his or her gustatory spirit of adventure. And all it takes in order to be spellbound by the crispy roast duckling is to gently separate the leg from the thigh, to watch the steam rise in wisps from the inside and to allow oneself to pick at the fall-off-the-bone, juicy meat with eager fingers.
My order was the svickova, brisket that is marinated and then simmered along with the intoxicating aromas of allspice and bay leaves. It is sliced up to yield a product that resembles a Czech twist on roast or corned beef. This melt-in-the-mouth protein is lovingly drowned in a zesty, vegetable-based gravy that is not unlike a rich, tangy, cream of tomato soup. A traditional plate like this is enjoyed best with the bread dumplings, which graciously soak up the extra gravy and transport it safely to the appreciative palate.
Authenticity, unique decor, and plain old good eating make Klas an enchanting destination worth the odyssey down the Pink Line. It’s blessed with a history that roots it firmly in Chicago, and an Old World nature that makes it feel like a getaway.
Klas Restaurant. 5734 W. Cermak Rd. Thursday-Sunday, 11:30am-8pm. (708)652-0795. klasrestaurant.com