Everyone needs that home away from home restaurant, where the only difference between eating there and home is you don’t have to cook or do the dishes. For me, it was Seattle’s only Czech restaurant, Labuznik. There the waiters knew that I liked my martini wet and my roast pork with extra gravy. They knew that here wasn’t a choice between soup and salad; I wanted both. They knew that I always wanted a side order of sweet carrots and creamed spinach instead of dessert. In fact, Labuznik was the kind of restaurant we all dream about finding, where the waiter brings you waht you want before you ask for it.
For me, chef and owner Peter Cipra was Labuznik. Peter had fled Czechoslovakia during the Russian invasion in 1968. He opened his first restaurant, Prague, in the underground of Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square in 1972. Five years later he moved and opened Labuznik (Czech for gourmand, or the lover of good food) in the then seedy First Avenue neighborhood, surrounded by sleazy bars and porno theaters. He turned out to be just a little bit ahead of his time, as the neighborhood became the precursor to the now trendy Belltown.
As a young chef, I was simultaneously drawn to his restaurant by knowledgeable foodie friends and intimidated by his legendary temper and brusque demeanor exacerbated by his thick accent. And yet Labuznik quickly became my home away from home restaurant. Watching his wife Susan run the dining room was a lesson every chef-restaurateur should take heed of. Her remarkable grace in the dining room, her diligent care of the customer, and her nurturing demeanor made her the best host in the city. Peter never threw me out, he never threw a pan at me (I can’t speak for others), and he ended up being a trusted friend and mentor.
Labuznik served the type of cuisine in which meat is slowly roasted until it falls off the bone, and most dishes are served with sauerkraut and dumplings rather than mashed potatoes and peas. I always started my meals there with the ground veal soup that had just a little slick of oil on top for extra flavor. My standard was the vepro, slow-cooked pork roast studded with caraway and drenched with gravy made from the caramelized chine bone and drippings. Jackie would invariably get the roast duck, its skin crisped golden brown, the richness of the duck lightened by the zesty sauerkraut. And oh those dumplings! Literally the best I’ve ever had. This was Czech soul food of the first order. Peter’s amazing Bordeaux wine list was better than that at almost any restaurant in town; it complemented the meat-heavy menu perfectly.
In the end Labuznik closed because Peter Cipra’s unyielding vision for the restaurant meant he refused to be a slave to food fashion. When everyone else was doing Pacific Rim, Peter was still serving schnitzel, incredibly delicious schnitzel at that. When Peter wasn’t in the kitchen, Labuznik wasn’t open. So when he was ready to retire, there was really no way for my favorite restaurant to carry on. For us, Labuznik is all about indelibly etched food memories. In fact the recipes on the menu that follows are a blend of those food memories, long phone conversations with Peter, and mysteriously disappearing emails. They are inspired by our memories of a spot we truly loved. We hope we do Labuznik’s food justice, because if we don’t we’ll hear about it- from Peter of course.
Editor’s note: this is the intro to the Labuznik chapter of our cookbook, Tom’s Big Dinners. The menu features slow roasted pork with caraway onion gravy and bread dumplings