Why do some restaurants stick around for decades while others seem to disappear before people know they exist? There are a good many reasons that Jerry Pribil’s landmark Marienbad Restaurant and the adjacent Chaucer’s Pub celebrated their fortieth anniversary this past March.
The brother businesses feature a welcoming sidewalk patio with a black iron fence, flower boxes, and comfortable tables with umbrellas that recall the gentility of the European-style outdoor café. Dating back to 1854, the ochre-coloured building is the original home of the London Free Press. It functioned as a hotel from 1871 to 1920 and became the home of the “Farmer’s Advocate” from 1921 to 1965.
With the idea of bringing eastern European flair and Czech cuisine to London’s downtown, former owner, Jindra Dvorak opened the Marienbad in March of 1974 to much fanfare. The restaurant was named to pay homage to the well-known spa, Mariánské Lázne (Marienbad).
Over the years a veritable who’s who of restaurant professionals has been employed by the Marienbad. The longevity of some of the staff is well-known by restaurant insiders. The friendly service, cheerful repartee and familiarity of the servers have contributed in part to the loyalty of Marienbad’s faithful patrons.
To my mind the kitchen evokes the Mittel-European cooking styles of Central Europe, specifically the Czech Republic (Bohemia), Germanic, Slovakian and Austro-Hungarian culinary vocabulary. Both the restaurant and the kitchen have remained old-school and true to their roots. There are rarely any surprises on the menu. On occasion familiar comfort food menu options are added to keep the menu relevant, fresh and sufficiently varied. What keeps many of us returning may be that it seems less like going out to dinner than eating at a trusted friend’s home.
Pete Wells recently stated in The New York Times, “German chefs tend to play a long game, honing their craft in the same kitchen for decades.” My own experience working alongside several remarkably dedicated German-born, French-trained chefs make me think that there is a lot of truth in that particular statement. Chef Klaus Campbell, originally from Germany, took the reins of the kitchen at the Marienbad when he became chef in 1988.
Chef’s humble dill pickle and potato soup is thick and creamy and tastes great. Especially popular are the house specialities like goulash with Bohemian dumplings and earthy chicken paprikash served with haluska (cabbage and noodles). The Carlsbad rouladen is thinly sliced beef wrapped around ham, pickle and egg and served with dumplings.
The kitchen’s forte is schnitzel. The perfect schnitzel has a dry crust that rises like a soufflé and shatters with the touch of a fork, revealing the tender meat within. The menu offers a variety of classic schnitzels including crispy Jäger schnitzel (hunter schnitzel) with mushroom sauce; Franz Josef schnitzel stuffed with ham and cheese and lightly seasoned with mustard; and the classic Wiener schnitzel.
There is an exceptional “beefsteak tartar”, a dish made from finely minced raw beef that has become a local legend. In the competent hands of Chef this dish is a beautiful thing, with sublimely balanced flavours and a deep red colour. Chef’s version is served with proper accoutrements: minced red onion, capers and a raw egg yolk in the centre of beef, accompanied by lightly toasted garlic bread. However, Chef’s beef mixture recipe remains a closely guarded secret.
In most restaurants today steak tartare means finely chopped beef, seasoned with salt and pepper, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard or tabasco sauce, and mixed with a raw egg yolk, chopped onions, capers, chopped parsley and occasionally chopped gherkins. Some chefs use condiments like ketchup to give the mixture a deeper pigment. Steak tartare may have had its vogue in the 1960’s and 70’s but remains a classic. The dish was dubbed not for raw-meat-eating Tartars, but for the tartar sauce that accompanied it.
Marienbad is one of the restaurants where you are sure to find local Europeans, who come for the authentic fare. Ingrid Blanke, former co-owner of London’s once celebrated Gabriele’s (which in its heyday served German and French haute cuisine — who can forget chef Heinz Klaus’s magnificent cake counter with Sacher torte, Viktoria torte and chocolate mousse cake?) — was lunching at the Marienbad recently with a group of German-speaking friends, most of whom were partaking in the beefsteak tartar.
Chef’s creamy chicken liver pâté piped on open-face pumpernickel and garnished with olives is reminiscent of really good liverwurst, the kind that Albert’s coffee shop used to serve in the old incarnation of the Covent Garden Market. At lunch there is the Czech Ploughman, a traditional sandwich with house potato salad on French stick and crowned with smoky Prague Ham. The Wenceslas cheese is gooey, nutty, Edam cheese encased in a crunchy fried crust and served with tartar sauce and fresh fruit.
Russian egg on potato salad with salami, ham, Swiss cheese and caviar is a classic.
There is strudel, a variety of cakes and several versions of palatschinka which are similar to the French crêpe — very thin, transparent in texture and golden brown.
Chaucer’s Pub offers a more laid back ambience than the Marienbad. A comfortable and convivial pub that features a large bar with striking woodwork and a brass rail, beveled and stained glass, an antique clock, a large stone fireplace.
Craft beers and imports will mollify the most discerning patrons. Try one of the 12 European beers on tap, poured and presented according to tradition. While there is an emphasis on Belgian beers, Chaucer’s offers roughly 85 different brews from six continents. Chaucer’s is also well-known for an exceptional selection of single malt scotches on offer.
A selection of private rooms includes the “Fireplace Room” that seats up to 85 people, the “Prague Room” has seating up to 45 and the “Atrium” with its mural of Carlsbad seats up to 40.
Marienbad is also known for hosting interactive Murder Mystery evenings where guests are encouraged to play different roles. I’d venture to guess that the old world flavour, consistency and style of the Marienbad and Chaucer’s Pub appeals to a broad demographic, no matter their heritage.
Marienbad Restaurant & Chaucer’s Pub
122 Carling Street, London
Hours of operation:
Monday: 11:30 am to 10:30 pm
Tuesday & Wed.: 11:30 am to 11 pm
Thursday: 11:30 am to 11:30 pm
Friday & Saturday: 11:30 am to 1 am
Sunday: 4:30 pm to 9 pm
BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large.