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An eco-Bohemian with new ideas

Photograph of Frankie's proprietor Josef Rusnak by Erik Anderson

By Anne Paprocki

Big changes are in store for Frankie’s Bohemian Cafe, the bar and restaurant at the corner of Divisadero and Pine that has been a local favorite for nearly two decades, known for its big beers, giant burgers, Czech flair and casual atmosphere. Soon the mugs of Krusovice beer and bar fare will make way for organic wine and coq au vin when the place is reincarnated in late September as Frankie’s Bohemian Eco-Kitchen.

Masterminding the rebirth of Frankie’s is Pacific Heights resident and original owner Josef Rusnak. Eighteen years ago, Rusnak and his then business partner, Frankie Pazderka, opened the casual dining spot to considerable success.

“I lost the coin toss when it came time to name it,” Rusnak says with his devilish smile. Now, 12 years after selling Frankie’s to return to Europe, he is back and ready to make changes inspired by his time away.
The updated restaurant, slated to debut after a mid-month makeover, will feature wine on tap, all-organic produce and new European entrees near the $10 mark.

In its first years, Frankie’s was a hot spot. “It was very lively and youthful at one point,” says Rusnak. “When I left, a lot of the customers did too.”

It’s easy to see why Rusnak is such a draw. With his warm wit and friendly manner, he stops to chat with nearly every diner and drinker — kissing women’s hands and liberally dispensing hugs and food advice all around. “Tell me before you come in next time,” he says to one couple. “I’ll make something special.”

Rusnak’s passion for food and hospitality originated in his childhood. He split his time between the Czech Republic and Italy and loves the food from both countries. “My grandfather had a restaurant and a small grappa refinery,” he says. “And my grandmother was an excellent cook. She had her own wood oven to bake bread in.” At 14, Rusnak decided to enroll in hotel school.

Rusnak is also a wine connoisseur. In Europe, he exported Italian and Spanish wines to Central and Eastern Europe, and he is a licensed sommelier. Now he is also a partner in Beaver Creek Vineyard, an organic winery located in Middletown, in Lake County.

Josef Rusnak now bottles his own wine.

In fact, his connection with Beaver Creek is behind many of the changes coming to Frankie’s. “I have my own ranch with my own animals and vegetables now,” he says. “It’s all organic. There’s no reason to serve anything else if I can serve the best.” All of the produce at Frankie’s Bohemian Eco-Kitchen will come from Beaver Creek. And unlike other restaurants with farm-to-table philosophies, Rusnak promises that the food at Frankie’s will be affordable, too. “I won’t raise prices,” he says, “because there’s no middle man — so I don’t have to.”

The food at the new Frankie’s will be inspired by the cuisine of France and Central Europe. Rusnak, who created Frankie’s current menu 18 years ago, says his new offerings will include coq au vin, leg of lamb, and duck from Beaver Creek, along with some Hungarian dishes. He is also planning a more authentic version of Frankie’s staple, the brambory. A Czech specialty, the brambory on the current menu was created with the American palate in mind.

“Before, I didn’t think Americans wanted an authentic brambory,” says Rusnak, “but now I feel differently.” The current incarnation is a bit like a large zucchini and potato pancake, with toppings that include cheese, meat and vegetables. “We’ll do it Czech style now, with organic pork and sauerkraut,” says Rusnak.
Even his signature burgers will be getting an upgrade.

“We’re going to start making our own hamburger rolls,” he says. “This is an absolute must.” Eventually, he also plans to bake homemade pastries, including poppyseed kolache, and breads with walnuts from the vineyard. Wine from Beaver Creek will be available on tap for $6 a glass, and the wide selection of beers that has been a hallmark of Frankie’s will still be available.

Though Frankie’s Bohemian Eco-Kitchen will sport an entirely new decor, replacing the current license plates and vintage ads, he wants to maintain the laidback, friendly atmosphere — and hopes to attract a large neighborhood clientele.

“It’s meant to be a place for good, healthy food and fun,” he says. “It’s really a return to good home cooking,” he says.