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Iconic Cleveland Eatery Sokolowski's Calls It Quits

Among the hundreds of celebrity pictures on the walls of their restaurant, Bernie Sokolowski and his siblings kept a collection of family photos [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
Bernie Sokolowski proudly points to pictures of his family on the restaurant walls

A century-long run for a Cleveland institution is coming to an end. The owners of Sokolowski’s University Inn have put their landmark property up for sale. Bernie Sokolowski, his brother, Mike, and sister, Mary, recently decided to make the pandemic shutdown of their restaurant permanent. Bernie Sokolowski said if it doesn't sell, the family could consider reopening the restaurant, but he figures now is a good time to make the move.

The term “iconic” sometimes gets bandied about a little too easily, but the popular eatery, opened as a tavern in 1923, lived up to the description. The Sokolowski family made a name for themselves feeding steel workers who walked up the hill from the mills. The neighborhood is known today as Tremont, but when Bernie Sokolowski and his siblings were growing up, everybody called it the Old South Side. The trio turned the family business into a popular destination for visitors, serving huge plates of Polish-style comfort food, including pierogis, stuffed cabbage, Lake Erie perch and an assortment of sausages, all with a personal touch.

“Whenever you came into our place, you didn’t need the general manager to make an appointment for you to see the owner,” Bernie Sokolowski said. “You just said, ‘I want to talk to the owner.’ And I came right out.”

Bernie, Mike and Mary spent a lot of time at the restaurant, talking with customers and pitching in to help with the cooking to maintain quality control. That attention to detail attracted fans from across the country, including the late food writer Anthony Bourdain.

In 2014, Sokolowski’s won the James Beard “American Classics” Award, further cementing the reputation of the restaurant and attracting long lines on the weekends.

Mike, Mary and Bernie at the James Beard Award ceremony in 2014. [Bernie Sokolowski]

They tried offering carryout meals after the pandemic hit, but that didn’t last long.

“There wasn't enough volume of business coming in,” Bernie Sokolowski said. “We weren't making enough to cover a lot of our expenses.”

But the shutdown also brought other things into focus. Long days at the restaurant were starting to take their toll on the 65-year-old Bernie Sokolowski, not to mention the remnants of a college football career.

“I had knee replacements, hip replacements, shoulder back surgery, you know, to nose jobs,” he said. “I could go on, you know. You come to a time where I want to enjoy my life.”

With the new towpath recreation trail snaking right alongside his building, Sokolowski also knows he’s sitting on a valuable piece of land, with spectacular views of the Cuyahoga Valley and the city skyline.

“It is a good chunk of property there,” he said. “And, you know, of course, there's a lot of history there with us."

And that history is what makes it tough to give it up. 

“I think what I'm going to miss the most is the friendships that I made, that we've all made,” he said.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.