100 Things To Do in Cleveland Before You Die: Lunch at Sokolowski's University Inn

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Amy Eddings, in line at Sokolowski's University Inn: What’s looking good?

Elderly man: Everything

Eddings: I’ll say.

Eddings: I’m standing in the lunch line at Sokolowski’s University Inn, along with about 40 other people.  Together, plastic serving trays in hand, we inch   past large, rectangular stainless steel trays filled with the pride of any Polish babcia, or Ukranian baba or German oma’s Sunday dinner table: cabbage leaves rolled around ground pork, beef and veal…. …. chicken paprikash…pork schnitzel…kielbasa and sauerkraut. 

Elderly man: Can I have one of those little pieces of the meatloaf?  And let me have a dumpling.

Eddings: He is gently corrected:  it’s a pierogi.  And his slice of meatloaf is the size of an ironworker’s hand. 

Eddings, to the man: That’s your little piece huh?

Man: Jeez!  That’ll work!

Server: Do you want sour cream for your pierogi?

Eddings: Of course.  And gravy for the mashed potatoes.  And rice pudding for dessert. It’s comfort food for Clevelanders of Eastern European descent.  It’s been made well and served generously at Sokolowski’s in Tremont for 94 years…decades before the neighborhood became cool with the help of restaurants by Michael Symon and Zack Bruell.  A trip through Sokolowski’s cafeteria-style lunch line is No.  16 in Nikki Delamotte’s "100 Things To Do in Cleveland Before You Die.”  She’s been my guide as I get reacquainted with my native city. 

Delamotte: I think anyone, foodie or not, can agree Sokolowki's is kind of a Cleveland institution.  It’s a James Beard award-winning restaurant. But still, it’s old fashioned, laid back…It is such a lunchtime experience with a homestyle place that everyone can love.   If there’s one restaurant that you have to take everyone to when they come to Cleveland, it’s Sokolowskis.

Eddings: Linda Faecking is in line with a visitor.

Faecking: This is my niece from Seattle and her husband. We think this is a place that - we think visitors to Cleveland should come to at least once.  The food is great and they give you a lot for your money and it’s good ethnic food.

Eddings: On a hot summer day, it’s not a summer menu is it?

Faecking: No! But good food is good food, and there’s no timetable for that, is there?

Emily Rodriguez: Good way to put it.

That’s Linda’s niece, Emily Rodriguez.

Emily Rodriguez: I will go anywhere for good pierogis // so we’re very excited for that. We don’t have this kind of food in Seattle so it’s something different to have here.

Eddings: Mike runs the place along with siblings Bernie and Mary, the third generation of Sokolowskis to do so. 

Eddings: You’ve been around 90 some years, you’ve gone through a lot of phases in America’s taste buds.

Mike Sokolowski: We do try to adapt to what’s happening out there too, with salads…and lighter… 

Eddings: Wait, there’s something green up there?

Sokolowski: We have a salad bar Wednesdays and Thursdays.  And then we do some grilled, grilled chickens and fish.

Eddings: But they’re relative newcomers compared to the best-sellers:  Stuffed cabbage rolls.  Salisbury steak, which has been on the menu for 60 years.  And pierogis that have won high praise from Michael Symon on the Food Network:

Symon, from a Food Network video: The one that I absolutely love the most is the potato and cheese at Sokolowski’s in Cleveland, Ohio.  They take a starchy dough, and then they stuff it with starch.  I mean it doesn’t get any better than that.

Peggy Kelly, at Sokolowski's:  Michael Symon was our paper boy.

Eddings, off mic: Nooooo!

Kelly:  Yes, and his parents still live in the neighborhood.

Eddings: That’s Peggy Kelly of North Olmstead, who’s with three other ladies to celebrate birthday girl Donna Bockwich.

Peggy Kelly:  It’s her birthday, so she gets to pick.

Donna Bockwich, birthday celebrant: I wanted to come here because I’ve never been and I’ve heard about it my whole life.

Eddings: There are still plenty of Clevelanders who’ve heard of Sokolowski’s but have never been.  And with the help of publicity from folks like Symon, this cozy, low-ceilinged, wood-paneled inn has gone from being an insider’s favorite lunchtime haunt to a global sensation.

Kevin Cleary: We were always known locally. You’d see politicians and judges and steelworkers and everybody here.

Eddings: That’s my waiter, 36-year-old Kevin Cleary, who first worked at Sokolowski’s when he was 14.

Cleary: The one thing that’s changed now is we’re much better known nationally and internationally.  I’ve had people from Australia.  Who’ve planned trips to America just to come here.  Today, just this morning, I met somebody from Denver who came here just to come here.  It’s amazing.

Eddings: Outside the plate glass window of the bar, which is open Friday and Saturday nights, about 50 people on a trolley tour of Cleveland are seen stepping off their trolley and heading toward the restaurant’s front door.  Most are elderly.     

 Eddings: I wonder whether this is a cuisne that appeals to a sense of nostalgia and as we become a nation that doesn’t cook, whether you’re at risk of people losing an appreciation of this.

Mike Sokolowski: That’s a great question.  We have found out that people come here to eat and they have brought -- these folks were friends of my father and mother and they have children my age and so they come here now and they bring their kids, generations who support us.  I think…you can only eat so many and I love Chipotle and stuff like that, I do. But that only goes so far.

Eddings: Sokowlowskis University Inn has what Chipotle will never have: tradition and civic pride.  It’s what draws generations of Eastern European Clevelanders, and, now, foodie tourists from Australia, to this restaurant at the edge of Tremont.  They’re here to say, This is Cleveland, and this is how we eat.  Or how some of us eat.  Or most of us used to eat.  Anyway, it’s how we all long to eat...contentedly, and with gusto. 

IF YOU GO:

Sokolowski's University Inn, 1201 University Rd., Cleveland, (216) 771-9236.

Mon.-Fri., noon-3 p.m

Friday, 5-9 p.m. (bar open late)

Saturday, 4-9 p.m. (bar open late)

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