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00000174-c556-d691-a376-cdd69e2b0000Northeast Ohio has a history of making things. Today, along with liquid crystals and polymers, it’s salsa and artisan cheese. A hot new food scene is simmering among local growers, chefs, producers, educators and epicures, and on every Friday, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman samples new offerings.

A Final Taste of Cleveland's Available for This Week's Visitors at a James Beard "America's Classic"

Sokolowski sign
Billed as Cleveland's oldest family-owned restaurant, Sokolowski's was founded in 1923.

An iconic cafeteria that’s usually closed for dinner on weeknights has extended its hours to help the RNC get a taste of Cleveland.

In today’s Quick Bite WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports the Tremont family restaurant has long been recognized for its authentic Cleveland cuisine.

Featured specials Friday nights at Sokolowski’s University Inn include Chicken Paprikash, smoked Kielbasa, and the specialty of the house, Salisbury steak.

Co-owner Mary Balbier thinks RNC visitors might straggle in to sample some of her hearty fare before they head home. “We’ll welcome the Republicans here, yes. That’s what Clevelanders do. They welcome everyone.” 

Mary Balbier with photos
Mary Balbier owns and operates Sokolowski's University Inn with her brothers, Mike and Bernie Sokolowski.

  Balbier runs the restaurant with her brothers Bernie and Mike. “I’ve been working here my whole life. I’m 57 years old.”

Landmark status
The siblings’ grandparents opened the restaurant in 1923.  “Victoria and Michael Sokolowski, which we were just honored recently by naming the street back here called the Sokolowski Way.”

While we talk, Balbier needs to keep working. “We are making our famous Salisbury steak.”

She doesn’t mind sharing the simple recipe. “80/20 ground meat; fresh eggs, seasonings, chopped onions. We fry them and then we bake them.” 

It’s the way her mother made it. “And it just seems to work. Why change when you got a good thing going?”

Distinguished guests
MichaelSymon has shown his love for Sokolowski’s on the Food Network and Anthony Bourdain lunched there on the Travel Channel, accompanied by the late Harvey Pekar.

“We have Anthony Bourdain here,” says Balbier, pointing to one of the many signed celebrity portraits lining the restaurant’s brick walls. “Jimmy Fallon was a very charming and wonderful person. Lech Walesa. He was doing a speaker series here at St. Ignatius in our area. And also President Bill Clinton. That was an honor.”

photos on walls
Dark wood and brick walls at Sokolowski's are almost entirely covered with signed celebrity photos.

That was long before 2010 when Clinton went vegan.

“This is where Bill Clinton sat right over here.” She vaguely recalls what he had for lunch. “I think potato pancakes and fish. He ate a lot of stuff.” 

Among “America’s Classics”
Sokolowski’s greatest honor, though, came a couple years ago. Balbier remembers taking the call from the James Beard Foundation.

“They had called here at the restaurant, and they said they were the James Beard, and I’m thinking to myself, James Beard. Isn’t that the fellow with the bald head and that medallion? I’m not really up on a lot of the food things. We’re not professional chefs, by no means, and I would never say we are. We’re just good hard-working Polish cooks.”  

But they are also the proud winners of the James Beard Foundation’s 2014 America’s Classics Award.

“They’re kind of like the Academy Awards of the food industry,” says Alison Tozzi Liu, editorial director of the James Beard Foundation.

Since 1998 the foundation has conferred the coveted award on 85 restaurants.  “This was kind of to acknowledge the fact that not all restaurants that are great are white table-cloth dining,” says Liu.

Winners are beloved
Each year the awards committee picks 5 restaurants in 5 regions. Winners have included Keens Steakhouse in New York City, and Helena’s Hawaiian Food in Honolulu. “They need to be open for at least 10 years, locally-owned, beloved in their community for this regional cuisine,” says Liu.

cafeteria line
Sokolowski's is a cafeteria because the mother of owners Mary Balbier and her brothers Mike and Bernie Sokolowski was a nurse who actually liked hospital cafeterias.

And they need to provide a slice of life. “When you go there it’s an experience,” she says, “and you get a sense of that place and the people who live there. You’ll see families, you’ll see men in suits and women in suits on their lunch break. You’ll see retired people who eat there maybe every day. They all kind of come together over this cuisine that kind of represents that region.” 

Liu has yet to dine at Sokolowski’s. “That is definitely where I would be headed next time I’m in Cleveland. One of the first things I do when I go to a city is to go to the America’s classic restaurant if they have one.” 

Simple and down home
It’s primarily Polish and Eastern European cuisine at Sokolowski’s, like wiener schnitzel, breaded pork chops, and short ribs. Mary Balbier says stuffed cabbage is a popular choice. “Handmade, we use pork, beef, and veal. We use a bacon base thanks to Mike Symon who loves bacon.”

Alison Liu says James Beard would have loved Sokolowski’s. “Of course he loved a fine French feast or a Chinese banquet just as much, but some of his favorite dishes were fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies, I mean just really simple, down-home stuff. There’s a famous quote from him, ‘I don’t like this cooking or that cooking or gourmet cooking. I like good cooking.” 

stuffed cabbage
Stuffed cabbage made with pork, beef, and veal is a popular menu item at Sokolowski's.

Beard would no doubt have enjoyed the generous portions Mary Balbier ladles out at Sokolowski’s. “We eat kind of heavy. But it’s good food. It’s what the peasants and the farmers that came over from Europe, they brought with them. The Poles, the Ukrainians, the Russians, the Italians, the Greeks. This is the melting pot right here.”

Parental influence
Everything is served cafeteria style. “My mother was from New York City. She was an RN. And she always worked in institutions, and she loved the idea of a cafeteria. So that’s why we adapted the cafeteria. My father was a workaholic. And all he ever did was work. He had a 7th grade education. But they always said ‘Number one, God is the center. Number two is family. Number three is hard work. Put them together and you can do everything.” 

Balbier and her brothers watch food trends come and go, and stick with the traditional. “I think you get tired of the other foods that may have been a little more hipster, shall we say? But they come back to the natural. Everybody loves a good old homemade mashed potatoes, good gravy and meat. We are a meat and potatoes town when you boil down to it.”

“All-American Eats"

At Sokolowski's they put sour cream into the pierogi dough.

  Two of Sokolowski’s recipes are in a book the Beard Foundation published earlier this year, “James Beard’s All-American Eats.” It compiles 75 recipes from James Beard America’s Classics award winning eateries.

There’s the recipe for Sokolowski’s pierogi. Mary Balbier acknowledges it’s very special. “It’s made with a sour cream dough.” And editor Alison Liu says she could not fail to include the Salisbury Steak recipe. “Michael Sokolowski says it’s the most important dish that they serve.”

The restaurant has been a family business for nearly a century, but Mary Balbier knows it might not always be.“My brother has 4 children. One’s a teacher, one’s a dietitian, one’s a businesswoman, and one’s a graphic artist. My son’s a lawyer. My daughter’s a pharmacist. No. I don’t know if they’ll come into it. It’s a lot of hard work. We’ll see what happens,” she says with a sigh.  “Only God can direct us there I think.” 

pierogi recipe
Sokolowksi's pierogi recipe is in the new book "James Beard's All-American Eats."
Salisbury steak recipe
Sokolowski's Salisbury steak recipe is also included in "James Beard All-American Eats"