Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feel miles from home. So leave your passport at home and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.
If you’re in the mood for a hearty, authentic Polish meal in Chicago, make a beeline for the Blue Line and head to Logan Square. Past the hipster hordes that (stereotypically) characterize the area lays a Polish culinary paradise, Staropolska, which literally translates to “Old Poland.”
“People come here because the food is authentic, like in Poland,” says Rafal Zaborski, manager and son of co-owner Zofia Zaworska. The restaurant was established in 1984, but was taken over by Zaworska and sister Barbara Orzel in 2006, in what was then a more heavily Polish-populated neighborhood.
“The Polish community has changed a lot in Chicago and the U.S. in general, especially since Poland joined the European Union [in 2004],” says Kamilla Dworska, Program Director of Polish Radio Chicago 1030 WNVR AM and Station Manager of Polnet Communications Ltd., the largest media outlet for over one million Polish-speaking listeners in the U.S. “Fewer Polish people have been coming here [since joining the EU], so the population is getting older. Places like Staropolska not only give older immigrants a small taste of our home country, but they also help to educate first generation Polish-Americans like my daughter, locals, and curious tourists on our food and heritage.”
Though the dynamics of Logan Square have changed, Staropolska still stays in good company with places like Kurowski Sausage Shop down the street and St. Hyacinth Basilica, a church with daily masses spoken in Polish, a mere five-minute walk away.
Walk through Staropolska’s doors and you’re met with a medieval-looking eatery. Tall beer and wine glasses hang above the wooden bar to the right, with classic Polish beers like Zywiec and Okocim on tap.
Sliwowica, a Polish plum brandy, mingles with more recognizable liquors like Absolut and Johnnie Walker on the back bar. The bar’s name is artfully etched into the arch that frames up all the aforementioned liquor bottles below.
The brick walls and rustic metal chandeliers further contribute to the old-world feel. In the back right hand corner is the VIP table, as stated by the slightly out of place, but still charming metal “V.I.P.” sign above it. In what can only be described as Game of Thrones-esque, this alcove area has a longer table that faces a stone hearth and cozy fireplace, with a deerskin rug and antlers mounted on the wall to the right.
Word to the wise: this section is meant for larger parties so get there early to request a seat there if you come with a group. It creates a more intimate and authentic, but not necessarily alienating, experience since it’s not completely separated from the rest of the restaurant.
If you find yourself waiting for a table, sneak a peek at Staropolska’s private dining area next door (the entrance is immediately to your left when entering the restaurant). The stark contrast between the earth tone, meat-and-pierogi Mecca you’re in and the white-and-beige walled, crystal chandelier-laden private dining room is so jarring you’d never know they share the same kitchen.
White tablecloth-covered tables are complemented by antique gold-colored chairs and adorned with polished silverware and stemmed wine glasses. Tree branch centerpieces draped in jewels, tall wick candles, and ceramic pictures round out the decorations.
Now it’s time for dinner, so raise a glass and cheers by saying “Na zdrowie” (pronounced Naz-droh-vee-ay), and let’s feast.
For starters, order the beetroot soup. Its crimson color gives way to a delicious melding of beet and beef flavors with dumplings adding a nice chewy texture. At Rafal’s behest, add the steak tartar (tatar po polsku) as your second starter dish. Fun fact: despite being a well-known dish in his home country, Rafal sheepishly admitted to never really eating it until coming to his mother’s restaurant. It’s now one of his favorite things on the menu.
The uninitiated may understandably be afraid of raw steak topped with a yellow egg yolk, but fear not. The well-seasoned meat mash is magnificent, especially when mixed with the accompanying diced onions and pickles that give each spoonful an appreciated crunch.
After washing down the tartar and soup with a few tall beers, order the Polish Plate to sample several of Staropolska’s delicacies all at once and at only $10.99 it will keep you happy and full without leaving your wallet sad and light. The sampler comes stacked with a potato pancake, rice and meat-stuffed cabbage, sausage with pasztecik (deep-fried dough) and, of course, their famous meat-filled pierogis.
“Of all the things on our menu, we’re most known for our pierogis,” notes Rafał. Since the dish only comes with a few, get another side order with a different filling like potato or cheese.
If you are miraculously hungry and have room left in your stomach, cap the night off with the blintze with strawberry sauce or a slice of cheesecake. Pay the bill and head home. You’ll sleep very well tonight.
Staropolska is open for lunch and dinner and does take reservations. The restaurant tends to be busier on weekends, particularly in the fall and winter months when the rich meal can help distract you from Chicago’s ridiculously cold weather.
“My wife and I live downtown,” said one diner. “We head up here a few times a year for dinner. The family in the booth next to us came to Chicago for one day from Notre Dame and said they had to come to this place.”
Notre Dame (South Bend, IN) is about 100 miles from Chicago. Glad to see that travelers both near and far can still get a taste of Old Poland today in the Windy City.