Filed Under Food

Sokolowski's University Inn

Victoria and Michael Sokolowski opened Sokolowski’s University Inn in 1923 as a tavern at the corner of University Road and West 13th Street. For nearly a century, the family served up exceedingly generous portions of traditional Polish-style food, making it a popular spot for generations of visitors from every walk of life. Local heroes from steel workers to accountants. Hollywood types from Ursula Andress to Jimmy Fallon. Politicos from Lech Walesa to Bill Clinton. Rock ‘n rollers from Dion DiMucci to Trent Reznor. Celebrity chefs from Bobby Flay to Michael Symon.

When Sokolowski’s opened its doors in 1923, Tremont was rather different from the gentrifying neighborhood it became around the turn of the 21st century. For one thing, the area was called the South Side. The neighborhood was more densely populated. Poles rubbed shoulders with Ukrainians, Russians, and a host of other nationalities. Large families in small houses were the norm. And there were many more houses than there are today. Construction of Interstates 71, 90 and 490 resulted in the loss of hundreds of residential structures. In fact, when Sokolowski’s opened, homes along University Road rimmed the Flats as far west as West 14th Street. Homes also lined both sides of West 14th as far north as University. Abbey Avenue stopped at West 14th instead of West 11th. On the south side of Abbey in 1923 — just up from Sokolowski’s — there was a stable. Directly across Abbey from the stable there was a Horse and Dog Hospital.

Ironically, the freeway that lopped off the tavern's neighbors to the west also turned Sokolowski's into its modern form. The most dramatic evolution may have been Sokolowski’s expansion from bar to full restaurant. It wasn’t until the late 1950s — when iron workers building the Inner Belt bridge started coming in at lunchtime — that the family began serving cafeteria-style food. The establishment expanded over the years, including the addition of three new dining rooms. Sokolowski's remained a family-owned and -operated business through the generations, with successive owners growing up in the business and living next door to the restaurant.

Sokolowski’s was a cult favorite among Cleveland diners for decades before it began attracting attention from well-known food critics across the US. Sokolowski’s appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” program on the Travel Channel in 2007 and on Michael Symon’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” on the Food Network in 2010. In 2014, Sokolowski’s won the James Beard “American Classics” Award — one of only five designations the prestigious New York-based foundation makes each year to honor "enduring, quality restaurants and food establishments that reflect the character and hospitality of their cities and communities.” Mike Sokolowski – grandson and namesake of the founder – observed at the time that winning a Beard award was "like winning the Oscar."

Like many small businesses, Sokolowski's University Inn did not survive the COVID-19 pandemic. On October 13th, 2020 – after three generations of family ownership across 97 years – the Sokolowski family announced that they would close the restaurant. In 2023, the property was purchased by a real estate developer.

Images

Exterior of University Inn, 2015
Exterior of University Inn, 2015 Sokolowski's was among the city's best-known places to sample Polish cuisine. It was also a common end point for historic walking tours of the Tremont neighborhood. Here a group of teachers completes such a tour. Creator: J. Mark Souther Date: August 5, 2015
View from Sokolowski's Patio, 2016
View from Sokolowski's Patio, 2016 Sokolowski’s University Inn enjoyed the enviable title of “Best View of Cleveland.” Creator: Chris Roy Date: 2016
Map Detail of Tremont, 1921
Map Detail of Tremont, 1921 Compared to modern times, Tremont (then known as the South Side) was far more densely populated. Note the many homes west of the future Sokolowski's (the yellow star) that still stood across West 13th Street, as well as those homes to the southeast along West 14th Street between Fairfield and University Avenues, and directly to the south (removed when Abbey Avenue was extended through to West 11th Street.) Source: Plat Book of the City of Cleveland (Philadelphia: G. M. Hopkins, 1921) Date: 1921
Sokolowski's Sign, 2016
Sokolowski's Sign, 2016 One of several signs adorning Sokolowski’s University Inn. The Polish Eagle is the symbol of the territories that formed the Polish Congress, which emerged during the World War I. The Eagle was featured on the Polish banknotes a few years later. It also was the emblem of the Polish Army until 1927. It remained a national symbol during the Communist period—one of the few non-communist symbols officially accepted by the Soviet Union. It is still featured on many Polish buildings and flags. Creator: Chris Roy Date: 2016
Classic Sokolowski's
Classic Sokolowski's Vintage auto, advertising, atmosphere, and even television in an undated photo, probably from the 1950s. Source: sokolowskis.com

Location

1201 University Rd, Cleveland, OH 44113

Metadata

Chris Roy, “Sokolowski's University Inn,” Cleveland Historical, accessed July 23, 2024, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/759.