Victoria and Michael Sokolowski opened Sokolowski’s University Inn in 1923 as a tavern at the corner of University Road and West 13th Street. Today it is still run by the same family: grandchildren Mike, Mary and Bernie Sokolowski. It still serves exceedingly generous portions of traditional Polish-style food. And it’s still 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, of course, Michael Symon.
When Sokolowski’s opened its doors, Tremont was rather different from the gentrifying neighborhood it is today. For one thing, the area was called the South Side. Only 30 years earlier, it had been Lincoln Heights. The neighborhood also was more densely populated. Poles rubbed shoulders with Ukrainians, Russians, and a host of other nationalities. Large families in small houses were the norm. Residents availed themselves of local churches and local schools. Plus there were many more houses than 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.
The most dramatic evolution may be Sokolowski’s expansion from bar to full restaurant. Ironically, the freeway that lopped off the tavern's neighbors to the west also turned Sokolowski's into its modern form. 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. Current owners Mike, Mary and Bernie grew up in the business and lived next door.
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. According to a Beard spokesperson, “honorees represent the unique American dream of people who have created enduring, quality restaurants and food establishments that reflect the character and hospitality of their cities and communities.” “It's like winning the Oscar,” observed Mike Sokolowski. Sokolowski’s also has appeared on Michael Symon’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” on the Food Network and Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel.
So what new heights can be reached after winning awards, appearing on national television and filling the bellies of untold thousands of locals and visitors over 90+ years? On the one hand, the Sokolowskis are certain to continue doing what they’ve always done: entertain customers with great food and drink. However, there’s another big event in the restaurant’s future. By 2018, Canalway Partners, the City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the Cleveland Metroparks will complete the Towpath Trail Extension, which will briefly exit the Flats in Tremont directly in front of Sokolowski’s. University Avenue will close to auto traffic and become a footpath. New green spaces and scenic overlooks will be constructed. And Sokolowski’s University Inn will have the honor of introducing its unique fare to an expanded cadre of happy hikers. Zjeść obfite (Polish for “eat hearty”)!