The news that Sokolowski’s University Inn is for sale, or may possibly close, seems to indicate the end of an era. For ninety-seven years the Sokolowski family has kept a tradition alive – a tradition of serving good, hearty, honest, food. Their menu echoed the history of the South Side, now better known as Tremont. Pierogis, stuffed cabbage, sauerkraut and other hearty dishes were the forte of the restaurant, largely because that’s what its original customers, the workers in the steel mills and other factories around the neighborhood, knew and desired.
It was one of those places, like Guarino’s in Little Italy, Hot Sauce Williams, or Friday fish fries at the Night Hawk Café, that spoke to and cooked for the people in the neighborhood. For most of the history of Sokolowski’s dining out was an infrequent luxury for most people – but lunch and a beer were more commonplace for a worker. It was that blue-collar ethos that made Sokolowski’s and other similar restaurants, like Slyman’s on St. Clair, a must stop for any politician on the campaign trail. Eating there supposedly symbolized the candidate’s creds as a “man of people.” And those photo ops provided good PR for the restaurant and began, in the post-World War II era to attract customers from outside the neighborhood, particularly as dining out became more common for many families.
In the late 1950s the South Side began to change. Factory jobs began to disappear and a freeway sliced the community in half — and also provided residents an easy route to a newer, nicer home in the suburbs. But then the area became trendy and in the past thirty years has attracted a new, wealthier population. As the South Side morphed into Tremont (or as some now say “Trémont”) the lines outside Sokolowski’s grew longer. Long-time customers now joined with new residents and visitors and, ironically, as the neighborhood changed, the restaurant became more famous. Indeed, it was a bastion of authenticity in an increasingly “foodie” neighborhood and city, a place where one could get a good, honest meal for the cost of tip at many other eateries in the area. It wasn’t about presentation – your plate was full, not decorated with snips of food here and there – it was about eating and history, and about hearty food – a meal that could get you through a day at the mill, a meal that was worth the hard-earned money you spent on it. Let us all hope that the tradition of Sokolowski’s lives on.