With one of the largest Polish populations outside of Warsaw, it’s little wonder that Chicago is rich in Polish culture and cuisine. The city is the proud home of thousands of Polish Americans, with historic communities and neighbourhoods – including the area around St Stanislaus Kostka, which goes by monikers like the Polish Triangle, Polish Gold Coast, and Polish Downtown – as well as the modern Avondale district, where visitors and keen explorers of Polish Chicago will find some of the best restaurants and delis. For those looking to discover the treasures of Polish Chicago, we’ve put together a guide to the best things to eat, see, watch and experience while you’re in town. CieszyÄ‡ siÄ™!
Polish restaurants in Chicago
First things first: to discover Polish Chicago, you first have to get a taste of Polish Chicago, and the best way to do that is by visiting the restaurants in Avondale, the main Polish neighbourhood. With its generous, tasty Polish buffet, Red Apple is a great place to start. But since Red Apple is all-you-can-eat, while you should feel free to indulge, just make sure to save room for places like Barbakan, with its homey, hearty fare (be bold and try the flaczki – tripe soup), and the authentic nosh at Ferajna, including favourites like cheese blintzes and kielbasa.
Smak-Tak! is a perennially popular Polish restaurant in North Chicago, with its fair share of regular diners. Wood-panelled and cheerful inside, the food is the main event, with dishes like pierogis, which come in a myriad of sweet and savoury flavours, and “Tripe Soup Warsaw Style” festooning the much-loved menu. Starapolska, in Avondale, is another top spot for Polish American cuisine thanks to its stellar potato pancakes, borscht, and other rich, filling soups, to name but a few menu staples.
The top Polish delis
With so much to discover when exploring Polish Chicago, it’s also a good idea to sample some of the local cuisine on the go – that way you can take in one of the area’s many parks – like Pulaski Park and Kosciuszko Park, both named for past Polish American patriots – while you munch. With that in mind, delis are a must and Andy’s Deli and Kasia’s Deli are some of the best for Polish groceries, including gourmet sandwiches, pickles, and some of the finest kielbasa this side of the Atlantic.
Speaking of superlative meatstuffs, no visit to Polish Chicago would be complete without a stop-off at Kurowski’s Sausage Shop (2976 North Milwaukee Ave, +1 773 645 1692). Polish-speaking and proud, this isn’t the place to exchange English niceties when it comes to your turn to order (the line behind you will undoubtedly be long), but be bold and go for it because, when it comes to dense, dark rye bread and a sweeping selection of authentic sausages, this is the place. And, found on North Milwaukee Avenue, it’s right in the heart of the Polish neighbourhood, meaning that you can refuel here, before heading to nearby sights, like St. Hyacinth Basilica.
Polish Chicago after dark
A key step in getting to know Polish Chicago is partying like the Polish while you’re in town. Found in Avondale, Podlasie Club (2918 N Central Park Ave, +1 773 276 0841) is a fixture in the community, with the dancing on Saturday nights lasting well into the early hours. This is where you’ll find buckets of vodka and live polka music.
Though there’s less in the way of dancing at the Chopin Theatre, with debates, film screenings, performances and all manner of Polish cultural programming on the agenda year-round, it’s just as stimulating – albeit this time it’s stimulation of an intellectual variety. And if you get peckish before you take your seat in the theatre, or you fancy whetting your whistle with a few drinks, pop round to Podhalanka (1549 W Division St, +1 773 486 6655), the little Polish restaurant next door; the golabki (cabbage rolls stuffed with pork) are delicious.
Where to go for some Polish culture
If religious sites appeal, don’t miss the chance to pay a visit to the so-called “mother church” of Polish Americans in Chicago, St. Stanislaus, or the baroque church, St. John Cantius, to see the beautiful replica of an altarpiece by Wit Stwosz that can be found in Warsaw. And, found at the heart of Chicago’s Polish neighbourhood, St. Hyacinth Basilica would make a great cultural stop if you’re in the Avondale area – you can even attend mass in Polish.
For a more interactive experience of Polish culture in the city, head to the Polish cultural center, the Copernicus Center & Foundation, for concerts, events, screenings and more. Or take a stroll around the Polish Museum of America, exploring the impressive collection of art, artefacts and memorabilia dedicated to Polish history and the Polish American community.
Polish festivals in Chicago
Although there are some great ways to explore and experience Polish Chicago year-round, if your trip coincides with one of the Polish festivals, don’t miss them. The annual Taste of Polonia festival, which takes place over Labour Day weekend, is one of the most hotly anticipated festivals for visitors and locals alike. With live music, food vendors serving kielbasa and pierogies, and other great family-friendly events like cooking classes and children’s book readings, this festival – which is sponsored by the Copernicus Center – is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in Polish Chicago.
And fans of cinema should mark the Polish Film Festival in America (November 6th – 22nd, 2015) in their diaries; the 2015 edition marks the 27th anniversary of this festival, said to be the most comprehensive of its kind promoting Polish cinema outside of Poland.
Header image: St Hyacinth’s in Chicago © Frank Malawski/Flickr
Virgin Atlantic makes it simple to book your flight to Chicago, bringing all the delectable restaurants and cultural sights of the city’s Polish neighbourhoods within easy reach.
Have you explored Polish Chicago? What were some of your favourites places? Tell us in the comments section below.
Written by Giverny Tattersfield