The lunch crowd at Sawa’s builds quickly on a Tuesday morning. | Melissa Elsmo/Oak Park Eats
Since 1973, hungry folks clamoring for cabbage rolls, kielbasa and pierogi have been following the glittering lights to Sawa’s Old Warsaw, 9200 W Cermak Rd. in Broadview. Carry-out saved the buffet-based business during the pandemic and now the iconic restaurant is battling back to pre-pandemic business levels.
Founder and World War II veteran Walter Sawa emigrated to the United States in 1948 after escaping a prisoner-of-war camp. Prior to serving in both the Polish and British armies, he worked as a pork butcher at a Polish delicatessen and brought those skills to Broadview when the budding restaurateur opened his third restaurant in as many years.
Walter’s son Stuart, the youngest of five, started working at the Broadview restaurant when he was just 13 years old. He worked his way up from “salad boy” to owner and proudly keeps his late father’s legacy alive today.
Dinner plate from the Broadview smorgasbord features pork patty, pierogi, sausages, pickled beets and potato pancakes. | Melissa Elsmo/Oak Park Eats
“I met my wife in the kitchen here,” said Sawa, who has three sons. “She would teach me Polish and I would teach her English. We’ve been married for 38 years.”
The large dining room boasts a pink color palate, retro vibes, and a rotating array of Sawa family recipes. The restaurant is celebrated for serving comforting dishes at reasonable prices and that combination never goes out of fashion. As a result, Sawa’s Old Warsaw has become an icon capable of serving 200 people a day and hosting large-scale banquets.
“I don’t know what to say, but our food Is homemade and our cook has been here for so many years that the food is consistently good,” said Sawa matter-of-factly.
Before the pandemic hit, Sawa’s Old Warsaw served 6,000 people a month. After Covid-19 shuttered Chicagoland dining rooms the 40-year-old business sustained itself on carry-out alone. The owner is proud that he was able to “string things together” to get his staff through such a trying time. Now the high-value restaurant is battling back to full strength while maintaining an approachable price point. Business is down approximately 50% from pre-pandemic norms but increasing steadily.
Stuart Sawa poses near the portrait of his father, Walter, who opened the smogasbord in 1973. | Melissa Elsmo/Oak Park Eats
To draw further attention to the restaurant and help attract customers, Sawa’s hosts a polish cookout every second Tuesday of the month. Cooked on an outdoor grill under a large banner, Sawa’s offers “Polish tacos” free to people stopping in for a drink at the bar. The owner personally mans the grill and fills flour tortillas with crispy potato pancakes, smokey kielbasa, sauerkraut and spicy mustard. The portable bite has plenty of textural intrigues and bold flavor. On busy nights, Sawa’s has been known to give away 130 complimentary Polish tacos.
“We always draw attention to ourselves,” said Sawa, “But these tacos have been really popular.”
Both the creative taco and the traditional smorgasbord offer diners confident Polish cuisine. Daily specials like meatballs in dill sauce, carved roast beef and goulash rotate in with mainstay dishes like gluten-free potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage rolls, crispy pork patties and Broasted chicken. Sawa’s Old Warsaw serves up genuine Broasted chicken made with both proprietary ingredients and a patented broaster pressure fryer.
Traditionalists clamor for Sawa’s authentic sauerkraut. The classic side dish starts with a house-made pork bone broth and a combination of sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, ham and fried onions. Caraway seeds, allspice and a bit of tomato round out the timeless offering. The restaurant has been known to go through 16 gallons of house-made sauerkraut every week.
It is easy to add a hint of nostalgia to any meal in the smorgasbord. Ashland Sausage Company in Carol Stream manufactures the kielbasa served at Sawa’s Old Warsaw using Walter Sawa’s original recipe. You can savor a little taste of history in every bite.
Sawa’s Old Warsaw is open Tuesday through Saturday. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Polish cookout held every second Tuesday of the month from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.