For far less than the cost of a one-way ticket to Gdansk or Kiev, you can feel the hollow loneliness of post-iron curtain eastern Europe in your hometown at Saks’ Ukrainian Village Restaurant and Lounge, where owner Roman Sacharewycj has watched business rise and fall from his perch behind the bar for the last two decades.
Anyone who has eaten in a pub, tavern, or cafe in any number of eastern European countries will instantly recognize the strangely compelling elements that make up the utter lack of ambience that is the ambience at Saks’. It’s not just the vinyl tablecloths, the thrift store paintings, or the hard tile floor in the dining room. You have to factor in all the tiny things–the booth that tilts forward with you, the thimble-sized water glasses, the hat rack that holds a single fur hat.
Sacharewycj (dubbed “Saks” by a high school English teacher) was talked into serving food by his father when the place was just a family-owned bar known as Steve’s. Today, you still have to pass through the bar area to reach the dining room. Above the bar on either end sit two large-screen TVs. The TVs are in constant use, tuned, as in eastern Europe, to blaring sitcoms. Nothing separates the bar from the restaurant, so you can enjoy the sight and sound of the tube while you dine. Behind the silently sipping bar customers sits a garish, blinking Johnny Mnemonic pinball machine, following another eastern European tradition–the keeping around of pieces of discarded American flotsam.
The restaurant is staffed entirely by sensibly dressed women. Their motherly vibe provides a comforting counterpoint to the despair that sinks in as you lift your menu and try to remember how to say, “Can I have” in any one of several Slavic tongues.
The left side of the menu is dedicated to delicacies from the “charbroiler,” which in layman’s terms means American food–burgers and the like. The center leaf of the beige plastic triptych is given over to “Ukrainian plates” and is what you should pay attention to. The basic, hearty fare isn’t spruced up a bit for Western palates. If the atmosphere has worked its charm on you, you will feel a gnawing emptiness in the abdominal region that can only be filled with large portions of starchy goodness.
The holubtsy (stuffed cabbage) comes served with a thick savory mushroom gravy or an equally viscous tangy tomato and onion sauce. The thin-layered, hand-wrapped varenyky (dumplings) come stuffed with either potato, sauerkraut, or meat, can be covered with lightly sauteed onions and bacon, and should be dipped in sour cream for the full heart-poundingly rich effect. Crackly plyatsky (potato pancakes) and the obligatory kapusta and kowbassa (kraut and sausage) are also available. The dishes come either with soup (a comforting borscht or a daily special) or salad (mostly cabbage, carrots, and onions). Some plates also come with veggies and mashed potatoes or other sides, but don’t let them distract you from the main dishes. If you’ve stuffed yourself silly, you can opt to waive the included Jell-O/ice cream/rice pudding dessert. If you’re feeling up to it, give the deliciously fluffy and sweet nalysnyky (crepes) a try, though they’re not included in the meal deal.
Everything is served up by the book, including tremendous portions, excessive gravy, unadorned presentation, and a basket of bread. The only thing that stands out at Saks’ as noticeably different from a comparable eatery in Odessa, or Prague, Krakow, or Minsk, is the price–a plate will run you around seven or eight dollars instead of one. It’s so much food that you could easily share your meal with someone else, but you’ll be better rewarded if you dine alone, sulking in your sauerkraut.
Saks’ Ukrainian Village Restaurant and Lounge, 2301 W. Chicago, 773-278-4445.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.