Experience the Rich Legacy of Polish Food in Detroit at These 6 Spots
During the first quarter of the 20th century, tens of thousands of Polish immigrants settled in Detroit and neighboring Hamtramck in order to work for the area's burgeoning auto industry.
"The primary attraction was the Dodge Main auto factory," says Laurie Gomulka, vice president of the West Side Detroit Polish American Historical Society. Polish people in Europe at that time were oppressed and impoverished, he says. "They were also not able to practice their religion, which was Catholicism, and so the promise of a better life and the ability to practice their faith is what brought them to America."
While many of the descendants of Detroit's early Polish population have since relocated to the city's suburbs, Detroit's Polish heritage is still easy to spot—and taste. Along with neighborhoods, buildings, and streets named for early Polish Americans, there are still a number of delicious Polish restaurants in and around downtown Detroit. "In Polish culture, food is very important," Gomulka says. "Food, music, and religion—all of those are intertwined."
Serving up unpretentious, hearty dishes like goulash, potato pancakes, pierogi, and "city chicken" (skewered pork and veal), these aren't the sorts of restaurants that will dazzle food critics or garner awards. But they make satisfying fare made with a sense of place and purpose. A tour of the six spots on this list would imbue any visitor—or local—with a feel for Detroit's past and present.
Polish Village Cafe
Any discussion of old-world, authentic Polish cuisine in Detroit starts with Polish Village Cafe. Located in a former Hamtramck Rathskellar (basement bar), this place has been a cornerstone of the city's Polish dining scene since it opened in the 1970s. While you may encounter a line if you show up for lunch or dinner on weekends, the pierogi, soups, and platters are worth the wait. So are the friendly wait staff and come-as-you-are vibe.
Modeled after a traditional Warsaw cafe, Polonia's upholstered banquets, mural-covered walls, and display shelves of ornamental crockery are kitschy—but in the best way possible. Order a mug of Polish lager—Zywiec or Tyskie—and try not to let the menu photo of Anthony Bourdain (who visited in 2009 for an episode of No Reservations) distract you from the collection of Polish comfort foods. The dill pickle soup is arguably the best in the city, and the combo plate is reliably tasty.
Ivanhoe Cafe (Polish Yacht Club)
While its official handle is the Ivanhoe Cafe, everyone calls this place the Polish Yacht Club, which is the name tacked up over the entrance. Its plain, ramshackle brick exterior may scare off out-of-towners. But step inside this 100-year-old Detroit institution ... and you still may want to turn tail and run. Everything about "the PYC" screams "dive," but then you taste the perch sandwich or pierogi, you'll understand why this place has been in business for more than a century. You'll come back for more.
A bowl of soup will run you about $2 at Krakus, and entrées are under $10. You could probably order every dish on the menu for $100—and you may want to, because everything here is worth tasting. Start with the Ukrainian soup made with shredded beets, and follow that up with the potato pancakes—served with a big dollop of sour cream—and the pierogi stuffed with bacon and onions. You're on your own from there.
Head just south of Detroit to Melvindale—one of about 20 close-in suburbs that locals refer to collectively as "Downriver"—and you'll find a no-frills Polish diner called Sabina's. The dishes here are authentic and made with care, from the golambki (cabbage rolls) to the bigos (hunter's stew). But the real standout is the pierogi made with "sweet farmer's cheese."
Drive 15 miles northwest of downtown Detroit to Livonia, and you'll find Thomas's—a self-proclaimed "family" restaurant serving a mix of cuisines but with a focus on Polish fare. This is the kind of place you hit up on a Sunday morning with your kids and a half-dozen relatives, and it doesn't disappoint. The Polish combo plates—loaded with pierogi, mashed potatoes, cabbage, and other treats—are generous and satisfying. The sauerkraut and kielbasa are also tasty.