A pile of Polish pierogis at Cleveland's famed Sokolowski's University Inn.
You can immerse yourself in the culture of Central Europe without ever leaving the States by heading to Cleveland. Between the food, music and neighborhoods, there are lots of exotic pockets in the city that give the feel of Slovenia, Poland, Germany, Austria and other nationalities that were part of the former Kingdom of Prussia.
Thanks to a couple of factors – Cleveland’s long-time German and Slavic populations, as well as old money from John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil – the city was able to create and nurture one of the finest orchestras in the world. Time favorably compared Cleveland Orchestra to many of the most noteworthy orchestras of Central Europe. The current conductor is Franz Welser-Möst, an Austrian.
During the summer, the world-famous orchestra performs outdoors at the Blossom Music Festival, inside the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. You can bring picnic coolers, as well as purchase food and wine there. The lawn seating is arranged on a hill, so it’s nature’s amphitheater seating with no obstructed views of the musicians.
The Cleveland Museum of Art’s permanent collections are always free to the public, including their German and Austrian Medieval and Renaissance suits of armor, as well as German and Austrian Baroque sculpture.
Another place in Cleveland that features free Prussian art is historic Lake View Cemetery. Lake View is one of the first cemeteries of the Victorian era that broke away from the sterile Colonial-era layout to start the “garden cemetery” trend. Garden cemeteries became the place to promenade, to picnic and to view fine marble statuary.
Lake View was laid out by Adolph Strauch, a renowned landscape architect born in the province of Silesia, Prussia. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. acknowledged the influence of Strauch on his own work. The cemetery has an impressive monument dedicated to assassinated President James A. Garfield (left). It’s also the final resting place of John D. Rockefeller, Eliot Ness and Carl B. Stokes; members of President Lincoln's cabinet, Civil War generals and Revolutionary War soldiers.
Lake View also has the glorious Wade Memorial Chapel, dedicated to the founder of Western Union. Its hand-set, opalescent Tiffany & Co. glass mosaic tiles representing different parts of the Old and New Testament are stunning.
Local chef (and Iron Chef) Michael Symon pronounces Sokolowski's University Inn’s pierogies (at top), a Polish delicacy, "the very best thing (he) ever ate". Having opened in 1923, it's the oldest family-run restaurant in Cleveland. The casual Tremont neighborhood restaurant serves their lunch cafeteria-style, and a very buttery pierogi with onions is on the line. You can get any number you please. One of the secrets of fine pierogis may be the use of lower-gluten Polish flour. Sokolowski's pierogies are delectable and not "doughy." Anthony Bourdain counts himself as a fan. Bill Clinton also ate there in his pre-vegan days.
Pierogies are vegetarian, but quite rich with butter. Some put a dollop of sour cream on top for extra decadence.
An old-school Slovenian restaurant on E. 55th Street – U.S. 6, the Grand Army of the Republic Highway – is in an older neighborhood, but still standing strong: Sterle's Country House. The restaurant first opened in 1954 and is not only a favorite of Cleveland, but also of chefs Anthony Bourdain and Guy Fieri. Both the exterior and interior look like a Mittel European chalet, but dress is casual. The female servers are in national costume.
There's a live accordion player playing polka dance music on Friday nights and a full polka band on Saturday nights. I'm told that Saturday nights are packed, and reservations are a must.