While Chicago's huge Polish population continues its exodus to the suburbs, the Little Poland neighborhood on Milwaukee Avenue just south of Belmont remains firmly planted. A 10-minute walk from the Belmont Blue Line station, this area hasn't changed much in the last 20 years. You'll find the best of Polish culture here: fresh meat from the deli, moist baked goods and fresh vegetables. Here's how to get a little taste of the Old World.
Safety rating: It's not exactly Lincoln Park, but as long as you stay alert and travel in groups after dark, you should be fine.
Panhandler rating: Panhandlers are pretty common in these parts, but they're speaking Polish, so you probably won't understand what they're asking you for.
Walk by this Polish bakery and you can hardly help but stop inside. The storefront windows display cakes and pastries too tempting to ignore. Once inside, it can be hard to choose from the selection of tortes, cookies and breads lined up inside the display cases. Cookies are sold by the pound, and an entire torte, enough to feed at least 10 people, can be purchased for less than $5. Individual pastries can be bought for $1.
Pasieka is a small place without much decoration (besides the food itself). Tile floors and bare walls produce a clean, if somewhat cold, appearance, but the baked goods speak for themselves. Moist orangey tortes, sugary cookies and gooey sweetbreads compete for attention behind glass cases and along the wall behind the counter. Communicating your choice to the girls behind the counter can sometimes be difficult, with Polish being their language of choice. Small signs give names to most of the offerings, but descriptions are scarce, so unless you speak Polish, you'll have to go by looks alone. All you have to do is point at what you want, and they'll wrap it up for you with a smile. Just try not to eat it before you get home.
Czerwone Jabluszko (Red Apple)
Widely known as the best Polish food in town, this Czerwone Jabluszko (Red Apple) attracts people from miles away. About $8 buys you access to a huge buffet, with more Polish food than you could possibly eat in one sitting. The buffet includes fresh fruit, cold salads and as many as 25 hot dishes that vary depending on the day. Polish favorites, like kielbasa (Polish sausage) and pierogies sit alongside some more, er, exotic dishes, like chicken in aspic, beef tongue and herring in vinegar. Don't overlook the cakes and pastries at the dessert station.
Sturdy wooden booths provide seating for a diverse crowd of hungry diners. Each meal includes a bowl of soup to start with and ice cream to finish off. Don't have time to sit down and eat? Czerwone Jabluszko offers take-out by the pound and frozen pierogies to go. As with most buffets, the food is fresher during peak hours: Weekends are your best bet, and lunch and dinner rushes during the week are safe, too. Special prices for kids make this even more affordable for families, and meal cards can be purchased for frequent diners.
Sure bet for shopping
The Polish Store
In more ways than one, The Polish Store doesn't stray too much from the city's other five-and-dimes. Cheap T-shirts, pots and pans, extension cords and other random stuff sit stacked from floor to ceiling in the store's narrow aisles. On nice days, the merchandise spills out onto the sidewalk of the bright red-and-white storefront. But as you can guess from the store's name, The Polish Store also sells all manner of Polish items: books, trinkets and souvenirs.
Most of the Polish gear is housed in the area to the left of the entrance. A bin full of neatly folded Polish flags sits under a display of kitschy decorative plates. Polish books, including translations of some popular American titles, occupy one side of almost an entire aisle, while the other side is full of stacks of souvenir books with big, full-color photos of the Old World. Many of the books retain their original price tags pre-printed on the cover in Zloty (Poland's currency). In a city known worldwide for its Polish populations, this is the best place to buy anything Polish.
Where to chill
Bristol Lounge may look like an ordinary neighborhood bar, but it has the best free bar food in the city. Forget pretzels or popcorn or Chex mix: the bartender here brought out plates of ham sandwiches on rye, fresher than anything you've ever eaten (and not paid for) at a bar before. Draft beers can be ordered in a small 0.3 liter glass or a larger half-liter glass, but the large glasses appear to be the favorite. In case the free ham sandwiches are scarce and you get a little hungry, the limited bar menu includes hot dishes, cold dishes and soups at less than five big ones. (Try the ham sandwich, seriously.)
A long bar runs along the left side of the narrow space, while two pool tables, a dartboard and some video games reside on the right. Though most of the patrons here speak Polish, the jukebox plays an odd mix of Bob Marley, Neil Young and Tom Petty. Middle-age men play pool while wide-shouldered guys in their twenties watch whatever soccer game or other sporting event is going on. Another TV plays Polish news for anyone interested in what's going on back home. The bar's patrons are mostly neighborhood regulars, but newcomers are cheerfully welcomed.
This heavily Polish neighborhood is not just for old ladies wearing babushkas. The area's beautiful people gather at Cafe Lura for European-style dancing and nightlife. The dark club, medieval-like with its brick (and faux brick) walls, plaster columns and carved wood sculptures, is divided into four sections. The first thing you see as you enter the room is a long bar toward the back of a narrow room. To the right is another room, decked out with overstuffed sofas and upholstered chairs for maximum lounging. To the left of the bar area is where the dancing happens. Cafe Lura's entertainment consists of a variety of Polish DJs, rock bands and jazz artists, but Sundays find karaoke singers performing American and Polish favorites. Proceed through the dance floor area to another lounge-like room.
Cafe Lura offers a full menu of Polish food, and the beer selection is heavy on Polish and Czech varieties. Cover charges vary depending on the entertainment, generally in the range of $5-$10. The dress code here is Euro-casual, so feel free to wear the jeans, but be prepared for heavily-hair-gelled guys and high-heeled girls. Unless you want to test the acoustics of this cavernous room, don't show up too early: The scene doesn't really get started until after 9 p.m.