Imagine taking over a cherished icon of a restaurant whose most treasured quality is the sense that it is frozen in time, unchanging over decades, always comfortably familiar, always the same. Now imagine starting a brand new restaurant. All of the immense challenges and innumberable tasks that come with creating something from nothing, the demand to be new and different, and the pressure to make every decision right.
This is what it’s like to run Sterle’s Slovenian Country House.
For owner Rick Semersky and chef Jimmy Gibson, Sterle’s is a chance to do something that shouldn’t be possible: to conflate the past and the future into something that is both familiar and brand new.
“It’s a delicate balance,” said Semersky. “I mean, change is tough for anyone.”
The neighborhood around Sterle’s, Cleveland’s St. Clair-Superior on East 55th Street, knows better than most just how tough change can be. Decades ago, the neighborhood was the heart of Cleveland’s Slovenian community and since has seen the challenges of many old ethnic Cleveland neighborhoods.
Over the last half dozen decades, Sterle’s seemed to follow the fortunes of its neighborhood. And like that neighborhood, it’s not the same as it once was, but it wouldn’t be unfamiliar to a resident of 60 years ago (a few of whom, like Semersky’s grandmother, still live on nearby side streets). It’s not changing so much as it is evolving, and restaurant and neighborhood alike are gaining renewed attention for what they say about Cleveland’s past and future.
“Sterle’s is important to me and to this town,” said Semersky. “It’s what makes Cleveland, Cleveland. I grew up eating here and seeing it every week visiting my grandma. I couldn’t watch it go away.”
When Frank Sterle died after 32 years at the helm, the restaurant easily could have faded into memory, but instead Mike Longo and Margot Glinski took over and kept Sterle’s on course until 2012 when Rick Semersky stepped in as Glinski was eyeing retirement.
“I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know, so I hired real restaurant people to operate Sterle’s,” explained Semersky.
He found an eager partner in chef Jimmy Gibson, and brought him on almost immediately.
Gibson came with a strong pedigree in modern cooking and restaurant operations, formerly working at Bon Appetite Management Company and as chef at Moxie Restaurant.
“This has been extremely gratifying, and extremely hard,” said Gibson. “All the challenges of a new restaurant; all the pressure of living up to old expectations.”
“For someone used to a modern setup, coming in here was an eye-opener,” said Gibson. “I mean, it was basically ‘grandma’s kitchen’—old world and old school. It was amazing. But we knew we needed to modernize the equipment and operations to run this place successfully. The challenge was to do that while maintaining the quality and consistency that our clientele expect.”
“We have people who have been here every Sunday for 30 years and ordered the same dish. If we changed it, or got it wrong, we would definitely hear about it,” said Gibson. So far the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “An 80-year-old customer told me the schnitzel was amazing and just like it was when Frank Sterle cooked it. That’s when I knew we were on the right track.”
Those old favorites still fill out the menu at Sterle’s—chicken paprikash, Slovenian sausage and sauerkraut and, of course, wiener schnitzel. Gibson and Semersky remain committed to the simple Slovenian fare that Sterle’s built its name on, and are coupling that heritage with a desire to expose Sterle’s to a whole new generation of Clevelanders.
“We’re looking for ways to give younger people a way to discover Sterle’s for themselves.”
To do so, they’re playing with more than just the menu. Polka is one of their biggest attractions for old customers and new. Friday and Saturday nights are sure to find Sterle’s lively and loud as that night’s polka band, whether traditional or the “new school” house band Polka Pirates, draws diners up from their tables to fill the dance floor.
Semersky and Gibson also added a bier garden, their take on an outdoor, European-style beer garden, and this past summer the Cleveland Flea camped out in their parking lot introducing thousands of people to the restaurant—and the neighborhood.
“We would never step on 60 years’ worth of tradition,” says Semersky. “Instead we want to take what works here and set it up to work great for the next 60 years.”
Ready to taste the schnitzel for yourself? Sterle’s Country House is located at 1401 East 55th Street in Cleveland. Hours: Tues & Weds 11:30am–2:30pm, Thurs & Fri 11:30am–9pm, Sat 4:30–10pm, Sun 11:30am–6pm. 216.881.4181, SterlesCountryHouse.com