It was 8:45 on a Friday night when our group of five rolled into Sterle's (pronounced STER-lees) Country House for some grub. The host warned us that the kitchen was shutting down in 15 minutes and that there might be some menu items that were no longer available. We sat down anyway, famished from an early start out and too lazy to pack up and find somewhere new.
In almost no time flat, we were served steaming bowls of chicken noodle soup, ladled out of a deep stainless tureen. We devoured rolls and butter, fresh green salads with vinaigrette, seconds on the soup. We filled the gaps with shots of ice-cold slivovitz brandy. Then came the big guns: wide platters of golden brown Weinerschnitzel, juicy Slovenian sausage, gravy-smothered roast pork, tender chicken paprikash, all of it accompanied by softball-sized portions of fried and mashed potatoes.
If the kitchen was in fact out of something, you could have fooled us. We rolled out the same door we rolled in – fat, contented and even bigger fans of Sterle's than we were before we arrived. That's saying something because Sterle's is one of our favorite places in all of Cleveland.
We nearly lost Sterle's when the longtime owner tried (and failed) to unload the national treasure to an interested buyer. The 60-year-old restaurant was all but shuttered when Rick Semersky came to the rescue. His grandmother grew up four blocks from the restaurant, and to say he has fond memories of the place is the understatement of the year.
"I couldn't watch Sterle's all of a sudden shut its doors after 60 years," he says. "I'm doing this for the love of the neighborhood, the love of the city and the fact that I'd like to see the place keep going."
He's certainly not doing it for the money. Semersky likes to joke that when he says his business is dying, it's because they literally are dying. Sterle's might enjoy some of the oldest customers out there. On Saturday nights, it's not uncommon to see guests celebrating their 90th birthday, or couples ringing in their golden wedding anniversary. Like pierogi-loving homing pigeons, they return to roost at Sterle's every year like clockwork.
Recent tweaks to the operation have been bringing in more younger folks than ever too. Semersky spruced up the bar and improved its offerings, tightened up the menu, and updated the live entertainment schedule. Of course, the weekend polka parties are still going strong.
It's a tough balancing act, admits Semersky, when trying to attract a new generation without offending previous ones. "We're very sensitive to changes," he notes. "The changes we are making are to focus on what defines Sterle's while bringing it forward."
That means ditching ill-fitting Italian entrees like veal parmesan and chicken Marsala, while zeroing in on authentic Central European-style offerings. Chicken paprikash is now available every day rather than just as a special. The classic veal schnitzel is as good as ever, but now diners can order varieties made with chicken, beef and fish. And fun starters like mini stuffed cabbages, french fries with gravy, and pretzels with beer cheese have been added to the mix.
It took Sterle's just six decades to introduce an outdoor beer garden, an oasis in the neighborhood where guests can snack on grilled sausages and kebabs at picnic tables or on the lawn. It's open weekends, and on Sundays it features a new Bloody Mary bar with 12 feet of condiments.
When places like Sterle's close for good, Clevelanders invariably lament their passing and reminisce about great times spent with family and friends at the dearly departed establishments. That's not good enough for Semersky, who is doing his part to preserve an icon that, according to him, "makes Cleveland Cleveland."
"It's not just good enough to say 'Isn't it great that we have a place like Sterle's?' and then not support places like Sterle's," he says, audibly impassioned. "It's frustrating. You meet people who say what a great place, but when was the last time you were here? We need you or places like this won't be around."
We have your back, Sterle's. We have your back.