Poke your head into one of the quiet, low-lit bars on St. Clair Avenue sometime and ask one of the regulars where to find good Eastern European food in the neighborhood. If you're lucky, they'll clue you into Marie's Restaurant.
Marie's, at 45th and St. Clair, is relaxed and homey, with a carpeted floor that makes dining feel like a meal in a relative's rec room. Which makes sense for this family-run business. Like many of Cleveland's ethnic restaurants, Marie's is a family affair, helmed by the mother-daughter team of Mila Sabljic (chef) and Anna Vucica (manager, waiter, bookkeeper, everything else).
For more than 40 years, it has been a stalwart of Croatian dining in the historically Slavic St. Clair-Superior neighborhood. Yet in that time, it's never achieved the acclaim of establishments like Sokolowski's or Sterle's Country House down the street.
That doesn't bother Anna Vucica. "We never advertise," she says. "Business is word of mouth." And word of mouth has worked for Marie's. Stop in any weekday and you'll find a stable of regulars and old-timers (including, at one time, now-jailed county officials Frank Russo and Jimmy Dimora). Vucica greets them all by name.
Of course, she should know them by now; she's worked here 19 years. "About half my life," she says.
The Sabljic family migrated from Croatia to America in 1987, when Anna was just 10. The economy in Croatia, says Vucica, brought them to the U.S., and her father's brother, who had settled in Northeast Ohio, brought them to Cleveland.
Sabljic had already run a restaurant in Croatia. So in 1991, when the opportunity arose to purchase Marie's Restaurant, she seized upon it.
The history of Marie's has spanned much of Cleveland's fall and recent rise — a rise that, despite the boost to nearby downtown, has yet to fully benefit St. Clair-Superior. "A lot of people have moved out of the area," says Vucica, who grew up not far from Marie's. "A lot of factories closed down."
It's no mystery to Vucica how the restaurant has survived the city's ups and downs: "Good food." The menu at Marie's is a bold throwback to the kitchens of mid-century America. Dishes rarely seen outside the most staunchly Old-World kitchens (beef goulash, liver and onions) are on proud display here.
The cevapi (cheh-VAH-pee) is a show-stopping dish hard to find even in neighboring Slavic restaurants. Mildly spiced sausage links, made from lamb, veal, and pork, are lighter and more flavorful than sausage has a right to be. When asked for more detail, Anna simply says, "That is all I can say about them."
Anna says it's "actually pretty good" working with her mother all these years. She's still a fan of Mila's cooking: Every Tuesday, she gets the weekly special of spaghetti and meat sauce. "It's the best in the city," she claims. What makes it so good? "Mom's special recipe."
Mila and husband Veselko (who buys supplies for the restaurant and built the back bar) have three children, all of whom worked in the restaurant growing up. Anna is the one who stayed. "The chosen one," she jokes. "I always felt one of us should stay and help with the family business."
The regulars expect Anna will take over when Mila retires, which she's not willing to do anytime soon. "Someone will take it over," she says. "But she has a long way to go before she retires."