POLISH TRIANGLE — Helena Madej’s restaurant has been a mainstay in Wicker Park for more than three decades, even as the neighborhood has rapidly changed around her.
But Podhalanka Polska Restauracja is at risk of closing if neighbors don’t show up.
The restaurant, 1549 W. Division St., sits on the south side of the busy Polonia Triangle, at the border between Wicker Park and Noble Square.
Once packed with Polish immigrants, the area has lost many of its family-owned businesses over the decades. Podhalanka is arguably the only authentic Polish business still standing at the Polish Triangle.
The restaurant is one of the rare spots where customers can indulge in Eastern European classics, like pierogi topped with onions and a dollop of applesauce, stuffed cabbage and potato pancakes. Diners wash down their food with homemade “compot,” a traditional beverage made from seasonal fruits.
But Podhalanka took a huge hit when the coronavirus pandemic came to Chicago, Madej said.
“Before I have very good business, tourists from Downtown … the Polish museum, Chopin theatre, young people working in Downtown,” she said. “And now it’s not too nice.”
Madej offered carryout options, but her business slowed drastically. Unlike other restaurants, Madej did not use delivery apps like Grubhub or Uber Eats; instead, she instead relied on customers calling in orders and showing up in person to get their food.
Madej now can offer dine-in service again, but only at 25 percent capacity in accordance with city regulations.
If the neighborhood doesn’t step up to support her, the restaurant may close, Madej said.
“It would be such a shame for me to close this now after all these years of putting in my own savings,” she said in Polish. “I want to make this work. I hope that this gets better, please.”
Born in Gdów, an industrial town about 25 miles south of Krakow, Madej stayed briefly in Chicago in the early 1970s with relatives and returned in the early 80s to live here permanently.
On July 1, 1986, Madej took over a five-year-old Polish restaurant at the corner run by her older brother. She renamed it Podhalanka, originating from the southern Poland region of Podhale, which literally means “under the mountain meadows.”
Podhalanka is also an informal name for a “village girl” from the hills of Podhale, a region she vacationed in growing up and less frequently as a busy small business owner.
Madej’s homey restaurant is adorned with strings of holiday lights year-round. The dining tables are covered in vinyl tablecloths patterned with tree leaves.
There is a rack of Polish-language holiday cards for sale. The front window is crammed with houseplants. Portraits of deceased Congressman Dan Rostenkowski and Pope John Paul II watch over diners.
In the mid-90s, about seven years after Madej took over the restaurant, many of “the Polish neighborhood people” sold their homes and moved to the suburbs, she said.
There was Polish butcher Andy’s Deli at 1741 W. Division St., which relocated to Jefferson Park. There also used to be a restaurant named Mareva’s at 1250 N. Milwaukee Ave., which Madej said might have lasted longer but the prices were “too high for Wicker Park.”
The Busy Bee next to the Damen Blue line — one “L” stop west — also attracted a lot of Polish customers.
“When the Poles started to move out of the neighborhood and the young hipsters started to come in here … [there was a] transition from people who were predominately Polish, to people who were not Polish,” Madej said. “A lot of people, they didn’t try to cater to the new clientele, they just moved out.”
Madej estimated that of the roughly 100 Polish relatives she has living in the Chicago area today, she is the only person living within city limits.
“Everyone else is in the suburbs,” she said. “I don’t like living far away from the city. Chicago is such a beautiful city. Krakow is magical, but Chicago is beautiful.”
Daniel Pogorzelski, an author and volunteer with the Polish Museum of America, said that if Podhalanka closes, Chicago’s “Polish Downtown will lose the last of the Polish Restaurants which were once plentiful here.”
Madej is the “Polish grandma we all wish we had,” he added. “She’s a tough cookie.”
Podhalanka’s hours are 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday.
You can a carryout order by calling 773-486-6655. Learn more online.
Reporting from Alisa Hauser contributed to this article.
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