The bar inside Sterle's Country House on East 55th Street feels flash-frozen in time.
Waitresses push three-shelved serving carts with plates of Wiener schnitzel, stuffed cabbage and prime rib loaded with heavy potatoes. The Polka Pirates, of the banjo-trumpet-accordion variety, are playing — "In heaven there is no beer, that's why we drink it here. ..." — and the mostly older crowd gets up and dances between salad and entree.
In that sense, Sterle's is unchanged since Slovenian immigrant Frank Sterle opened it on the same stretch of East 55th Street in 1954. The long tables. The murals with an Alpine village under snow-white peaks. It is a place that both the kids and the walking-cane crowd can enjoy, with fare that is not the least artisanal, fusion or experimental.
On this Friday night, diners fill only about a third of the tables, mostly with special-occasion family groupings, maybe celebratingstara mama's birthday with her grandchildren or a couple out for their wedding anniversary with their grown children. Most of the customers are tourists in a sense, driving in from the suburbs to eat near where their families used to live.
At the end of the bar, Sterle's owner Rick Semersky stands near the kitchen doors in jeans and a light jacket. Hockey-player handsome with tousled dark hair, a wiry build and flecks of gray on his didn't-shave-today face, he nurses a draft beer and watches the movement of the staff. He talks to everyone from the busboys to the bartender with an engaging smile that morphs into a playful smirk at times.
"What I've learned about the restaurant business is that it is not as simple as it looks from the outside," he laughs. "It isn't just about putting food on plates and getting it to the table."
The 42-year-old never owned a restaurant or bar before he bought Sterle's in 2012. Semersky worked next door at VIP, a 200-employee construction company, for more than two decades. A former intern who dropped out of college to join the restoration firm, Semersky has owned VIP since 2007.
But when one of Sterle's owners died and the other wanted to retire, the neighborhood anchor went up for sale. After no buyers came forward, Semersky figured if he didn't buy the Cleveland landmark, it was going to go under. "I know this neighborhood," he says in a stern voice of a protective parent.
Semersky's grandparents lived down the street from Sterle's on Bonna Avenue near St. Vitus Catholic Church before eventually heading to the suburbs. His father used to drive him around the St. Clair Superior neighborhood, showing him the old houses around St. Vitus, pointing out who lived where and how Sheliga Drug store still had items you didn't even know you needed until you walked in.
When he was older, Semersky walked the streets on his lunch breaks at VIP. An architecture and urban planning student at Cleveland State University before taking the job, he enjoyed seeing how everything fit together — from retail on St. Clair Avenue to the impressive church to the houses with big porches — and imagined giving it a purpose again.
He had always seen Sterle's as more than a place to eat sausage and sauerkraut, and listen to polkas. "The customers have to feel like they have an ownership in it as well," he says.
So after taking over, Semersky went to work by adding newer bands, like the Chardon Polka Band, to the polka nights on Friday and Saturday. In 2013, he added Szemerszky's, a European-style beer garden out back that offered its own menu of grilled meats, poured beer from Milwaukee's Sprecher Brewing Co. and carried his family's name with its original spelling. To draw unfamiliar crowds to the neighborhood, he hosted the successful Cleveland Flea artisan market in the parking lot until it eventually outgrew the space.
But given that Semersky works in real estate, and everything is in phases, owning the classic restaurant was just the beginning. His master plan, which begins to take shape this month, is dubbed Hub 55 and includes the former St. Clair Cleveland Public Library and the Lakeshore Banking and Trust building.
Cafe 55, a new healthy, fast-casual breakfast and lunch spot, opens next door to Sterle's this month followed by Goldhorn Brewery, a small craft brewer with a tasting room and beer garden, in late July or early August.
A market featuring food from locally grown community gardens and artisanal bread, cheese and other goods is planned for early 2016. Later, a higher-end restaurant in the bank building and redesigned office and retail space are expected to follow.
Open plazas will connect the various components, but Sterle's will remain the anchor.
"This has never been merely about saving some old buildings," Semersky says. "When I talked to my dad and my grandmother, I always heard about how they had everything they needed. Neighbors you knew. Markets close by. Your job very close. The church bells ringing so you knew what time it is."
He's convinced some of the city's top culinary talent to buy in to his vision and oversee the operations. Courtney Bonning of Ohio City staple Bonbon Pastry and Cafe helped get Cafe 55 started. Jeff Jarrett, formerly of Amp 150 at the Cleveland Airport Marriott, will oversee the food operations at Hub 55, including Sterle's. Brewer Joel Warger, a 14-year veteran of Great Lakes Brewing Co., will lead Goldhorn.
Sterle's beer garden will have barbecue done by Walter Hyde, who ran a great roadside joint in Macedonia called Fat Casual BBQ.
"This isn't about going into the past in some nostalgic way," Semersky says. "It's about taking what was great in the past and bringing it into the present."