Milwaukee’s last dine-in Polish restaurant closes
In the warmly lit dining room of Polonez, customers across generations gathered to dine one last time. Their plates were heavy with cabbage rolls and sausages, pierogi and hunter’s stew. They drank Polish vodka and beer, toasting the end of an era. After 39 years, their beloved Polonez was closing.
Polonez is the kind of place where a huge family can dine together, enjoy each other’s company, and reminisce. That’s what Veronica Karolewicz’s family was doing on Sunday night, all 15 of them seated in the corner. They’ve been coming for more than 30 years.
“We are Polish, almost 100%,” said Karolewicz, who organized the dinner and rallied all her family members together. “We used to come here before Christmas a lot. When I heard they were closing, I was really devastated because it’s one of the last Polish restaurants in the area.”
Angela and Don Pienkos also came to say farewell. They’ve dined at Polonez since the very beginning, going back to the restaurant’s first location across the street from the Basilica of St. Josaphat, in the center of Milwaukee’s historic Polish community. In 2001, the restaurant moved to a bigger space in St. Francis.
Over the years, the couple celebrated anniversaries, baptisms, Christmas, and Easter at Polonez. They brought friends, family, and guests from all over the world. During the early pandemic, they loaded up on carry-out.
“We have so many beautiful memories and happy moments here,” said Angela, who previously served as director of the Polish Center of Wisconsin. “What are we going to do? We’re going to miss all of this.”
These goodbyes mean a lot to the Burzynski’s. They’ve been running the place for 39 years.
“I see so many [of] our customers from 40 years ago,” said Aleksandra Burzynski, the co-owner of Polonez. “They are coming to say goodbye. They give me beautiful flowers. They give me beautiful cards and gifts. It’s very emotional.”
Her husband George came to Milwaukee in the '80s. He grew up on a dairy farm in central Poland and went to school for economics. He came to the U.S. on vacation. But a political crisis struck back home when Poland's then-Communist government declared martial law. It wasn't safe to return, so he stayed.
He and Aleksandra met through a mutual friend in the Polish community. She grew up in the city of Gdynia, on the Baltic coast, and had already been living in Milwaukee for nearly a decade.
The two worked multiple jobs, cleaning buildings late at night and on the weekends. They saved up and opened the restaurant in October 1983. They got married that same month. George has this joke about that.
“The restaurant is my first wife, and my real wife is like the second wife,” he said. “Sometimes she’s jealous because I spend more time here, like at home.”
Over the years, George did the cooking, using his mother’s recipes. Aleksandra worked a day job in international shipping. She spent her time off at the restaurant, where she kept the books and greeted diners.
“It has been a very long road,” she said. “We were in the restaurant business for so many years. It was a labor of love.”
Now, in their 70s, the Burzynski's are ready to retire, eager to relax and spend time with their three grandchildren. In August, they announced they would close at the end of September. A week later, they were booked through the month and busy with bulk to-go orders of pierogi and pancakes.
For staff, the last night was bittersweet.
"It's kind of like a little funeral," said Kristine Pluskota, who has hosted, bartended, and cooked — in keeping with Polonez culture, where staff pitch in with a bit of everything. "You're saying goodbye to people that you've enjoyed time with for a long time."
In the kitchen, Jill Mlinar cooked a fresh batch of potato pancakes. She started as a busser when she was 14 and worked her way to cooking.
“I had a lady who came in for a to-go order of a dozen pancakes just for herself,” Mlinar said. “People love them.”
The buffet options represented Polonez's biggest hits, Mlinar said: savory bigos, or hunter's stew; a mix of fresh and smoked Polish sausage; stuffed cabbage rolls bathed in tomato sauce; meatballs smothered with George's signature mushroom sauce; and for dessert, sweet cream pierogi.
The Syrena folk group performed a traditional dance from the southern mountains of Poland, dedicating their send-off to the Burzynski’s for keeping Polish culture alive and well in Milwaukee.
Ken Tutaj, the mayor of St. Francis, said Polonez has been an anchor in the city. “We’re going to miss them dearly,” he said. “They are the fabric that makes this city awesome. They give their all, supporting everything from July 4, Christmas parades, everything.”
“It’s definitely a wonderful legacy to leave behind,” said Peter Burzynski, George and Aleksandra’s son. He began working at the restaurant when he was 10 and occupied many roles over the years. “I’ve known these people for 25 of my 35 years, and I’m happy to make their lives a little brighter. But now it’s time for my parents to rest and for me to pursue my own passions.”
Today, he is a poet and writing teacher at Milwaukee Area Technical College. His sister Maria is a hemopathologist at Froedtert Hospital.
Speaking of their education and careers, Peter said, “I don’t think any of that would have been possible without the immense sacrifices that my parents, like so many immigrant parents, make.”
After the dust settles, Peter and his father will keep working together. They plan to write George's memoir — with recipes, of course.
Through the years, Polonez had been there for many dear memories. There was just enough time for the restaurant’s biggest fans to make one more.