Photo by Denise Hung
We left Berkeley when I was born, in 1977, to move into the Sierras, but headed south five years later. It wasn’t the prospect of work, though, that made us settle five blocks away from Warszawa, which occupies a converted bungalow on Lincoln Boulevard. It was the fact that, new in town, friendless and in culture shock, my clan could wander in on any given evening, pull up to a white-clothed corner table, and be lavished with bowls of the best pea soup anywhere—studded with smoky-sweet Polish sausage and served with molasses-colored rye bread—and generous cups of red wine for the grownups (Hungarian Bulls’ Blood back then, elegant Pinots today) and for the under-21 crowd, glass after glass of sok owocowy, a Polish juice concoction that tastes of pink grapefruit.
Far from our northern comfort zone, Elina and Warszawa made us feel at home. Indeed, we were at home. This, of course, is exactly why Warszawa (Polish for Warsaw and pronounced var-shah-vah) has so confounded the restaurant odds and been a Santa Monica institution for almost 33 years. This town may bear only a passing resemblance to the “Peoples Republic of Santa Monica” of the Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda days, but at Warszawa, you can still find a raspberry crepe filled with lemony cheese and a vigorous debate over tax reform. It’s like how the kitchen is always the first room to fill up at a house party—Warszawa is Santa Monica’s most convivial space, bringing people together decade after decade over roast duck and Żubrówka vodka martinis.
“The restaurant began almost as a social experiment,” says Elina’s husband, Paul, a screenwriter and retired UCLA professor of molecular biology. (“You can remember the restaurant’s address, because it’s the square root of two: 1.414.” ) “Elina has always looked at it as a place where friends could gather, and for years, after the business closed at night, everybody would come over, we’d sit...” “...and talk talk talk,” says Elina, finishing his thought. “ It wasn’t strictly a business.”
That social experiment ultimately owes its success, as does the restaurant’s longevity, to Elina’s food, which has managed over the years to bring together even “ former foes of each other,” as she observes. Germans, Jews, Poles, Russians, Scandinavians—not to mention Reagan appointees and leftist intellectuals in the aftermath of Poland’s anti-communist Solidarność (Solidarity) movement in the 1980s—“ all under one roof. They all eat, and they’re happy.”
This is because Polish cuisine, the authentic “ continental” variety served at Warszawa, synthesizes centuries of influence from Italian, French, Slavic and Hungarian monarchs, Turkish invasions, and the huge Jewish population that called Poland home for some 700 years. These veins of European history can be traced in Warszawa’s menu, where pierogi are billed as “ Polish ravioli,” Juniper and lingonberries grace the filet, sweet and savory crepes abound, and the crispy potato pancakes with stewed apples and plums have made the restaurant’s large and loyal Jewish clientele its lifeblood. (To be sure, I’ve never seen a dining room as jumping as Warszawa the week of Hannukah.) “Fusion was made hundreds of years ago,” notes Elina, “I’m just utilizing it.” Unlike the faster-moving forms of fusion that continuously pass through restaurant kitchens (today it’s Korean tacos, yesterday it was wasabi mashed potatoes, and the day before that it was smoked salmon pizza), the culinary mash-up of Polish cuisine has had its edges softened over the centuries; the flavors are straightforward and unfussy, rather like Poles themselves.
“I still believe in real simplicity,” says Elina, whose dishes coax sophisticated flavors out of humble ingredients. “The sum is better than the parts; it’s about the perfect blend.” On a rare balmy evening in August, I pondered this food philosophy over a bowl of Warszawa’s chilled, Pantone-fuschia borscht. Simple, yes—beets, buttermilk, cucumbers, not much else—but harmonious, bright and utterly comforting.
As I drained the bowl, and mopped up the pink droplets with sourdough, it occurred to me that this soup is probably the most familiar flavor in my sense memory; I most likely enjoyed it in utero. And 30-something years later, it’s still the dish I crave when I need consolation, or celebration, or am just too worn out to cook. Thankfully, Warszawa is there, its familiar glowing windows beckoning yet another generation of Westsiders to pull up to a white-clothed table, eat well, and talk into the night.