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Keeping up Tradition in Bridgeport

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Bridgeport may seem like an unlikely location, but Healthy Food Restaurant is the oldest Lithuanian restaurant in the world, claims its owner, Grazina Biciunas-Santoski (you can call her Gina). It's been open since 1938, which makes it "older even than in Lithuania," she says. "I put it on my card, and no one has challenged it." In the 11 years since Lithuania claimed independence from Russia, she explains, most of the older restaurants there have gone out of business. Even a nightclub she remembers in Kaunas called the Metropolis--which was converted into a Chinese place, then a pizza place--is now being turned into a hotel, leaving this family-run gem to claim the title.

Of course, even without that distinction this little spot on South Halsted would be well-known. Gina remembers being struck by the charm of the place when her parents bought it from the original owners in 1960. "There used to be a very strong Lithuanian area here, especially in the turn of the century," she says. Through the years, as the Lithuanian community has dispersed to other areas, Healthy Food has become "like a little island"--one where the food keeps drawing crowds.

On Saturdays and Sundays the place is full of people ordering the popular blynai (pancakes), which are slightly sweet, filled with varskinis (cheese) or topped with a choice of eight different fruits, like obuolinis (apple), slyvo (plum), or vysniv (sour cherry). Whenever possible the berries are fresh from Wisconsin. Another popular choice is the kugelis: potatoes, onions, sour cream, and other items blended together and poured into a baking pan and coated with butter. Gina's meat and cheese dumplings are her mother's recipe, sprinkled with bacon and topped with sour cream. Then there are the potato pancakes with sides of applesauce and sour cream, perfect food for the cold winter months.

Roughly the size of West Virginia, Lithuania is tucked between Russia, Poland, and Latvia. The traditional cuisine of these countries developed around crops that could grow on the flatlands--namely wheat, rye, beans, and feed grains for pork, poultry, and cattle. Breads and potatoes became staples. Fruits and green vegetables, which weren't as plentiful, were used primarily to add flavor.

So if a majority of the menu is heavy on meat, potatoes, sour cream, and butter, why is it called "healthy food"? Gina had a chance to talk with the original owners a few years back, who were pleased with how she's kept it. "They told me they didn't know what to call it. They reasoned that they served good food and it was healthy, so they originally called it Sveikas Maistas, or 'healthful foods.' But that's such a mouthful, so it became modified over the years. People ask me why don't I give it a more Lithuanian-sounding name. The name has been around since 1938. Everybody knows it, so why change it?"

She also points out that she uses no preservatives and no additives. Everything is made from scratch. "When you get potatoes, you know it's real potato, and that's very healthy. It's all the stuff you put on [that makes it unhealthy]. But we do that because we like it that way. The meat dumplings are only about 50 calories apiece."

The traditional menu has remained pretty much the same all these years--on a recent visit my Polish father-in-law was in heaven, especially delighted by the saltibarsciai (cold beet soup served with a boiled potato) and the soothing sauerkraut soup. Some entrees--a garden burger, a veggie plate--have been added for vegetarians, and there are also American dishes like burgers and tuna salad.

Though the backdrop is a traditional diner--booths, a linoleum counter, 50s-style wood wall paneling--Gina has managed to create some atmosphere. She's hung linen tapestries and decorated the place with Lithuanian wood carvings, pieces of Baltic amber (fossilized tree resin, ranging in color from light yellow to deep orange and even green), and straw and ceramic art pieces. She especially loves the amber and always has an impressive display for sale at a reasonable price. If you're interested, she may even show you "the real good stuff."

Healthy Food has had its moments in the spotlight; it served as a location for the movie Miss Missouri a few years ago, and was recently featured in a Channel 11 special on Lithuanian history. Gina is also working on a revised edition of her cookbook A Taste of Lithuania (currently out of stock) that will reveal some family recipes that have been handed down for generations. But not all of them--some things should remain a secret.

Healthy Food is at 3236 S. Halsted, 312-326-2724.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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