Food for the Proletariat: Czarnuszka Soup Bar

The name doesn’t roll off the tongue, but owner Paul Wanish didn’t choose the name of his new Ephraim soup bar for its catchy ring.

“I just really like the word,” said Wanish, who has worked in kitchens in Door County, Milwaukee and Las Vegas for the last 20 years. “It looks like the alphabet puked all over it. I love the Polish language, how it looks so…scary.”

The masses of Northern Door can now fill their stomachs at Czarnuszka Soup Bar in Ephraim, which opened a couple weeks ago. If all goes as planned Wanish’s cozy eatery will soon be known for far more than its exotic name.

Czarnuszka is tucked behind Leroy’s Water Street Coffee in Ephraim’s Shorewood Village Shops. The strange name comes from a Polish word for a spice similar to black onion seed.

Czarnuszka Soup Bar is modeled after the cafeterias that Wanish frequented during his two yearlong stints living in Poland. The cafeterias were subsidized during the Communist era to provide healthy, natural polish food to the masses. Thanks to meat rationing these cafeterias offered mostly dairy-based and vegetarian food, earning them the moniker bar mleczny, or milk bar, where it was said there was served “food for the proletariat.”

This summer Wanish aims to recreate that affordable, social style of eatery in Ephraim. “I’ve done what so many have failed to do,” Wanish joked recently. “I’ve opened a bar in Ephraim.”

When Americans study or travel abroad one rarely hears Poland come up as a desired destination, but Wanish was drawn to it. He had traveled extensively in Western Europe when a friend encouraged him to visit Danzig.

“I immediately noticed the difference,” he said. “It wasn’t so westernized. It felt different, and the language, when I saw it on street signs and newspapers, looked hideous. I wanted to move to the most interesting place, and I thought that place was Poland.”

“I’ve done what so many have failed to do,” Wanish joked recently. “I’ve opened a bar in Ephraim.”

While he lived and worked in Milwaukee, Wanish took two semesters of night classes learning Polish, developing language skills he calls “passable enough for Polish conversation.” Already those skills have been put to use at his counter. A recent visit saw Wanish conversing with a Chicago man who grew up in Poland, excitedly talking Polish recipes in his native tongue.

Wanish began his cooking career at a McDonald’s in high school, then honed his skills “cooking real food, with real ingredients” over 20 years at restaurants in Door County, Milwaukee, and Las Vegas. Along the line he earned a math degree, played gigs as a punk rock drummer and wrote columns for several publications about whatever oddity came to his mind. He paid off his college tuition by working long summer days in the Wagon Trail kitchen, so he said he never felt the need to put his math degree to work.

Instead, he has always earned his paychecks under kitchen hoods and behind coffee bars, earning a following for those in search of off-kilter observation and Wanish’s uncommon curiosity. Catch him in Ephraim daily, where the one-man Wanish operation offers a rotating menu of four homemade soups and two sandwiches and bilingual conversation.