Café Smilga: A Taste of Eastern Europe in Illinois

A Lithuanian immigrant shares why Café Smilga reminds her of home.

This piece is part of a series of articles submitted to The Local Tourist through a cooperation with a 400-level travel writing class at Purdue University.

By Patricija Miskinyte

“Patricija? That’s a funny way to spell your name, where is that from?”

As a first-generation immigrant, I have heard this comment repeatedly. I am from Lithuania, a tiny country in Eastern Europe located on the Baltic Sea. Lithuania is known for its multiple Olympic-winning basketball teams, antique cities, and, of course, its food.

As with most cultures, food plays a critical role in the traditions of Lithuanians, so it’s no surprise that Lithuanian immigrants have opened restaurants in the Chicagoland area to bring a taste of home from overseas. My favorite one of these restaurants is called Café Smilga.

Café Smilga
Café Smilga exterior

Experience Café Smilga

I will never forget my first time walking into Café Smilga 13 years ago as a new immigrant from Lithuania. The restaurant is about an 8-minute drive from my house, but as I walked in, it felt like I had flown overseas.

I remember being overtaken by a mix of deep homesickness and comfort. After months of experiencing an unfamiliar U.S. environment and way of life, walking in through the doors of Smilga felt like the closest thing to home I had seen in months.

Listening to waitresses speak Lithuanian, exploring the little market filled with familiar products, and eating food that tasted like it came straight from my grandmother’s kitchen was indescribable.

Café Smilga interior
Café Smilga - authentic items from Lithuania
Frozen items at Café Smilga from Lithuania

How did I and this tiny, authentic restaurant end up in Darien, Illinois?

It all started with generations of Lithuanian immigrants long before my parents and I arrived. Lithuanians have immigrated to the U.S. since the 17th century with the first wave of people escaping religious suppression and political discontent from the Russian Empire.

Later, a second wave of immigrants came because of Soviet occupation during WWII. Most were escaping the suppressive regime that sent many to Siberian work camps.

Many Lithuanian immigrants ended up in Chicago or various regions of Pennsylvania. My parents were part of an unofficial “third wave” of Lithuanians that came to the U.S. after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. My mother said that Chicago seemed to be the best option for our family to feel less alone in an unknown country.

Map showing immigration location of Lithuanians to the United States

Today, Chicago has approximately 100,000 Lithuanians, one of the largest population of Lithuanians outside of Lithuania, and is commonly dubbed “Little Lithuania.”

A couple named Jurate and Vladas Kriauciunai opened Café Smilga years ago to serve this population in the Chicago suburbs.

I spoke to a waitress named Kamile Nemeikaite, who explained to me the owners initially opened Smilga in 2004 after seeing a need for a Lithuanian restaurant and a store selling Lithuanian groceries.

“After four successful years,” Kamile explained, “Cafe Smilga acquired additional space to homemake additional items to sell in the market and deli.”

Lithuanian Cuisine at Café Smilga

Café Smilga offers a large menu of appetizers, soups, salads, chicken, beef, fish, and pork dishes, as well as potato dishes. From potato pancakes and zeppelins to kugelis, Lithuanian cuisine never fails to incorporate potatoes and meat into any traditional dish.

The restaurant also offers authentic drinks such as Lithuanian beer called Svyturys and homemade bread kvass, which is traditional Baltic beverage made from rye bread.

Interior of Café Smilga

I decided to revisit Café Smilga for lunch and upon my arrival, I was casually greeted by a Lithuanian server who I recall working there for at least 10 years since I had been coming in. The tables were crowded with American and Lithuanian guests, each supplied with a menu matching their language preference.

Because I had not eaten there in a while, I decided to order multiple half portion dishes, which is a common practice in Lithuanian restaurants.

To start the meal, I ordered a famous Lithuanian appetizer/snack that is common at parties or with drinks called “kepta duona,” which translates to fried bread. This doesn’t sound like anything special, but the crispy light and dark bread dipped in a garlic cheese sauce is one of my favorite foods on the menu.

Kepta duona at Café Smilga
Café Smilga - kepta duona

Soup is a large part of Lithuanian cuisine. One of the most unique soups is cold beet soup made from buttermilk and beets. It has a sweet and savory flavor that is paired with freshly boiled hot potatoes.

Cold beet soup at Café Smilga
Cold beet soup at Café Smilga

As I ordered my main course, I asked Kamile about working at Café Smilga and what her favorite part was.

“I love that the staff here is like family; most of us started here almost two decades ago and still work here, which is rare for the restaurant business,” she continued. “My favorite part is the relationships I have built with customers and watched as they have gotten married, had kids, or changed jobs throughout the years.”

Zeppelins with meat at Café Smilga
Zeppelins with meat at Café Smilga

For my meal, I decided to order zeppelins with meat, potato pancake with meat, stuffed cabbage, and pan-fried chicken breast with cheese.

Zeppelins are a famous dish in a few European countries, but they are Lithuanian’s most iconic traditional dish. They are made from shredded potato balls with pork stuffing.

The potato on the outside is a unique thick dough consistency and tastes great when combined with the seasoned pork on the inside. The dish is usually served with sour cream and bacon bits.

The other dishes I ordered were flavorful, filling, and made me nostalgic.

Dish at Cafe Smilga
Dish at Cafe Smilga
Dish at Cafe Smilga
Dish at Cafe Smilga

Lithuanian Market at Café Smilga

Café Smilga has a tiny market attached to the restaurant that resembles a regular Lithuanian grocery store. The store is filled with Lithuanian canned items, bread, spices, pasta, juice, and various other items.

The store also offers a deli section that sells cured meats, pre-made dishes, and homemade sweet treats. In sum, Café Smilga is a one-stop shop for all Lithuanian food needs.

After speaking with Kamile, I learned that Café Smilga is so much more than a restaurant. She explained that through the years Café Smilga has become a “Lithuanian island” where people not only come to shop and eat but also make connections, find jobs, or get advice.

Counter at Cafe Smilga, photo by Patricija Miskinyte
Shopping for food stuffs at Café Smilga
Lithuanian beverages on the shelves at Café Smilga

Not many people will have the chance or even the desire to travel to Eastern Europe and experience the unique Lithuanian culture. Fortunately, with a restaurant like Café Smilga, a traditional Lithuanian kitchen is much closer.

Come try Café Smilga for a glimpse of Lithuanian cuisine and experience what some of us call home.

Café Smilga is located at 2819 83rd Street in Darien, Illinois.
Click here to see the menu