Eightieth birthdays are always worth celebrating.
When it’s a restaurant that has reached the milestone, the accomplishment is nothing short of a miracle.
And when it’s a restaurant that gave birth to a food as iconic as Barberton fried chicken, it’s really necessary to pay appropriate homage.
Happy Birthday, Belgrade Gardens!
The restaurant that began as a Depression-era diner will be celebrating its 80th birthday all weekend.
It was Smilka Topalsky who fried the first piece of Barberton chicken — in lard, the way her family still fries it today.
On the eve of their celebration, members of the Papich family, who operate Belgrade Gardens, sat down with me over a heaping plate of fried chicken, french fries, vinegar coleslaw and pepper-and-tomato-laced hot sauce to talk about how this local landmark came to be.
It is one of those American dream tales that began just after the turn of the century. Manojlo “Mike” Topalsky came to Barberton with his parents in 1904 from Serbia. He was 12 at the time. Here, he met Smilka, who also had come with her family from Serbia when she was a girl of 13. They were married in 1925.
Mike ran a small deli in downtown Barberton, while his father operated a large dairy farm on the outskirts of town, the location of the current Belgrade Gardens. When Mike’s father died in 1930, the family farm, more than 200 acres on East State Street, was lost at a sheriff’s sale.
A man from Wooster purchased the farm, and approached Topalsky about coming back to operate it for him. Topalsky had always dreamed of operating a restaurant, so he and Smilka moved back to the farm, where they also opened a small diner on July 4, 1933.
The country was deep in the Great Depression so food at the diner was fairly humble — sandwiches, chili, pancakes, their daughter Sophia Papich, 81, recalled.
Then one day, two businessmen were at the diner, one of whom was the president of the First National Bank. While they were eating out front, Smilka was in the back cooking supper for her family.
Their noses followed the smell of her cooking, and they asked if they could have what she was making instead of what was offered on the menu.
“My mother was making dinner for us; she was frying chicken and potatoes,” Papich recalled.
After enjoying the family’s chicken dinner, they asked why the food wasn’t served at the diner. And in that moment, the first of the Barberton chicken house restaurants was born. The chicken has been on the menu ever since.
“It’s amazing,” Papich said of the 80-year run. “I never thought I’d have a child to go into the business.”
Eventually, Papich and her husband, Kosta, who came to Barberton from Serbia in 1958, took over operation of the restaurant. There were times when they weren’t sure it would survive.
Kosta, 84, a retired electrical engineer from B.F. Goodrich, still recalls the day when Sophia came to him in tears worried that her mother, by then a widow, would lose the business. From that moment on, Kosta Papich took on a second career as a restaurant operator. Their son Milos, 51, now runs the restaurant.
Other fried chicken restaurants followed, and eventually the Barberton area came to be known for them.
While there is a full menu, it’s the fried chicken that keeps customers coming back to Belgrade Gardens.
Sophia Papich said there really isn’t a secret recipe. The chicken is always fresh, never frozen, and yes, it is fried in lard, the same fat that her mother used.
It also was Smilka who invented the piece known as “the chicken back.” It was her way of not wasting any of the bird, Papich said.
A chicken back, as it is known in Barberton, is really the ribs with a small sliver of meat attached, breaded and deep fried like the rest of the chicken. Customers love to gnaw on the bones, or chicken ribs as they jokingly refer to them.
The coleslaw is cabbage marinated in vinegar, the way the family made it in Serbia.
And then there is the hot sauce, or is it hot rice? Folks call it both.
It’s really more of a relish, made with tomatoes, peppers, and a smattering of rice tossed in as filler. Customers like it on their chicken or for dipping their fries into, but it’s not really all that hot.
Sophia Papich said the sauce, which is made fresh at the restaurant with Hungarian hot wax peppers, is pretty mild these days to suit the tastes of their customers. Depending on the peppers, the sauce may have more of a bite some days than others.
“My mother’s was hotter. It has gotten milder over the years,” she noted.
Belgrade’s fried chicken has garnered plenty of accolades in the past 80 years. It’s been named one of the best fried chickens in the country by USA Today, it’s been written about in Saveur magazine by Road Food columnists Jane and Michael Stern, and most recently, it was proclaimed champion of a Food Network Food Feuds battle.
Kosta Papich is proud of the accomplishments, but nevertheless won’t complain if you don’t think his chicken is the best you’ve ever eaten.
“Whether we have the best fried chicken is debatable,” he said.
He isn’t nearly as democratic when it comes to Belgrade’s chicken paprikash.
“You won’t find better,” he proclaimed.
After tasting the paprikash, it was impossible to disagree with him.
Filled with carrots, celery, onions, giant dumplings, and a generous portion of the chicken in savory red paprika sauce, the paprikash really deserves star billing on the Belgrade menu.
It’s hard to imagine anyone hasn’t been to Belgrade Gardens, but this weekend the family will be offering a variety of specials to celebrate the 80th anniversary.
Go for the fried chicken, but take my advice and stay for the paprikash.