Closing of Topeka deli Porubsky’s marks end of an era — and earns tribute from Sen. Jerry Moran

May 31, 2022 3:33 am
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas gave a commemorative speech about Topeka's Porubsky's deli last week on the Senate floor. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector illustration from Moran photo by Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector and building photo from Porubsky's)

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas gave a commemorative speech about Topeka’s Porubsky’s deli last week on the Senate floor. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector illustration from Moran photo by Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector and building photo from Porubsky’s)

We live in an age of cookie-cutter culture.

Drive around most places in Kansas — and the United States — and you’ll find the same Walmarts, the same Taco Bells, the same Applebees. You’ll see people dressed in the same clothes, driving the same cars, speaking in the same neutral accent.

What you won’t find anymore in Topeka is Porubsky’s.

C.W. Porubsky’s Deli and Tavern was special, a one-of-a-kind restaurant — a kind that cities used to treasure before they sold their souls to developers and chain stores. If you had one of their sinus-clearing pickles or a bowl of their incomparable chili, you experienced something special.

You experienced something unique, rooted in our state’s capital.

After three-quarters of a century, the owners closed up shop at the end of last month. The usual local news outlets ran stories, but a special tribute came last week in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Jerry Moran gave a speech, but not about some political disagreement with the Biden administration or a pressing need for investment in Kansas. No, the state’s senior senator gave a heartfelt tribute to Porubsky’s.

Charlie Porubsky makes some of the deli’s famous chili. (Porubsky’s)

“To someone from out of town, Porubsky’s Grocery and Meat doesn’t seem like much,” he said. “But for railroad workers, Topeka locals and legislators from the Statehouse who frequent Porubsky’s, it was the best place in town to grab a delicious meal and receive a friendly welcome.”

Moran talked about the restaurant’s history, as well as his own.

“My personal experience with the Porubsky’s dates back to my time in the Kansas Legislature,” he said. “Several of my fellow legislators and I would make the trek to Porubsky’s during legislative breaks. Meeting from January through June meant that we had at least three full months to truly enjoy Porubsky’s hot pickles and spicy chili. With meat and cheese trays displayed, the restaurant was a warm respite from the cold and a welcome break from our political and governmental dealings.”

More recently, Moran told the Senate, he still made a point of heading to the spot for “a ham salad sandwich with three slices of cheese and a cold Coke.” The restaurant was a respite from Washington, D.C., insider conversation and a reminder of a world where not everything revolves around politics.

“While Porubsky’s and many other family-owned establishments like it lack the bells and whistles of nationwide chains, the underlying quality, which truly matters, is the collection of people it takes to make it work,” Moran said.

At Kansas Reflector, we last covered Porubsky’s nearly three months ago, on March 5. Freelance writer Linda Ditch dropped by to take the temperature of locals on the Russia-Ukraine war.

What she found was general concern and customers otherwise hesitant to say too much.

“The folks in Porubsky’s seemed reluctant to talk about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Ditch wrote. “Everyone is sensitive to how politically divided the United States is right now. In true Midwestern fashion, no one wants to insult or upset the customers who have kept the shop going strong during the pandemic.”

That’s another lost value. As our country has become more homogenized, with the same stores and style everywhere you look, politics has become a kind of national team competition. The red and blue divide pervades, with Democrats becoming more like Democrats everywhere and Republicans becoming more like Republicans everywhere. In a city like Topeka it can be difficult to avoid ideological bitterness in regular conversation.

“Squeezing into a seat at the restaurant it doesn’t matter if you are Republican or a Democrat; it doesn’t matter where you come from; at places like Porubsky’s everyone is welcome,” Moran said toward the end of his remarks.

I understand that the closing of a restaurant after a long and healthy life might not seem like much when our country convulses with violence and division. But as our senator noted, Porubsky’s was a place that united Topeka visitors and residents alike.

We’re all the poorer to see it go.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.