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plate of Fried chicken from Belgrade Garden in Barberton Ohio

Around The Cluck

Belgrade Gardens – birthplace of 'Barberton Chicken' – keeps on ticking after 90 years with same Serbian family recipe.

Fried chicken from Belgrade Garden in Barberton

Around The Cluck

By Wendy Pramik

Posted On: Jan 25, 2023

During the Great Depression, a Serbian couple named Mike and Smilka Topalsky steadfastly tend to their family's dairy farm in Barberton, Ohio.

Black and White photo of Mike and Smilka Topalsky who opened Belgrade Gardens in Barberton Ohio in 1933
Photo of Mike and Smilka Topalsky 

They earn their income by running a small restaurant downtown. Despite the extra cash, times are tough. One day, when a man from the local bank pays a visit to the farm, he detects a fragrant aroma emanating from the kitchen.

"What smells so good, Smilka?" he asks.

She offers him a taste of the Serbian fried chicken she's preparing for her family.

"Get that dish on your menu as soon as you can!" the banker exclaims.

The couple agrees to give it a try. In 1933, they open a new restaurant – Belgrade Gardens – and a northeast Ohio legend is born.

looking down at table with plates of sides and Fried chicken from Belgrade Garden in Barberton Ohio

Belgrade Gardens, named after the capital of Serbia, is the home of "Barberton chicken," a tasty poultry dish that's become popular for its crispy crust and hearty flavor, earning the Akron suburb the title of "Chicken Capital of the World." PBS recently featured Belgrade Gardens and the city in its series, "Roadfood." 

This year Belgrade Gardens celebrates its 90th anniversary and is still doing things the old-fashioned way.

That means deep frying the chicken in lard, rather than in oil, a hallmark of Barberton chicken.

Milos Papich opens a box of lard inside Belgrade Garden in Barberton Ohio
Milos Papich opens a box of lard

Belgrade Gardens' poultry gets a sprinkle of salt and a breadcrumb coating before being dunked in John Morrell lard, "the Cadillac of lard," says Milos Papich, the restaurant's general manager and grandson of the Topalskys.

The chicken is cooked for a smidge longer than is typical, and at a lower temperature. The result: tender, juicy meat with a crunchy exterior that has a hybrid pork-and-chicken flavor.

Fried chicken from Belgrade Garden in Barberton Ohio going to fryer inside restaurant kitchen
Barberton chicken sizzles in the fryer

"If you want something that's truly a throwback to a time when things were done with care, love and integrity and preserving the heritage of Eastern Europe and staying true to a tried-and-true recipe that tastes like something your ancestors would have been quite familiar with, this is the place to come," says Papich.

plate of Barberton fried chicken served with hand-cut French fries and side of spicy Serbian hot sauce sitting on countertop at Belgrade Garden in Barberton Ohio
Barberton chicken with hand-cut French fries and spicy, Serbian hot sauce

The best way to eat Barberton chicken is with hand-cut French fries, vinegar-based slaw and a spicy Serbian condiment that originated from the country's Vojvodina region. It's made in house with onions, tomatoes, paprika, fresh Hungarian waxed red peppers, crushed red pepper, salt and sugar. Rice is added as a thickener.

"The secret is in the technique" Papich says.

Belgrade Gardens' heritage dates to the 19th century, when Papich's great-grandfather, Alexander Topalsky, emigrated to the United States. Like other Serbs, he settled in northeast Ohio and started a farm in an area that resembled his homeland.

mural painted on side of white building in barberton ohio of industrialist OC Barber with town nickname the Magic City painted lettering

Barberton was blossoming then, thanks to the city's founder, O. C. Barber. In 1894, the industrialist moved his Diamond Match Company from Akron to Barberton and ignited a population growth that made the city seem to appear out of nowhere, sparking the nickname the "Magic City."

The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. also wheeled onto the scene at the same time in Akron.

All this industry made for a lot of hungry, hardworking people.

"Those were our customers," Papich says.

Mike and Smilka's daughter, Sophia, and her husband, Kosta Papich, were next in line. They ran the business for decades, satisfying old customers and winning over new ones by staying true to the original recipes for the chicken and hot sauce.

Success led to expansion of the original farmhouse, and now the restaurant seats 320 guests. Eventually, the Papich children pitched in, with Milos eventually taking over the business operations.

While in grade school, Papich worked in the breading room alongside his sister, Maria. They shredded cabbage and onions and learned the value of hard work. Papich cleaned out sewers, scrubbed dishes, bussed tables and ushered people to their seats.

"We were like hornets running this place," Papich says. "You do what you have to do. There is no easy path."

Kosta Papich passed away in mid-January at age 93.

"My parents built the ship," Milos Papich said. "Now I've got to keep the ship going in the right direction."

Milos Papich prepares a bowl of Chicken Paprikash in the kitchen of  Belgrade Garden in Barberton Ohio
Milos Papich prepares a bowl of Chicken Paprikash 

Up until 1966, the only thing on the menu at Belgrade Gardens was the chicken dish and sides. Today, the menu is expanded, with Chicken Paprikash being a big seller. There are also burgers, sandwiches, fish, pork chops and other items.

Maja Papich displays a plate of Barberton chicken inside Belgrade Garden in Barberton Ohio
Maja Papich displays a plate of Barberton chicken

But the focus is the fried Barberton chicken, served in various combinations of white and dark meat.

"We haven't changed too much since my grandmother and grandfather started the business," Papich said "We've tried to improve on it. We have access to better ingredients, so we try to elevate the quality of the meal. The size of the chicken has grown, more meat for the customer. Other than that, we haven't changed too much."

Papich said the poultry comes from a supplier in Canal Fulton who prepares it to their specifications, incorporating a 10-piece cut, the way his grandfather cut it.

Familiarity bred success. There have been several competing restaurants serving Barberton chicken in the area, all started by former employees of Belgrade Gardens. Two remain open and draw plenty of customers: White House Chicken, in Barberton, and DeVore's Hopocan Gardens, in nearby Norton.

Milos and Maja Papich sitting at table in front of plate of Fried chicken from Belgrade Garden in Barberton Ohio
Milos and Maja Papich

Yet, plenty of customers flock to Belgrade Gardens. Papich runs the restaurant with his wife, Maja Papich, who is from Serbia. They've been married 15 years.

"She does more of the front of the house, and people love her," he says.

red awning sign over entrance door to  Belgrade Garden in Barberton Ohio

Papich doesn't know what the long-term future holds, as there isn't a particular family member in line to succeed him in running the restaurant, and there are more dining options available than in the past. At one time Belgrade Gardens served more than 30,000 meals a week, "when people had bigger families," he says.

That's no longer the case, although business is brisk. Papich said the restaurant serves about 400 meals on an average Sunday, with Mother's Day is the busiest day of the year.

And there is still a loyal fan following, nine decades into the business.

"We’ve had some people put it into their last will and testament that they want a last meal to be held in their memory at this facility," Papich said.

For more notable Ohioans and Ohio dining & restaurants, check out #OhioFindItHere at Ohio.org

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