A bar mleczny (milk bar in Polish) is a type of cafeteria – restaurant in Poland which according to Wikipedia “during the communist era provided government subsidized traditional Polish cuisine at low cost”. The first milk bar opened in Warsaw in 1896 by the Polish dairy farmer Stanislaw Dluzewski. He named it milk bar due to the large number of dairy items on the menu. But at the same time it served a wide range of traditional Polish dishes like soups, sausages, dumplings and cakes. The commercial success of the first milk bar encouraged others to open more restaurants like it. After World War I milk bars became more popular and appeared across the country. They offered cheap but tasty comfort food. This was the reason why they established more their position during the economic depression of the 1930s and World War II.
After World War II, when Poland became a communist state, most restaurants were nationalized and closed down by the communist state authorities. However milk bars continued to offer cheap meals to people working in companies that had no official canteen. The idea at that time was to provide all people with cheap meals at the place or near the place of their work. But there was also a large number of people working in smaller companies that had no canteen. This was the reason why the communist government created a series of small self service restaurants, where all the meals, subsidized by the state, were cheap and easily available to everyone. After the fall of the communist system most of the milk bars closed but some of them were preserved as relics of the Soviet-era.
During the previous decade, milk bars began to make a comeback, as part of nostalgia and at the same time as a place you could taste authentic and rustic Polish cuisine at affordable prices. Today at a milk bar you could taste many traditional Polish dishes. There are many soups and the most popular is borscht (sour beetroot). The most famous of the other dishes is pierogis, which are dumplings stuffed with potato, cheese and onion or ground meat and mushrooms. You could also taste golabki (meat filled cabbage rolls covered with tomato sauce) and kotlet schabowy (pork cutlets). The most popular drink at the milk bars is kompot, a sugary drink made of boiled fruit served either hot or cold. Finally the most common dessert is budyn, which is a creamy pudding served with syrup. However the modern milk bars have enriched their menu with international and vegetarian dishes.
The process of eating at a milk bar has been the same all these years and has not changed at all. At the entrance there is a large menu that hangs on the wall, to choose what you want to eat. The next step is to order and pay (cash only) to the cashier. Take your receipt and head to the window in front of the kitchen to receive your order from the ladies cooking. Some dishes, such as pierogi, are not served immediately, so the ladies will let you know when your order is ready by shouting the name of the dish. Also, do not expect to have the table yourself, if there are no free tables left, it is very likely that someone will sit with you.
If you are visiting Warsaw or Krakow and want to visit a milk bar, we could suggest the following milk bars among many good places:
- Bar Mleczny Rusalka (Florianska 14, 00-001 Warszawa)
- Bar Mleczny Prasowy (Marszalkowska 10/16, 00-590 Warszawa)
- Bar Bambino (Hoza 19, 00-521 Warszawa)
- Bar Mleczny Krakus (30-534, Boleslawa Limanowskiego 16, 30-534 Krakow)
- Bar Mleczny Smakosz (Mogilska 58, 31-545 Krakow)
- Bar Mleczny Targowy (Aleja Ignacego Daszynskiego 19, 31-538 Krakow)
Visit Poland, an unexplored destination and during your stay, eat at a Polish milk bar for a genuine local experience and an excellent, yet affordable introduction to the unique Polish cuisine.
*[Photo at the top by Adrian Grycuk]