Of Milk and Money

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck

They are an institution in Poland, although you wouldn’t know it. When we’ve asked for the nearest bar mleczny or told locals that we had previously visited a few across the country, they are usually taken aback at our question or statement. But then their puzzlement in turn puzzles me, as while they may not consider visiting a bar mleczny as a valued tourist experience, I believe that it is the one thing that every tourist should absolutely do.

Outside the Milk Bar

The facades are nondescript, the interiors are simple and void of any panache. The menu boards are spread across a wall near the counter – those items that are available have a price beside them, but some do not. If we’re lucky, an English menu will be available at the till.

Milk bar menu

A grim older lady will take our money and another, her head peering in the space of a small gap in the wall lined with a counter, will glance at the receipt and begin to fill it. Sometimes orders are barked behind the scenes, and our dinner plates are quickly filled.

Those creating the food are not chefs, but cooks. This is traditional Polish food as good as any you’d find in a traditional Polish house. And while none of the dishes are particularly pretty to look at, they are all delicious.

Gołąbki – cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and meat, smothered in tomato sauce and served with potatoes.

Milk-Bar-Warsaw-07

Placki ziemniaczane – potato pancakes served with mushroom sauce, one of many available varieties.

Potato Pancakes with Mushroom Sauce

Kotlet schabowy – A pork cutlet with potatoes and cabbage with dill.

Pork Cutlet and Potatoes

Ozor na szaro – Beef tongue in horseradish sauce, served with carrot salad and potatoes.

Beef Tongue in horse radish with carrot salad

Naleśniki – Thin crepes filled with soft cheese, topped with blueberries, cream, and a sprinkle of sugar. (This might be my favourite.)

Blueberry Pancakes

The bar mleczny, which translates directly as “milk bar”, gained popularity after the Second World War as a place to go for cheap but nourishing food. At that time, communism had taken over and the majority of the population was poor and milk bars became subsidized by the state.

The food is still incredibly inexpensive – the average meal costs approximately $4 and the portions are generous. As such they have become popular among students, the elderly and working class, although the large cities only have a handful of milk bars left.

Milk-Bar-Warsaw-01

Eating is a quiet affair and it feels awkward to consider engaging in any kind of gregarious conversation as we would in another setting – most patrons have their heads down and silently consume their food. Customers are expected to stack their own plates and take them to the counter before leaving. There is no loitering for after-dinner coffee or drinks, it is solely a place to eat and move on.

And a place to return to the next day, not only for the cheap, wholesome food but the austere atmosphere that feels like a complete throwback to a more moderate time. That is an experience onto itself.

Where To Stay

High-end According to a review of the luxury Hotel Bristol in central Warsaw, the Sunday Brunch is a must! The front-facing rooms offer a lovely view, and the rooms are very spacious. It’s a “truly extraordinary 5-star.”

Mid-range
The Royal Route Residence apartments offer a different option to hotel stays in Warsaw. The apartments are centrally located and come with a kitchen and living space.

Budget
The Ibis Budget Warszawa Centrum is located a bit outside the city center, but is near public transportation options. The rooms are comfortable and clean, and breakfast is offered!
37 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • July 26 2013

    Love these! Visited one in Gdansk the other day and went to one in Warsaw with some friends who live there and go there for lunch!

    • July 27 2013

      I wonder if we went to the same on in Gdansk?! So delicious!

  • July 26 2013

    Ah I didn’t have the time to visit one of these while I was in Warsaw, but I heard about them. Thanks for the fantastic explanation – quite interesting that the concept still exists today.
    Liz recently posted..Practicing a Language Before You Go

    • July 27 2013

      It’s a concept that is dying, unfortunately, but a bit of nostalgia is boosting it back up. I hope it survives!

  • July 26 2013

    I would love the cabbage balls with the sauce!! I would love the veggie options available I guess 🙂
    Arti recently posted..Featured in ‘The Asian Age’, New Delhi

    • July 27 2013

      There are plenty of veggie options – you would eat well in Poland, Arti!

  • July 26 2013

    I rarely comment on the travel blogs I read (I love yours!) since I’m not traveling all over the world now, but I just had to say how much I loved this post. I went to a Milk Bar in Krakow after asking a local for a suggestion for lunch with friends. We spent forever looking for it, but it was one of the best meals there. Like eating in the kitchen of a Polish family. I also got gotabki because I had tasted it once before at home, and was very happy.
    Julia recently posted..Last Day in Prague

    • July 27 2013

      I’m glad you persevered and found it! I think our best meals have come from there too.

  • July 26 2013

    the lady at the counter in Rusałka was all smiling and excited she could suggest you all kinds of Polish food to try 😉 (which was surprising even for me!) I so would love to make you eat even more of these goodies in milk bars across Warsaw, we could have made a “milk bars tour”, that would be pretty awesome 😉 btw, your fave pub, with umbrellas on Francuska street – they have the best ice cream ever, I just tried them the other day and they’re heaven! you should come back to get some too! 😉
    kami recently posted..Barcelona in February

    • July 27 2013

      Yes, that one lady was so enthusiastic compared to the others! (Btw, I think you SHOULD start a milk bars tour!)

  • July 26 2013

    A new item on my bucket list (seriously). Thanks for sharing!

    • July 27 2013

      COOL! Glad to take responsibility for that. 🙂

  • July 26 2013

    The naleśniki do look especially good! I never went to one of these in Poland, but they have something similar in Czech Republic. There’s a good one in Prague I’ve been to a few times (can’t remember the name), right in the touristy part of town, but full of locals. These are the kind of eateries I crave as a long term traveller: going to fancy or touristy restaurants all the time really becomes tiresome (and of course expensive)!
    Sam recently posted..Food Porn Friday: Crepisimo, Arequipa

    • July 27 2013

      Exactly Sam! I can only eat so many different kinds of pizza. 🙂 We’re so happy to find these kinds of things along the way as well.

  • The food looks amazing! I’d be ordering one of each!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    July 27 2013

    Without a doubt, this is some of the best looking Polish food I’ve ever seen! I’d definitely be curious to visit Poland, but to be honest, all of the food pictures I had seen coming out of that country had been a real turnoff… your post has given me hope that the food can look better than I expected and that it likely tastes even better!

    • July 27 2013

      And we haven’t even started talking about the pierogies yet! The food is so fresh and delicious, I don’t think you’d be disappointed.

  • I literally just woke up and now I’m hungry! I spent a night at the Warsaw airport, which of course doesn’t really count. Looking forward to making it out of the airport next time!
    Megan Eileen McDonough recently posted..Rising up from Life’s Setbacks

  • Yum!! I actually really like Polish food thanks to my grandma, but I’ve never been over there. I would definitely try these milk bars though! Interesting concept!
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..10 things to do in Vancouver, BC if you’re kind of broke but really awesome.

  • Milk Bars sound like a great find, but I can’t help thinking of the novel and movie Clockwork Orange in which milk bars were a bit more sinister.
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted..Canadian Literature: 5 Down, 5 Provinces to Go

  • July 28 2013

    $4 for those portions… in Europe?! Incredible.

  • July 28 2013

    So gooood! Just honest, homecooked food – what more do you need? 🙂 Happy to hear you enjoyed!
    Joy @MyTravelingJoys recently posted..Visiting the 4Levent Pazar in Istanbul: Photo Post

  • July 28 2013

    This post has made me incredibly hungry! Looks so tasty. 🙂

  • Is this the one in Warsaw? I loved eating there! ;P
    DJ Yabis | Dream Euro Trip recently posted..Adventure Underwear: The Best Travel Underwear for Fastidious Travelers?

  • Mariella (Bridgekeeping Traveller)
    July 29 2013

    Yum yum yum yum!! Nom nom nom! Yum! (I’ve lost all eloquence in the face of this. You guys make me miss Poland more with every post!)

  • ruthie
    July 30 2013

    Ooh this looks great, would love to try out one of these famous milk bars when I’m in Warsaw soon – is there any particular one that’s a favourite & what vegetarian options would you recommend?

  • Interesting and unexpected post with a historical twist! The milk bar comes to life when you consider their value post war and the fact that they are now slowly disappearing.
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..Top 5 Thailand National Parks

  • Food tourism is always a do 🙂

  • August 4 2013

    Sounds good! I’m not sure I could handle all the cabbage, but some of the other food looks delicious.
    Ali recently posted..300 Posts and Where Am I Going?

  • August 21 2013

    Now I am even more excited to be going to Poland soon– will likely have the majority of my meals in these places, since it’s always the last thing you order that ends up being the best!

  • February 17 2014

    Definitely going to be trying milk bars when I go to Poland next week. The blueberry crepes look yummy. Did you see many vegetarian options on the menus?

    • February 18 2014

      Yes, there were plenty! We went with our vegetarian friend who had no trouble at all finding things to eat. 🙂

      • February 18 2014

        That’s a relief, I’m so glad! 🙂 It makes travelling so much easier.

  • Mrs. Raczynska
    July 3 2014

    I actually went to this very place during my vacation. I met a Polish girl there and she said they had the best tomato soup ever, and she wasn’t lying! It was absolutely delicious. It was so cozy and perfect for a cold winter day, and I was amazed by the number of dishes available. One of the best meals of my life. 🙂

  • Ah, the bar mleczny! That phrase brings so many memories!

    One more thing that you didn’t mention that most of them have or at least used to have were the milkshakes. I spent a lot of my allowance as a teen on milkshakes at the “milk bars.”

    Great post! I’m pinning it to my “Poland” board.

  • July 19 2015

    Great story! Unfortunately I missed this while I was in Poland but I’m putting it on my list for the next time 🙂
    Zorica recently posted..Hiking Serbia’s Dry Mountain

  • November 10 2015

    Great post! I ended up following a Polish person I met in Belgrade back to Krakow and Warsaw and we stopped into a few of these during my week there – so glad we did. I still dream of the zurek soup we had. So cheap and so delicious – just like the pijalnia bars at night!

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