Of Milk and Money
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.
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.
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.
Placki ziemniaczane – potato pancakes served with mushroom sauce, one of many available varieties.
Kotlet schabowy – A pork cutlet with potatoes and cabbage with dill.
Ozor na szaro – Beef tongue in horseradish sauce, served with carrot salad and potatoes.
Naleśniki – Thin crepes filled with soft cheese, topped with blueberries, cream, and a sprinkle of sugar. (This might be my favourite.)
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.
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
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!