Remnants of the communist era, today’s Polish milk bars serve all levels of society, from the poorest to the wealthiest members of the population. They have also become extremely trendy.
A large board near the entrance displays the dishes of the day and their very modest prices. ©Diana Danko/Mangophotography
Tiny plastic flowers brighten up a dozen square tables. The chairs, if not comfortable, are at least functional. A large board near the entrance displays the menu of the day. We can glimpse the kitchen through an opening in the wall behind the counter. The kitchen staff have been busy since early morning, preparing zupy (soups of the day), kasza gryczana (buckwheat porridge) and bigos (a stew made with sauerkraut, meat and sausages), while also keeping an eye on the scrambled eggs for the first customers. The waitress’s voice echoes around the room: “Jajecznica!” (Who ordered scrambled eggs?)
We are in a bar mleczny, literally a ‘milk bar’. This Polish specificity combines traditional food with fast service. Whether families, hard-up students or the well-off, everyone comes here to eat at unbeatable prices. A coffee costs 2.10 złotys1, the carrot salad 1.90 złotys and a plate of pierogi ruskie (a type of ravioli stuffed with potato and quark) is 6.25 złotys. Everything is handmade, using fresh ingredients and based on traditional recipes. For around 8 złotys, you can get a full meal (starter and main course), which would cost three times as much in a restaurant.
These restaurants-cum-canteens are subsidised by the government, enabling them to serve a wide range of filling dishes at ridiculously low prices. They are a real necessity for a whole section of the population living in poverty in the main towns and cities. Elderly people with their meagre pensions, the unemployed and even the homeless go there in search of a hot meal.
The twists and turns of the milk bars
“It’s good that these bars still exist,” declares Marzenna2, a cashier at the Żaczek milk bar in Krakow. In fact, they came close to disappearing forever. In collective memory, the bary mleczne form part of the landscape of communist Poland. Everyone ate there as there were no other options. Then, with the fall of the regime, a western wind brought the aroma of kebabs, chips and hamburgers to the Polish streets. As consumers, hungry for novelty, quickly embraced this new type of food, the numbers of people dining in milk bars plummeted.
Bar managers had to take their courage in their hands and deal with the situation. The authorities did not make life easy for them: On several occasions, the government announced plans to cut all subsidies, before changing its mind at the last minute. These death sentences caused public outrage, expressed through petitions and demonstrations. In 2015 new regulations baffled the chefs of milk bars: From then on they were forbidden from using spices in their meals. Only water and salt were allowed. The milk bar managers, supported by their customers, finally won their battle and were able to continue using marjoram in soup, and cinnamon in desserts.
Today, frequenting milk bars has become extremely trendy. With their ‘homemade’ dishes and their ‘come in, eat and leave’ approach, they attract well-off people who want to eat quickly in a relaxed atmosphere, those nostalgic for traditional Polish cuisine and those in search of what they consider to be a healthier alternative to fast food. University students, born after the fall of the wall, are thirsty for knowledge and these places are perfect for learning what life was like during the communist era. Tradition dictates that you have to sit down next to a stranger; consequently, like egalitarian islands, milk bars are the only place where a student eats shoulder to shoulder with a frail pensioner, or a businessman shares his table with a homeless person.