My colleagues in Warsaw thought I was crazy to lunch at a ‘milk bar’ one weekend. Why would I want to eat at such a low brow establishment when the city has a generous selection of international cuisine, fine dining restaurants and funky coffee houses and bistros?
Aside from the fact that the bill at a milk bar can be less than five dollars if you desire, a bar mleczny (‘milk bar’ in Polish) is also a peephole into Poland’s past.
Milk bars were first established in 1896 and as the name suggests, they offered mainly dairy based and vegetarian meals. They were especially successful during the war when times were lean for many citizens and meat was rationed.
In the post-war years, milk bars offered cheap meals to people working in companies that did not have onsite kitchen facilities. Even today, you will find men in suits frequenting milk bars across the city during their lunch breaks.
At the bar mleczny pod barbakanem (or ‘milk bar under the barbican’) the no-frills décor did have a fair amount of old world charm, as did the lady at the order desk who told off any tourist crazy enough to take a photo of the dining hall on her watch.
She rolled her eyes in exasperation when I pronounced something incorrectly from the polish-only menu that hung on the wall behind her. In the end I felt obliged to say “tak” (Polish for ‘yes’) to whatever she decided my husband and I should eat that afternoon.
She yelled my order of meat perogies (apparently periogi ruski, cheese and potato dumplings, were not an option that afternoon), borscht (warm beetroot soup) and potato pancakes to the kitchen ladies at the back. I suspected that her bark was probably worse than her bite but didn’t want to tempt fate by asking her to pose for a photograph with me for the blog.
In the short time we were there, the old kitchen ladies produced an amazing quantity of soups, fried pork chops, pierogis and pancakes in a small working area.
When I went to get my order from the counter, I spent a few minutes trying to converse with them in my barely existent Polish. It was clear that the kitchen standards would have probably not met the health and safety requirements in some parts of the world, but the food that was turned out was positively delicious!
When we finished lunch and passed our tray of used plates and cutlery through the window at the end of the dining hall, I didn’t envy whoever was on washing-up duty that day.
If you’re looking for the “Milk Bar Under the Barbican” in Warsaw, that’s exactly where you will find it!
From the old market square, walk towards the barbican in the direction of ul. Freta. Once you’ve crossed the cobble stone bridge, you will find the milk bar on your right at the point where ul. Nowomiejska meets ul. Mostowa. They close early in the evening so make sure you get there in good time.
If you’ve been to this milk bar in particular, or to another one somewhere else in Poland, I’d love to hear about your experience!