A Lunch Invitation to a Polish Milk Bar

 

It took seventeen hours of grueling airflight and two frantic airport connections for me to travel from Kansas City to Warsaw last fall, but I knew it would be so incredibly worth it. Poland had been on my bucket list forever and pandemic be damned, I was not going to postpone this trip again. But now that I was finally here, I had a desire that must be satisfied before I could visit one cathedral or memorial – I needed lunch. A good lunch. A non-airline-food lunch. A hot, inexpensive, fast lunch. How surprised I was to find a meal that met all these criteria waiting for me in an establishment advertised by a cow with a clover in her mouth. This neon bovine is how you know you’re in a milk bar – a bar mleczny – and it was the perfect introduction to the delicious country of Poland.

Milk bars are one of the enduring remnants from the Communist era and although they are far fewer in number than during their heyday in the 1960s, the bars that survived continue to provide good/hot/inexpensive/fast meals – all subsidized by the Polish Government. And I was headed for one of the oldest and most popular in Warsaw: Bar Bambino.

Proudly anchoring the corner of Krucza and Hoza Streets, Bar Bambino serves a diverse clientele of colorful old timers, preoccupied professionals, boisterous school children, and curious newbies. (That would be me.) We were all welcome as long as we joined a line that stretched down the block. I learned that starting at 11:00, this was a daily occurrence. But the line moved quickly and before I knew it, I was inside the utilitarian dining room, staring at a wall menu in Polish.

Service at a milk bar is aimed at locals so I really didn’t expect to encounter English. Luckily, I had done my homework and knew what I wanted to order. (I had even practiced how to say it in Polish.) I walked up to the very serious man in the glass booth under the menu, and in that too-loud too-slow voice we all use when we are stumbling through a language we don’t know, announced:

“Pierogi ruskie, uh, zurek z kielbasa, i kompot … I think.” (Whew.)

I didn’t even get a nod of approval at this first window, just a cleared throat, a slip of paper with my order, and a point toward another window. And believe me (gulp), the second window was more intimidating than the first.

There she was. Grim and stern in her apron and headscarf and conjuring up every memory I had of demanding cafeteria ladies on the lunch line at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School. I slid her my order and watched my tray magically fill with food and drink in under a minute. She was a virtuoso. A true master. I managed a weak “dzieki” (thank you … I think), and then it happened. Behind the mask, a smile. She might have been grinning at my bad pronunciation, but I didn’t care. I smiled back, happily found an empty table, and prepared to finally eat.

And could there be anything better than a plate of fresh, hot, savory pierogi, expertly served up by my new friend, the cafeteria lady? Often referred to as the official dish of Poland, these little crescent dumplings can be filled with anything and everything from cheese to meat to fruit. I chose the most popular varietal in town: the pierogi ruskie, filled with quark (a soft, mildly sour cheese) and minced potatoes, topped with fried onions and butter. Particularly popular at Christmas and weddings, this former peasant food now finds itself at the center of most Polish spreads.

A large glass of kompot helped wash the pierogi down. This non-alcoholic beverage is a watery mixture of cooked fruit with cinnamon sometimes added for extra punch. The lack of any sweetener gave this brew a sour “tang” – like mixing a pitcher of original Kool-Aid without adding sugar.  Popular throughout Central Europe, kompot can be served hot or cold. (“Cold” is a relative term; mine was a pleasant tepid.) Although the majority of patrons at the Bar Bambino were joining me in a mug of the bright red beverage, kompot’s popularity has been declining in recent decades, supplanted by fruit juice and soft drinks. Pity. Kompot and pierogi are made for each other.

Was I full? Yes. Was I finished? No. I dug deep and found room for the other official dish of Poland, zurek. This complex soup is made of soured rye flour (a cousin of sourdough) and is traditionally eaten at Easter. But you’ll find it on most Warsaw menus, usually served with halved hard-boiled eggs or the white Polish sausage kielbasa. I had a choice at Bar Bambino; I chose the latter. And this dish was most definitely hot.

As I finished my soup, I realized the common gastronomic thread in my completely satisfying meal was an overriding element of sourness. (Is sourness even a word?) No matter, sour had never tasted this delicious. Mmmm.

At one time, milk bars were the forced staple in Poland, providing the cash-strapped citizenry their only opportunity to dine out. But after Communism fell in 1989, the big bad chain restaurants descended, and the thousands of milk bars shrank to a few hundred. They might have disappeared altogether but for the Polish government’s 2011 decision to withdraw their subsidies and (ka-boom) – revolution! Well, more of a Twitter protest, but it was effective. People missed the cheap comfort food and decided that milk bars were warmly nostalgic rather than grim reminders of occupation. And today, their popularity is again on the rise.

Eating at a milk bar is unique among dining experiences. On the one hand, it’s warm and homey. On the other hand, it’s cold and austere. The food is plentiful and yummy; the table is bare and utilitarian. My silverware didn’t even match. And I sure never felt I was being encouraged to hang out and savor the culinary moment. The not-so-subtle message is simple: Order. Eat. Leave. A piazza, this ain’t.

So why is it that Poland seems so determined to hang onto this vestige of a bygone, oppressive era? Maybe it has to do with tradition. With common experience. With community. After all, few places provide a tie that binds like the table, even one with mismatched silverware. And I have a feeling this pull toward finding a common identity amidst the old and the new has only been heightened by the often-isolating world we all find ourselves in today.

There was this shiny little aluminum sign I found on my milk bar table when I first sat down.

I had to look it up on my Google Translate app, but the meaning was straightforward: “Disinfected.” On the one hand, objectively utilitarian. On the other hand, profoundly humane.

And that’s the paradox of the Warsaw milk bar. That’s the beauty of Poland.

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  1. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    Wonderful! I went to Poland several years ago with my mom and sis and milk bars were high on our priority list too! We went to a “modern” one: sort of a hipster reinterpretation of a milk bar. The food was very Polish and fantastic. We also went to an old-school milk bar as you described (might’ve been the same one!) and loved it for all of the reasons you mentioned.

    Thank you for such a delightful post!

    • #1
  2. Chowderhead Coolidge
    Chowderhead
    @Podunk

    My wife’s Polish grandmother used to make Pierogis. For something so simple it is so delicious. Galumpkis (stuffed cabbage) was amazing too. Did you have any of those there? I got covid Monday and cant taste or smell anything. I’m forced reading about other people eating. I’m enjoying the food through you. Except for that sugarless Kool-Aid stuff.

    • #2
  3. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    Charlotte (View Comment):

    Wonderful! I went to Poland several years ago with my mom and sis and milk bars were high on our priority list too! We went to a “modern” one: sort of a hipster reinterpretation of a milk bar. The food was very Polish and fantastic. We also went to an old-school milk bar as you described (might’ve been the same one!) and loved it for all of the reasons you mentioned.

    Thank you for such a delightful post!

    I bet you did go to Bar Bambino. It has proudly resisted the remodeling trend and still dishes up their meals very old-school. (And you can’t beat being served by a grande dame cafeteria lady!) I ate every lunch at a milk bar and had a different pierogi at each one. Loved them all, loved Poland.

    • #3
  4. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    Chowderhead (View Comment):

    My wife’s Polish grandmother used to make Pierogis. For something so simple it is so delicious. Galumpkis (stuffed cabbage) was amazing too. Did you have any of those there? I got covid Monday and cant taste or smell anything. I’m forced reading about other people eating. I’m enjoying the food through you. Except for that sugarless Kool-Aid stuff.

    I did have some galumpkis! I also had their close cousins, stuffed cabbage rolls, in Budapest. I’m a big fan of cabbage so I feel right at home in Central Europe. My other favorite pierogi I had in Warsaw was a spinach pierogi. The leafy green veggie was used not only in the filling but also the dough. 

    Hope you get your taste buds back soon. I know what it feels like to lose your sense of taste. Everything tastes like sawdust and cardboard. Wishing you a speedy healing!

    • #4
  5. The Cynthonian Member
    The Cynthonian
    @TheCynthonian

    What a fun and interesting post!   Why are they called “milk bars”?

    • #5
  6. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    “…And we sat around the Korova Milk bar trying to make up our razoodocks what to do with the evening…”

    • #6
  7. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    The Cynthonian (View Comment):

    What a fun and interesting post! Why are they called “milk bars”?

    The name “milk bar” harkens back to their origin in urban dairies in the late 1800’s when the abundant supply of milk in Poland made it possible to help feed those on a very limited income. Those early milk bar meals consisted of milk, eggs, and flour-based foods. (No meat.) Eventually, the menu expanded to include more traditional Polish staples, but the low price-point remained.  Interestingly enough, I don’t remember even seeing “milk” on the menu when I was there!

    • #7
  8. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    “…And we sat around the Korova Milk bar trying to make up our razoodocks what to do with the evening…”

    Ha! (There were no female statues with their pairs of anatomical keg taps at the milk bar I visited.) Ironically, this is probably the most famous milk bar ever. And now, apparently, there are actual Korova Milk Bars in Melbourne, Milan, and New York City. (Probably many more.) Thanks for the clever Clockwork Orange nod, GmcV.

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    What a delightful adventure! I loved the food, the atmosphere and your descriptions of your experience! Thanks for sharing the milk bar with us. Loved it!

    • #9
  10. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    Hmm.  Just had a big breakfast. But now I want pierogis.  /:

    Great post!

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I didn’t know about milk bars when we visited Poland four years ago, so thanks for that information and the entertaining way you gave it to us.  Covid has kept us from going back, but I hope we spend time there again and explore some other parts of the country that we haven’t seen yet. My wife limits her intake of dairy products quite severely, but she likes pierogies and kielbasa. 

    Except for a couple of days spent in Warsaw, we were in smaller cities and villages where some of my family had come from.  That meant we sometimes ate at roadside restaurants or in smaller towns where the chances of communicating in English were not so good.  We didn’t go hungry, though.

    In Złotów, near a great-grandmother’s village, we got lunch in a hole-in-the-wall pierogi restaurant.  It was a hot day and sweaty inside where three women on the other side of the counter were rolling out the dough and putting food together.  I ordered pierogi with meat, and one of the older women brought over a bowl of the ground meat to make sure that’s what we had in mind.  When asked how many, I said “dwa,” meaning two orders. But this woman told us, “minimum pięć” (minimum of five) so I just guessed and told her “osiem” (eight).  She wrote it down and said something else in a smiling tone of voice. I just nodded, not sure what I had agreed to. It didn’t get us in any trouble.  It turned out that eight pierogis between the two of us made just the right-sized meal.  There were a few tables inside and we ate there, even though it was pretty warm. 

    Another day we came across this roadside restaurant a couple miles from my grandmother’s old village on the Vistula River. It looked almost like a scene from northern Minnesota – gravel parking lot, a tarpaper shack of a bar with wood smoke coming out of a chimney, and cord after cord of firewood stacked out back. My wife was hesitant, but we went in. There were no other customers, and the hostess/cook was sitting at a table watching an American TV detective show dubbed in Polish.  We figured out what to eat by pointing to things on the menu signboard, and ended up with very good meat-centric meals.  After we were finished the woman tried to make some conversation and asked us where we were from.  I completely botched my attempt at a reply in Polish, but my wife assured her we were from America.

    At an outdoor restaurant in the old market square of Płock, it was interesting to watch the table next to us where there seemed to be a family gathering. After they had eaten, the waitress cleared the table and brought out ashtrays. The  customers were apparently settling in for an evening of smoking, drinking, conversation, and maybe some music. Being Americans, we were ready to leave when we finished with our food. The servers didn’t speak any English at that restaurant, so when we got the check, I tried to tell the waitress in Polish (above all the noise) how much I wanted to pay including a tip.  I was very pleased with myself when she brought back the desired amount of change.

    Anyhow, that was the level at which we communicated about food for several days, and were well fed the entire time. Later, when we were in Warsaw, it was easier, but we were mostly in the part of the city that tourists visit, so there was no language barrier most of the time.

    However, now that I know about them, I also want to try a milk bar.

    We stayed in small cities where I could make reservations on booking.com at places where somebody who spoke English could check us in.  Another time I might be interested in staying at some of those roadside inn/restaurants that do a lot of business for local weddings and confirmations.   I expect we could manage. 

     

    • #11
  12. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    This post is part of our Group Writing Series under the August 2022 Group Writing Theme: “Short and Sweet or Sour, Maybe Spicy.” We still have a couple open days. Stop by to sign up and share your own short observations. Also, the September theme is up: “Constitutional.”

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #12
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