Tekst opublikowany w Warsaw Insider #2 (78), 2003

A closer look at the Milk Bars of the Capital City.

'Milk Bars', for those who don't know, are a kind of canteen that sells basic, hearty Polish food at unbelievably low prices. They emerged in the '40s, and had their glory days in the '70s, when there were 48 in Warsaw alone. Less than 20 survived the fall of the iron curtain. The name 'Milk Bar' derives from the fact that they traditionally served only vegetarian dishes, many of them made from dairy products, such as milk soups, cheese sandwiches, and pancakes stuffed with cottage cheese. Now you can find meet on the menu at most Milk Bars – but it's usually best avoided!

In the post-Communist reality, Milk Bars have managed to keep their prices extremely low with the help of state subsidies. They are still one of the few places where poor people can have a decent, warm meal; but they also attract customers from across the social spectrum. These low-budget, communist-era canteens have become something of a cult icon. They have their own iconography, too: a huge menu board hanging on the wall near a cash desk; aluminum cutlery; big faience cups; oilcloth on the tables; and waitresses with small plastic flowers in their hair. Customers pay at the cash desk, and then queue up to collect their food at another counter. A waitress takes your receipt, and slaps a plate full of food down in front of you. If it’s not ready, you have to stand aside and wait until your order is called out. Since the entire transaction is conducted in fast, loud Polish, it can be a bit intimidating to the uninitiated. In the film 'Miś' (1980), one of the best all-time Polish comedies, the dejected customers of the Apis Milk Bar ate from aluminum bowls screwed to the tables, with spoons on chains, and were humiliated by harridan waitresses. The Insider visited a few of Warsaw's Milk Bars to see whether they fit with this image.

ul. Krakowskie Przedmieście 20/22
Located near Warsaw University gate, this a favorite student haunt. We arrived at 10:00 for a genuine Milk Bar breakfast: cheese sandwich, scrambled eggs, and hot chocolate, all for zł.3.37. Mr. Adam, the manager, smiles and asks: “Have you seen our crystal salt-cellars?” He points to the jam jars filled with salt on the tables. “We tried everything to keep ordinary salt-cellars. We even tried gluing them to the tables. It was pointless: after a while they were all gone.” This is a man who truly loves his work “This place is my second home," he says. "The atmosphere is great. I know all the regulars. I can tell you who will show up at what time. We chat, laugh together: customers come to me with their problems. We are like a big family here. From time to time someone comes to me and says: ‘Mr. Adam, do you mind if I buy a cup of tea and bring a roll from the shop?’ I don’t have a problem with it. I know that rolls from the shop cost zł.0.20 and we sell them for zł.0.55. You’ve got to understand people.” At the counter a tramp yells at the waitress “I paid for buckwheat groats with pork fat! Where is the fat?” “How much would you want? A kilo?” she shouts back. The man proffers his plate, asking plaintively: “Can you see any fat here? That woman is cheating me.” An elegantly dressed young woman in the corner answers her mobile phone: “I can’t talk right now. I’m in a restaurant.” Everybody laughs. 

ul. Krucza 21
Steamed-up windows shut out the sight of the busy street. A big menu board hangs on the wall behind the cash desk. Each table is decorated with a cup filled with concrete with a plastic flower stuck into it - a masterpiece of Milk Bar interior design. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon, and the place is crowded: we have to queue to collect our buckwheat groats with mushrooms and carrot salad. People share tables with strangers. A middle aged man sits at our table, wishing us a nice meal. He is not a regular customer, he tells us, but he simply can’t resist the Ukrainian barszcz they serve here. The other soups are apparently good, too: a fat guy sits down at our table with a bowl of tomato soup with rice and bowl of żurek, eating silently and steadily and leaving again without a word.  

ul. Nowy Świat 5
This is a 'high-class' Milk Bar: apparently, ex-Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki was once a regular. It’s a spacious place, with a minimalist white decor and marble tabletops. The dining room and the kitchen are spotlessly clean (we looked). We strike up a conversation Łukasz, an architecture student. He visits different Milk Bars regularly three times a week, spending less than zł.5 for a decent vegetarian lunch. His favorite spot is Sady (ul. Krasinskiego 36). “In the summer they open a courtyard." he says enthusiastically. "It’s brilliant out there. Sparrows land on your plate.” A middle-aged chemistry professor at our table says that he comes here when he gets a craving for pancakes with cottage cheese. Our pancakes with cottage cheese are very good.

ul. Nowy Świat 39
We decide to visit Familijny for a typical Milk Bar desert: pudding and compote. Our cup with compote is so sticky that it glues to our hands, while the pudding, smothered in pouring cream keeps slipping of the plate. On the upside, we get to have a nice conversation with an elderly gentleman who is there for his dinner. We discuss climate change, the Middle East crises and Milk Bars. “My favorite is Bambino,” he tells us. “I go there for good company and a chat.”

ul. Elektoralna 23
Mirów, a true pearl of Milk Bar architecture, is located in a small, round, glass building. It’s 17:00 when we open the door. In a long dark hallway we meet an old beggar. The bar is nearly empty, and there’s not much food left either, so we decide to try again the next day. On our way out, we give the beggar some money and tell him to get something to eat fast, as the food is running out. He grimaces in disgust, saying: “Oh! I never eat here!” We take his recommendation and decide not to come back, after all.

Złota Kurka
ul. Marszałkowska 55
This Milk Bar, separated from the neighboring shop by a big glass wall, has the feel of a hospital canteen. At the table next to ours, two teenagers giggle and kiss. When the woman at the counter roars from the depths of her lungs: “Ruskie!” they laugh their guts out. We eat our potato pancakes (zł.2) and check out the clientele. Old gentlemen carefully dressed in mismatching '70s suits, white shirts and groovy ties – talk loudly about politics. Elderly ladies in fur hats hold their plastic cutlery with old-school grace. A bum who looks like the main character from Trzaskalski’s film Edi gives us a long stare. Have we been unmasked?

ul. Marszałkowska 10/16
Signs hanging on the dark green walls admonish us to "Have a nice meal” and to look after our belongings. We order tomato soup with noodles, and potatoes with spinach. A woman is cleaning the floor, dressed in a white coat, black fishnet stockings, white socks and pink slippers. It’s Saturday afternoon, and the place is nearly deserted. The food tastes like dishwater. A tramp asks the women at the counter to pour some tea into a big jar he’s brought with him. We can’t finish the food, as it’s really awful. Feeling queasy, we head outside and find the old guy leaning against the wall, drinking his tea. We can’t resist asking him why he didn’t stay inside, as it’s 15 degrees below zero. He explains that “the ladies” are about to close and are cleaning up the place, and he doesn’t want to cause them any trouble. As we leave he wishes us a happy New Year, and waves. This is definitely a Milk Bar to put on your 'never visit' list. 

Joanna Sanecka