A lot has changed over the years since communism got kneecapped and Poland joined the EU. Today a destination as popular as Kraków hardly seems any more alien or adventurous to tourists than well-frequented Paris or Venice. And while many of the old ways of the old days have disappeared or become slightly disneyfied, one relic remains resolutely un-Western: the Polish milk bar (‘bar mleczny’ in Polish). These steamy cafeterias serving traditional cuisine to an endless queue of tramps, pensioners and students provide a grim glimpse into Eastern Bloc Poland and have all the atmosphere (and sanitary standards) of a gas station restroom. We love them. For the cost of a few coins you can eat like an orphaned street urchin, albeit an extremely well-fed one. Put Wawel on hold, a visit to the milk bar is a required cultural experience for anyone who has just set foot in the country.
As in so many things, Kraków has the distinction of being the birthplace of the bar mleczny. Poland’s first milk bar was actually opened on Kraków’s market square on May 30th, 1948. Originally no hot dishes were served; this was a place where you went simply to enjoy milk (hence the name), humbly served in .25 litre glass with a straw (so classy). Run by the government, this was the Party’s ‘clever’ attempt at popularising milk-drinking (as opposed to moonshine), inspired by Poland’s large surplus of dairy products. As restaurants were nationalised by PL’s communist authorities, more and more milk bars appeared in their place, with the Party concept being to provide cheap, dairy-based meals to the masses (as cheerlessly as possible, apparently); in fact meals at the local milk bar were often included in a worker’s salary. In addition to milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese and other dairy concoctions, milk bars offered omelettes and egg cutlets, as well as flour-based foods like pierogi. Times were so desperate under communism that many milk bars chained the cutlery to the table to deter rampant thievery; by this same reasoning you’ll notice that most milk bars today use disposable dishes and the salt and pepper are dispensed from plastic cups with a spoon. Similarly, the orders are still taken by blue-haired, blue-veined, all-business babcias (Polish grannies), and the food is as inspired as ever - the only difference being that meat is no longer rationed in modern PL. Indeed, today’s milk bars evoke a timelessness to be savoured just as the milk soup served to schoolchildren in PL in the 1980s was. With the collapse of communism most bar mleczny went bankrupt, however, some of these feed museums were saved and continue to be kept open through state subsidies. The range of available dishes begins to fall off as closing time approaches, so go early, go often. Below are our favourites in the city centre: