When in Warsaw, don’t miss out on a taste of Polish history at the local milk bars. These eateries, once subsidised by Poland’s socialist government were known as bar mleczny, or “milk bars” because of the dairy-based bill of fare such as cheese dumplings and yoghurt, although many other items including meat and vegetables are available at milk bars.
The milk bars were a way for workers busy building a new, industrialised Poland to get a cheap and healthy meal. Although the Communist regime collapsed and the milk bars are now private businesses, they are an important part of Polish culture. A source of nostalgia for some older citizens and a necessary service for lower income Poles, everyone loves these cheap cafeterias.
Milk Bars are famous for their pierogi, Poland’s national dish. These dumplings are made with fillings of cheese, meat (usually pork) or potatoes. The menus usually include wholesome Polish soups, salads and meat dishes.
Here are some of the few remaining milk bars that I found in Central Warsaw. Aside from being something of an institution in Poland, the milk bars are a great place to eat:
Familijny Bar Mleczny
A popular milk bar with spartan interior with wood panelled walls, plastic flowers atop laminated tables. Nothing fancy, almost no service but rather wholesome, local food such as sour rye soup; meatballs and potatoes with dill; red cabbage salad and, of course, pierogi dumplings. Dessert is a fruity stew/jam containing berries served with white rice (tastes better than it sounds)
There are rumours of an English menu at Familijny but it was nowhere to be seen, so I took a guess and ended up with a tomato rice soup, schnitzel, potatoes, salad and dumplings. Probably a meal for two.The bill for an enormous meal for two people served with homemade fruit punch comes to about $5.70. This place is particularly busy on weekends and you’ll be expected to eat and run to make way for the crowds. Stack your plates near the cashier as you leave. 39 Nowy Swiat. Open till 8pm on weekdays, 5pm on weekends.
Bar Mleczny Bambino
An extremely popular bar mleczny beloved of Poles and tourists alike, there is often a queue. Bambino is famous, and for good reason. Bambino is beautifully decorated (for a milk bar) and serves up something a little different than the others.
Serving the usual milk bar fare with some more exotic dishes such as grilled fish, chicken dishes and salads. I saw someone eat tripe, each to their own I suppose.The Kompot juice here is out of this world, as are the fresh and delicious dumplings.
Being so trendy and cool, Bambino is a tad more expensive than the other milk bars. It’s still screamingly cheap. An English menu is available at the cash register – I had no idea how to ask for an English menu but I still got by. Ul. Krucza 21 (or Hoża 19 – but entrance is on Krucza) Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, 8am till 8pm.
Lacking the traditional austere decor, this chain of outlets appears to be reviving the milk bar culture – an alternative to fast food for Warsaw. Seats are comfortable and food is authentic at Mleczarnia Jerozolimska. The menu is in both English and Polish, most convenient for foreigners. I love the Polish checkered table cloths, and the homey ambience.
The menu is heavy on healthy food such as salads, yoghurt, cheese, vegetarian dishes and, of course pierogi – both sweet and savoury varieties. Mleczarnia Jerozolimska serves exquisite Polish soups Chicken pancakes and cheese dumplings are house specialties. 32 Aleje Jerozolimskie. Open 7 days a week till 8pm.
Particular etiquette guidelines are involved in dining at a bar mleczny: the bars are small and busy, sometimes you’ll have to share a counter or tables. Pay at the cashier, pick up your meal at the counter and eat it. Then leave – the milk bar is no place to loll around, that’s what coffee shops and bars are for. There will be other people waiting for their dumplings who need your seat. Bring the family, everyone is welcome. Milk bars are fortunately non-smoking these days.
It’s a good idea to come prepared with some Polish phrases or a list of menu vocabulary as Polish is the most difficult language in the whole world. Of this I am certain.To make things easier for you, some popular dishes include:
▪ Pierogi ruskie: traditional dumplings with a cheese and potato filling
▪ Pierogi z mięsem: dumplings with meat filling (usually pork)
▪ Pierogi z jagodami: dumplings filled with blueberries
▪ Pierogi z truskawkami: dumplings filled with strawberries
▪ Surówka: a salad with pickled vegetables
▪ Kotlet schabowy: Polish pork schnitzel
▪ Barszcz czerwone z uszkami: beetroot soup with veggie dumplings
▪ Żurek z jajkiem i kielbasą: Polish sour rye soup, a classic!
▪ Bigos: stewed vegetables and meat (no other way to describe it, sounds grim but it’s popular)
▪ Kapusta: sauerkraut
▪ Chleb: Polish bread (which is amazing)
▪ Kompot: homemade juice (often berry-based with bits of real fruit)
▪ Kawa: coffee
▪ Kefir: yoghurt drink
▪ Herbata: tea
Oh, and proszę means “please”, a very important word to know amongst Poles, they have lovely manners. And przepraszam – that means “excuse me” in Polish – try saying that! It’s a real word, I’m not kidding.
So now you’re ready to go to Poland. Eat the beautiful food. Fall in love with this beautiful land of fairytales, castles and dumplings.