The milk bar or “bar mleczny” is a culinary holdover from communist times. These no-frills establishments feature homemade Polish meals at little cost. In the Communist Era, the milk bars were subsidized so that all Polish workers could afford a meal. Then and now, the restaurants serve mostly dairy and flour-based vegetarian dishes. If you don’t eat meat and are traveling in Poland, a milk bar is a great place for you to eat, however, navigating one can be a little tricky.
Milk bars are usually run by lunch ladies in aprons that look like stern Polish grandmothers and don’t speak a lick of English. This makes for an interesting experience ordering at a milk bar if you know little to no Polish. It’s a good idea to learn the names of a few basic Polish dishes before you go to a milk bar. That way, you can recognize the item on the menu and point and say “Proszę” (pronounced Prosh-eh), and the name of the item (if you can muster that or just point if you can’t).
Because the government subsidizes milk bars and many of the ingredients they use, you can still to this day get soup, an entree and a drink for about $4 USD, making milk bars a favorite among seniors, university students and the working class.
Milk bars have reached a mythical status in Polish pop culture. Films have depicted communist era milk bars as having dishes and silverware bolted to the table. While this may have been true (although I highly doubt it) milk bars now use cheap generic plates, which customers clean off the tables themselves. Despite the shabby presentation, the taste of the potato pancakes with mushroom sauce, strawberry Polish style crepes or tomato soup far outweighs the picnic style tableware.
Milk bars are not the place to come and linger after a meal. Most patrons eat quickly and quietly with their heads down, absorbed in their meal. Conversation is verboten.
If you ever get a chance to go to Poland, especially Warsaw or Kraków, make sure to look for a milk bar. It might seem intimidating to order somewhere where no English is spoken, but the reward of delicious, cheap Polish food is worth the hassle.