The story behind milk bars
If you’ve done your homework before embarking on a trip here to Krakow, you may well have heard of curious things called milk bars. No, don’t worry, they aren’t some dairy lovers paradise only serving the white stuff, no, in fact they are very real living relics of Poland’s last hundreds years plus of history – workers cafes that used to be found all over the country and would serve hot food to the thousands of workers that relied on them.
Known locally as a “bar mleczny”
The name does come from the abundance of dairy on the menu, although meats and traditional soups were also on offer. Given their clientele, alcohol was strictly not to be found on the menu, and instead, workers would have to make do with the quite delicious compote – a stewed fruit punch drink.
The first milk bar is believed to have been established in 1896 in Warsaw by Stanisław Dłużewski, a member of Polish landed gentry. As the restaurant’s gained popularity and Poland regained her independence after WWI, milk bars started to pop up all over the country and their nutritious food was a particularly important lifeline for many during the 1930’s depression era.
As the Communist regime rolled into Poland, most expensive restaurants were considered capitalist and shut down by the government leaving milk bars as the main source of food for workers in companies that didn’t have canteens. During martial law in Poland, as meat became rationed, most milk bars were forced to serve only vegetarian meals. In these dark times, it wasn’t uncommon for cutlery to be chained to the tables to prevent theft.
Sadly, while the end of Communism brought a great boost to both Poland’s economy and its people’s quality of life, it was a death knell for milk bars. From a high of 40,000, just several hundred remain today as they fell out of favour in place of better restaurants that have been able to reopen now Poland is a free country.
However, since 2010, they’ve found somewhat of a renaissance, partly driven by increasing numbers of tourists and their desire to experience some aspect of socialist life, as well as the global economic downturn which affected just about every part of Europe – Poland included – and forced people to again seek out good cheap comfort food.
Visit today and you’ll find that while some places now take card payments and have electronic buzzers to tell you when your food is ready, the food is still good, cheap, hot and limited to whatever the chef fancies cooking that day. Soups, salads, mashes and meats, as well as the famous pierogies are all worth a try. The chances of anyone behind the counter speaking English is still quite slim, so just point at the menu board and nod excitedly if you get given some options.