Barcelona in the center of Krakow? Indeed, for this was one of the most popular milk bars in the city! Located in the vicinity of the Academy for the Dramatic Arts and the Jagiellonian University, the bar was attracting guests in swarms – not only students but also esteemed professors. When it came to pierogi and sour milk, everyone was equal. Where did milk bars come from? The very thought of them makes some people’s mouths water. Let’s have a look at the history of these establishments and see how they are doing in our times.
Text and photos: Kasia Pilitowska
Milk bars started becoming popular as early as in the interwar period. The name has its roots in the fact that the menu consisted of dishes made mainly of milk, other dairy products and vegetables, rarely of meat. The most common were dishes based on eggs, various grains, flour and potatoes. The first milk bar in Poland – “Mleczarnia Nadświdrzańska” – was opened in 1896 in Warsaw by Stanisław Dłużewski, a cow farmer. Initially, milk bars were established as grocery stores and had numbers instead of names until the second half of the 1950s. In their prime there were almost 40 thousand milk bars operating in the country.
After World War II, cheap meals were highly valued. Hence in Polish People’s Republic every city and town had at least one milk bar. The design was very similar in each one of them – tiles on the floor, a board with changeable (only capital!) letters on the main wall, wood and metal chairs, laminate tables, faience pottery with typical thick ceramic mugs without handles, and aluminum cutlery. The wall menu presented guests not only with the names of dishes, but also their weight and price.
Władysław Gomułka, the first secretary of the United Workers’ Party, encouraged citizens to dine at milk bars. This way, people living in the socialist era could integrate regardless of their social status – among those who visited milk bars were students, artists, professors and office workers. “Barcelona” was no exception. The famous bar was built in the middle of the 19th century at the junction of two streets: Piłsudskiego (former Wolska) and Straszewskiego. (In the past, the bar used to be owned by Celon Lustgarten, the father of a famous Cracovia footballer, hence it was often referred to as “bar Celona” [Celon’s bar]). The strategic location of the place turned it into a truly unique spot. Unfortunately, this most popular and colorful bar was pulled down to provide space for the erection of a building with luxury apartments. This is what Robert Makłowicz, a gourmet and a food reviewer, has to say about what he used to eat at “Barcelona”: “Peppery and tasty meat-stuffed cabbages served with delicious spinach with garlic. Spinach wasn’t reduced to a pulp, it tasted as if it hadn’t been frozen but freshly chopped. That’s the kind of spinach I would like to be served even in the most refined restaurants. I also tried some mediocre-tasting pierogi – the dough was soft enough and there was a good deal of a not really seasoned stuffing. A meatloaf is a dish that’s always boring, sometimes even poisonous. The one I got at “Barcelona” surprised me for the good because even though it tasted like cardboard (every meatloaf does), it was clearly fresh, perfectly fried and crispy”.
“Kazimierz” is one of the milk bars that belong to the Krakow Gastronomic Association. The floor is a characteristically Cracovian mosaic made of black, brown and white tiles. There is a tile stove in one corner. Serving decorative rather than practical purposes, it can be seen in almost every milk bar. The walls are festooned with artificial flowers and old photographs of the Kazimierz district. Characteristic of the place are rustic chairs and tables designed in the Polish highlander fashion. Tables are covered with a white and red checkered plastic tablecloth also typical of milk bars. I order pierogi with blueberries. The dough is delicate and there’s plenty of stuffing. They are served with fat cream with a little bit of caster sugar and simply melt in the mouth. The price – 5.60*. For a drink I have a glass of multi-fruit kompot [a sweet beverage obtained by cooking food] for 1.50. It’s overwhelmingly cheap in here, you can have a soup for less than two zlotys. They also have metal cutlery – something you rarely see in milk bars! Regular customers, whenever they come, are always welcomed by Ms. Danusia who already knows their names and asks: "The same as always?"
It is said that “Górnik” serves the tastiest meatloaf in Krakow. Being the tiniest milk bar in the city, it has only four tables and a tiny food display counter. Also, Ms. Dorota is always there with a cheerful smile on her face. There is a not-so-popular-anymore Terrazzo floor and walls painted with beige oil paint. When it comes to the menu, it includes several kinds of pierogi (the price of 10 pierogi with strawberries is 5.60), baked beans, meat-stuffed cabbages with sauce, chicken steak, scrag-end with sauce, chicken stew, and, of course, mixed vegetables! Nevertheless, it’s mostly about dishes based on meat. What astounds me and immediately grabs my attention is a tomato, dill and onion salad – unusual for this time of the year – and a truly “European” breakfast set. I order a tomato soup with rice and, obviously, a glass of cherry kompot. There is so much soup it almost spills out of a bowl – I bet the women who work here are aware of students’ thin wallets. The creamy taste of the soup and a slightly over-cooked rice remind me of dinners I used to eat in kindergarten. A couple sitting next to me shares pierogi. When I approach them, they chorus it’s their favorite local dish. For the dessert they have custard with raspberry juice. I have the feeling everyone here misses kindergarten days.
Once again, the floor is decorated with a mosaic. The folksy siding covers the walls. A large menu is stupefying at first, but then, it causes guests a dilemma. What should I eat if I want to eat everything but I have only one stomach? Tempting are potato and cheese chops, Silesian dumplings with stew, coated salami cheese chops, seven kinds of pierogi and five kinds of pancakes, brizol with bolete mushrooms and cream, and an omelet with jam. My heart melts on seeing a chocolate custard and a currant jelly. I decide to take the so-called “kluski leniwe” [literally “lazy dumplings” in Polish – dumplings made from potatoes, flour, eggs and cottage cheese] with sugar and buttered breadcrumbs as well as a glass of strawberry kompot. Dumplings are just heavenly delicate, I love how they are dipped in a buttery yet sweet sauce. I ask a man sitting next to me about the taste of a mushroom soup he’s just having. He murmurs: “These are real mushrooms – not champignons – real mushrooms!” His companion collects a meal consisting of a golden-fried meatloaf with mashed potatoes and red cabbage and apple salad. For a two-course meal with kompot he pays 11.70. The cheapest is the tomato soup – a bowl for only 1.75. And I just have to add that characteristic of this place are doves strolling on the floor. Sometimes, a woman gets from the other side of the counter and tries to get rid of them with a cloth. Needless to say, they come back.
The bar is located on the ground floor of a recently renovated tenement house dating back to 1921. Its characteristic entrance, bordered with two pillars, is visible from every point at the junction of Dietli and Starowiślana streets. Again, there is a tile stove, a mosaic on the floor, a white and red plastic tablecloth and a food display counter with various salads inside. A tiny sheet of paper attached to the counter encourages guests to try the flagship dishes such as “kotlet firmowy” (a coated chicken chop with braised champignons, cheese and ketchup). My meat-eating companion chooses the classics: a pork chop, French fries and a set of salads, while I gorge on an apple cake for less than 3 zlotys. A pork chop is really huge, not very thick and well-fried, French fries a little bit pale but hot. I slobber over a set of salads: carrot, apple and sugar salad, celery and cream salad and, of course, red cabbage with apple and onion. I feel touched.
This milk bar is located in a building adapted from the former Świt movie theater right in between the building of ZUS [Social Insurance Institution] and the “Jubilatka” restaurant. It seems as if the place simply wanted to disappear, but that’s not what happens! The place is always packed with people – locals, bank workers, journalists. It’s one of these unique places where you still can see an old changeable letter board which, due to the lack of space, includes a lunch/dinner menu only. A breakfast menu – typed on an old typewriter and framed in wood – stands on the counter. The board puts guests in a good mood because – for years now – it has been displaying absolutely amusing dish names. Lack of space on the board resulted in the shortening of certain words – whoever looks at it, immediately stops being sad. I keep wondering, where did these prices come from? Once again, I am astounded: Polish żurek with potatoes for 2.55, pierogi ruskie for 3.44, barley gruel based on chicken – 2.04, and baked beans for 4.82. There is a grey Terrazzo floor and original chairs from the 1960s, painted in black. We order scrambled eggs on butter for the two of us, two rolls with butter and cocoa. Clients keep coming in. Ms. Marysia excuses herself and goes on to prepare our eggs. After a while, the perfect breakfast is ready. Devouring crispy rolls and drinking strong cocoa (with milk skin), we plunge into a sweet, milk non-existence.
The bar with a traditional interior – as usual – there is a mosaic, a tile stove and a plastic tablecloth. The “highlife” aspect of the place lies in its devotion to promote vegetables in colorful sets of salads. Still, relics of the past are in plenty, be it faience pottery with a blue “Społem” inscription or hefty mugs without handles characteristic of milk bars. To my surprise, there are milk soups on the menu! Served with pasta (3.40) or rice (3.00), soups are accompanied by ersatz coffee with milk (1.60), nine kinds of pierogi (only three available though) and a pork chop (8.40). I make up my mind and go with pierogi ruskie. Next to me, two women sit in front of their already empty plates. They’ve just been eating lazanki [a type of Polish pasta dish] and I still can hear them whisper how delicious the dish was. Even though my pierogi have hard dough, the stuffing is seasoned perfectly.
It’s always warm and humid in here. No wonder that the place has been attracting local homeless people. But that’s the way it is – after all – Polish milk bars are cosmopolitan. One look at the interior makes me gasp in awe: here she is, a black board with changeable white letters. Time stands still in here. Perhaps not quite, for we will see faux leather seats, laminate tables and orange plastic chairs. Since the 1970s, “Południowy” has been run by two sisters: Anna and Jadwiga Moskała. Recipes haven’t change a bit for years – all the culinary trends have gone around the place. I order ersatz coffee and tiny croquettes with egg paste. They’re delicious! Crispy, filled with a tiny bit onion, spicy substance. My companion’s pancakes with cottage cheese are also to die for! Browned and lightly caramelized on the edges, they have delicate dough and white, soft filling that smells of vanilla.
Some call it “legendary” – as legendary as pierogi ruskie it serves. Robert Makłowicz himself talked about them in his culinary TV show. By the way, do you know how many pierogi are made in “Centralny” every day? Three thousand! And how many receipts is there in the best milk bars at the end of the day? Five hundred, with most of them for more than one dish. The place hides itself in twilights. A beautiful, huge, metal windows remain in the shadow of modest curtains and flowerpots. While entering the bar I don’t expect to face any design. I couldn’t be more wrong! In fact, the entire interior design has been retained since the 1950s. Breathtakingly beautiful big and small tables seem to have been made by Zofia Stryjeńska herself. Three enormous metal chandeliers with round white lamp shades hang six meters above my head. The place is running smoothly – one counter serves for making and collecting orders, the other is for making payments. I order a mug of cocoa (1.26), a sandwich with egg paste (1.29), half a portion of “kluski leniwe” (2.39) and a little bit of caster sugar (0.08). Cocoa has a very sweet and intensive taste. A woman next to me ordered a beetroot soup with eggs. I can see her nod her head approvingly.
Milk bars are not relics of the past. They teem with life, bring social groups together and connect people across differences. Milk bars have been and will be the bastions of the traditional Polish cuisine. Perfect, if you want to taste local colors and take them home with you!
*Prices are given in zlotys