Often also called Dairy Bars, Polish Milk Bars are a real highlight for anyone wanting to sample some authentic Polish food at a very affordable price.
Almost every city in Poland will have at least one of these canteen-style eateries. They began as, and still remain, as much of a necessity as a luxury. During the 1960s, the communist authorities closed down almost all restaurants in Poland and a new system for eating out emerged. It was simply either eating at home or eating in a canteen, along with all the other workers at your place of work. The meals at these canteens were paid for from the particular employer’s salary but not all the factories in Poland were big enough to house such a canteen. Rather than have workers starve, Poland began to build smaller and very basic diners dotted near the factories and warehouses that were subsidized by the communist party and were very cheap as a result.
They were called Milk Bars because most of the food available was dairy orientated. They served the people of Poland brilliantly at the time, but were quite functional and never thought of as a novelty. Some might consider them little treasures now, even though thousands of people still rely on them.
When the communist party collapsed in the 1989, Poland saw a return to their dining experience in restaurants. This resulted in a lot of the Milk Bars falling into bankruptcy but some were kept open by the state to make sure certain members of the community were provided for.
Nowadays these quaint canteens fed the pensioners, the homeless, the students and the backpackers and are often rather colourful places for that reason. The food is very cheap and perfect if you are on a budget but don’t want to end up in McDonalds or a vending machine. For a three-course meal, with a pudding too, you won’t pay much more than about £2, which might explain why it’s so popular with the people listed above.
Don’t think you’ll be getting anything but the finest Polish cuisines either. It might be cheap and it might have a history of feeding the queues of factory workers just to keep them alive and well, but there’s no shortage of traditional and very edible Polish meals in a Milk Bar. Pierogi dumplings and cabbage are almost a definite to feature. The menu is bigger than it was during the mid-60s (although still not a drop of alcohol in sight just in case there are any workers dining there) and they have had to expand their range just slightly to cope with the competition from the other fast food outlets formerly out of range in Poland.
There is a worry that these national treasures might be in a decline but in many you will still find queues of people and there is a national subsidiary in place to help them survive. The Polish government pays for the raw ingredients in the Milk Bars such as the cooking oils and the vegetables. There are also tokens you get from the local authorities allowing you to cash in and get a free meal.
They might not be needed in the same way any more, but the output and the atmosphere of these Milk Bars hasn’t changed a bit over the years. If you’re in Warsaw and you fancy some authentic Polish food for next to nothing then head down to a Milk Bar and you’ll never forget the experience. Just remember to ask for the bill not the dill. They seem to put dill in absolutely everything and certainly not very sparingly either!
Photo of bar in Warsaw, Poland originally posted by magnusfranklin