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Milk Bars - Bar Mleczny

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Pod Barbakanem (Under the Barbican) Milk Bar Sign in Warsaw.

Pod Barbakanem (Under the Barbican) Milk Bar Sign in Warsaw.

© 2010 Barbara Rolek licensed to About.com, Inc.
Milk bars or bar mleczny (bahrr MLETCH-nih) in Polish were government-subsidized cafeterias from Eastern Europe's Communist days. These no-frills eateries were created in an effort to provide affordable, hearty meals for laborers whose companies had no canteen. Vegetarian, milk- and other dairy-based dishes were served because there was a surplus of these products and a scarcity of meat. Hence, the name "milk bar."

A few still exist and are subsidized by the Polish government in major cities like Krakow and Warsaw, but they are few and far between, which is unfortunate because the food, while plain, can be filling, cheap and a blessing for "starving" students, artists, the elderly, homeless and others watching their pennies.

When visiting Poland, a milk bar is not to be missed. Krakow is said to be the birthplace of the bar mleczny, when Pod Bańką (Under the Milk Churn) opened on the main market square on May 30, 1948 in the townhouse now occupied by Szara Restaurant. Originally, no hot dishes were served. Instead, this was the place to enjoy a .25-liter glass of milk with a straw. It was an attempt by the Communists to hook people on milk instead of alcohol, which had become a problem.

As traditional restaurants became nationalized and many of them were forced to close, milk bars became increasingly popular and they sprang up across the country offering milk, milk soups, yogurt, curd cheese, omelets and flour-based dishes like pierogi. By the mid-'60s, milk bars flourished and meals at them were often included in a worker's salary. When things really became desperate under Communism, many of these eateries chained the cutlery to the tables to prevent theft, disposable dishware was and is still used, and salt and pepper is dispensed in plastic cups with a spoon.

These days, since meat is no longer rationed, many milk bars serve dishes like bigos, but a holdover from the old days are the no-nonsense elderly ladies, often in bib aprons and houseslippers, taking your order impatiently and gruffly, all adding to the milk-bar experience. With the collapse of Communism, many of these milk bars went bankrupt and closed. But, if you look very hard, and ask around, you can still find some real jewels like Bar Górnik, Bar Targowy and Pod Temida in Krakow, and Bar Mleczny Familijny, Leniwa Gospodyni and W Komitecie in Warsaw. But go early before the best dishes run out.

  • Humorous Look at a Polish Milk Bar of Yesterday
  • Modern Look at a Polish Milk Bar in Krakow
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