Milk bars or Bar Mclezny, used to be a staple all over communist Poland, today they are a fast vanishing part of history and a tourist gem of a bygone era – the story of a socialist government scheme to ration food. Just one tiny clarification though…
…it wasn’t the communist party that established them.
The name milk bar refers to the fact that the majority of these dishes served were made of dairy. The first of such cafeterias, similar to a greasy spoon/lunch counter in the United States, was established in 1896 in Warsaw by a member of the landed gentry. This first mass-market restaurant drew in many customers and prompted more and more businessmen to open such cafeterias all around the country. After World War I, when Poland regained her sovereignty, these milk bars opened all over the country. Affordable nutritious food was even more important during the Great Depression, prompting even more bar mcleznys to be opened around the country.
Bar Mcleznys became even more important during the communist era because their commoner price tag meant that they were not seen as bourgeois (as compared to other restaurants), and were important for people working in places without official canteens. These originally independent restaurants were nationalised and expanded to serve more of the ‘proletariat’, the food they served included dairy, eggs, cereal and flour, and were heavily subsidized by the communist government.
There was nothing fancy about these places, they were anodyne and dull, there was no ambience to talk off let alone environment to enjoy or service to appreciate, what they did have a good cheap food, sometimes even given free. Even today a meal can cost barely 3 euros.
Many of these bars closed after the fall of the communist government, since they were not economically viable – it was not sustainable to offer cheap to almost free food to people without government support and not run into the ground eventually. But not all of them closed, some like Bar Mclezny Gronik just outside Krakow’s old town continue to exist in their traditional form, a small unexciting shop front in front of a dull looking kitchen that whips up a culinary storm.
Milk bars closed in rapid succession as people desired higher quality food at regular restaurants, however these places have begun to make a comeback in the last decade (with better economics) as a better economic situation prompted some nostalgia and romanticisation of the past. But modern milk bars look very different from the traditional ones. Take Milk Bar Tomasza for example – the interiors are a lot more palatable, the seats are more comfortable, the wait staff are dressed in more modern attire and the food looks significantly more presentable. The price is obviously higher too.
The former is a more authentic experience while the latter is a more polished one, I’m not going to lie, the former was more unhealthy (pierogi with pork lard compared to pierogi with onions), although the latter seemed more which would you go for?
ON THE MAP (Milk Bar Tomasza)
ON THE MAP (Bar Mclezny Gronik)