Zlota Kurka, or Golden Hen, sits in a central Warsaw neighborhood surrounded by telecom offices and wine bars. Inside, there’s a window-sized menu offering Polish-style soups, eggs, dumplings, cabbage and potatoes, all cooked by women in flowered aprons and schoolteacher glasses.
Jakub Szwedowski, a 32-year-old postal worker, is finishing his Sunday dinner at one of the tables, which are decorated with tiny vases of fabric flowers. It’s the same Sunday dinner of Russian dumplings and potato pancakes he’s had here for the last seven years.
“Tastes just like my grandmother’s,” he says. And it costs the equivalent of about $2.
This is a bar mleczny, or a milk bar. It’s not a fancy dairy-based dessert shop, but a greasy-spoon diner serving cheap Polish comfort food subsidized by the government.
Dairy farmer Stanisław Dłużewski opened the first one, Mleczarnia Nadświdrzańska, in Warsaw in 1896, selling cheap milk and egg-based meals. The number of milk bars in Poland soared to 40,000 during communist times, when there were few restaurant options available.
Today, only about 150 milk bars remain. After the fall of communism in 1989, the country went through a rapid and painful economic restructuring. Capitalism brought in fast-food chains like Burger King.
“Many milk-bar customers went there instead,” says Olga Drenda, a Polish culture writer. “In the early 1990s, many people in Poland tried to avoid, at all costs, anything associated with the communist period. They associated that period with poverty and austerity.”
The 1980 Polish cult film Miś (Teddy Bear) shows diners at a communist-era milk bar ordering dishes like a stew made of hulled grains and mashed potatoes with lard. They eat soup with spoons chained to the table — something which, Drenda notes, she’s never seen at an actual milk bar.
Governments, including the current one, have also cut subsidies to milk bars. “So if they close down, it means either the city or state funding they rely on has been reduced,” Drenda says. “But the interest in them remains, because there is always a group of people who just look for affordable food.”
But these days, that interest isn’t just about prices. “Poles are looking for something familiar and no longer associate milk bars with a difficult past,” she says.
Like many Europeans, Poles are craving a return to tradition, says Bartomiej Jalocha, who runs the kitchen at the Warsaw milk bar, Prasowy.
“This milk bar is always busy,” say Jalocha, a bearish cook in his thirties. He grew up in rural eastern Poland and loves making his mom’s meaty version of krupnik, a hearty barley soup. “People stand in line here for 20 minutes to order. I don’t think we’ll ever go out of business.”
Prasowy, which means “press” in Polish, actually did go out of business in 2011. Customers and activists occupied it, and the owner of a popular restaurant chain re-opened it in 2013.
I visit Prasowy with Polish journalist Pawel Pieniazek, who calls it a “hipster milk bar.” The cashier ringing up customers has tattoos and pink-toned hair. The menu is written in multi-colored cursive on a black wall.
Near a poster advertising an upcoming concert by a Swedish jazz saxophonist, Zoja Wygnanska, an 18-year-old high-school student, is eating dinner with two friends. She says she usually goes to “fancy restaurants that serve wine” but comes here when she’s craving dumplings. “They cost less than what I usually pay for my coffee,” she says.
Agata Pyzik, who wrote in Architectural Digest about gentrification pushing out traditional milk bars, says they remain a kind of “social condenser,” the concept in Soviet constructivist theory that architecture can break down social hierarchies.
“On the most elegant, bourgeois street in Warsaw, you will find one of the cheapest places to eat in the city,” she says. “There you can see, for instance, an old lady who’s living nearby because her flat hasn’t been privatized yet and she’s paying low rent. At the same time you can see very posh-looking people who probably just got hungry during their shopping.”
Back at the Golden Hen milk bar, Pawel Pieniazek and I dine next to an advertising manager, a teacher and an elderly man bent into a comma by osteoporosis. The man orders cabbage and eggs. We choose pierogi (dumplings), potato pancakes and a drink called kompot, which is made by stewing fruit like strawberries, gooseberries and sour cherries with sugar and raisins. Pieniazek jokingly calls the concoction “Soviet lemonade.”
It was all delicious. And the entire meal for both of us cost about $4.
“You won’t find such a deal at Burger King,” says Jakub Szwedowski, the postal worker who’s a regular here. “The food is just as good as the nicest restaurant or bar.”
He laughs when I ask him if he’s ever considered going to a trendy wine bar.
No, he says, shaking his head. No way. “There’s no alcohol at milk bars, but there are no dumplings at wine bars.”
“Tapas bars, wine bars or wherever the hipsters are going these days, those are just foreign fads,” he says. “Milk bars are ours. And even if there’s just one left standing, I’m going to eat there.”