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Poles find solidarity in milk bars

In gleaming Warsaw, the lure of a pungent cabbage soup and communal seating still draws crowds to Soviet-era canteens.

By Hilary HeulerCorrespondent / January 26, 2009

On a recent winter day, students from Warsaw University chose Bar Uniwersytecki for lunch over a nearby McDonald's.

Hilary Heuler

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Warsaw

Warsaw

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For Grazyna Pacura, the taste of home is here, behind a cold steel counter dominated by a serving lady with an impassive, lined face and a white apron. Tangy pickled cabbage, steaming potatoes, and the watery red slosh of beet soup. . .a timeless combination that has warmed the hearts of generations of Poles, through centuries of hardship and four grim decades of Soviet rule.

A newsstand clerk here on her lunch break, Mrs. Pacura waits patiently for her meal, shoved abruptly across the counter, then takes her place behind a simple plastic table. Across from her a businessman in a suit calmly munches his breaded cutlet, while nearby a homeless man with a cup of tea settles in to read the paper.

Eating in a milk bar is a far cry from fine dining, but for many Poles the experience is priceless.

To the untrained eye, Warsaw, Poland’s gleaming capital, appears to be caught up in a mad race to out-Westernize the West. Here, capitalism is king – skyscrapers plastered in garish billboards dominate the city center, while European chains like H&M and Zara have taken over brand-new shopping malls, where 20-somethings strut, sipping blended coffees. For a country so recently freed from the clutches of communism, the transformation is astounding.

But behind the glittering facade beats the heart of a very different Poland. Milk bars (bar mleczny), bare-bones cafes set up by the communist authorities in the 1950s to ensure that everyone had at least one hot meal a day, have somehow managed to survive the onslaught of capitalism. In fact, they are thriving, even in Warsaw’s most fashionable districts, and to many Poles they represent a part of Polish culture that all the wonders of the free market can never replace.

“I love the taste of this food. It’s familiar and traditional. The new places all taste foreign to me,” says Pacura. For the past 20 years she has been a regular at the popular Bar Zabkowski, and admits that during that time little has changed. “They got new tables, but that’s all,” she says. “The food is exactly the same.”

Like Zabkowski, most milk bars seem to have been frozen in time. The interiors, while clean, range from basic to downright drab. Some offer little décor aside from a handful of sturdy potted plants, whitewashed walls, and a menu of classic Polish dishes posted beside the cash register. The service is apathetic, sometimes even rude. Customers order, are given a ticket to present at the kitchen window, then wait beside the steel-topped counter for their meals to appear.

Tables are nearly always shared; earnest university students and professors tuck into their lunch next to impoverished, elderly pensioners, and budget-conscious salary men rub elbows with local artists.

It’s a scene that harks back to the days when shiny shopping malls and designer brands were nothing more than vague rumors from the other side of the Iron Curtain. But despite the changes sweeping through Poland, milk bars still attract a fiercely loyal following. At mealtimes the lines can stretch out the door.

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For decades, milk bars were ubiquitous, and were subsidized by the state at up to 40 percent. The meals they offered – vegetarian and mostly milk-based – were unspectacular at best. But with few real restaurants available, a trip to a local milk bar was the only chance many Poles ever had to eat out.

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