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.
Although menus have expanded since the 1990s to include meat, meals are basic and dairy still predominates. Order unwisely and you may end up with boiled pasta topped with plain cream, or a bowl of hot milk with rice.
For accountant Marzena Balazy, the food is a link to her heritage. “You can eat the same things you would eat at home. It’s all very traditional Polish food, but I don’t know how to make it myself,” she says.
While most milk bars these days are privately owned, they still receive government subsidies for basic foodstuffs. This allows owners to keep their prices rock-bottom.
A plate of pirogi (ravioli stuffed with meat, vegetables, or cheese) costs around $2, while a couple of sweet, jam-filled nalesniki (Polish crepes) is only $1. The dozen or so soups on the menu are no more than 50 cents each.
Incomes have been rising rapidly, and with an abundance of new restaurants cropping up across the country, the Polish government has begun to question the need for milk bars. But Poles refuse to let them go. When the finance minister threatened to cut milk bar subsidies in 2002, deafening protests from across the political spectrum forced him to back down. So beloved are the little canteens that in 2006 The New York Times reported that Polish immigrant communities have opened up their own milk bars in Brooklyn, with much the same atmosphere and menu as the originals back home.
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Alicja Samarcew, a psychologist who still frequents milk bars about once a week, always makes a point of taking foreign visitors there because, she says, “it’s something really Polish.”
Ms. Samarcew has her own theories on why these spare cafes are still relevant in Poland, and how an institution imposed by a repressive regime could remain so firmly rooted in the country’s collective self-image.
“For one thing, it’s a place to socialize,” she says. “I still meet people there that I’ve seen for years. They tell the same stories, and everybody knows them. It provides a sense of continuity in people’s lives.”
But, she points out, milk bars play an even more important social role. “I wouldn’t say it’s real because there are poor people, it’s not about that. But you are exposed to different categories of people in a milk bar, and I think this is really important. Old people come, often alone and lonely, and it can be hard to see. When we go to a restaurant, it’s easy for us in the middle class to think we’re the only people in the city. But when you go to a milk bar, that illusion is gone.”
“Maybe it’s something really Polish that we don’t isolate these people in ghettos,” she continues. Indeed, one of Samarcew’s favorite milk bars still occupies a slice of prime real estate on one of Warsaw’s most fashionable shopping streets.
It’s a socialist ideal that somehow managed to rise above the hated system from which it was born. Who knows how much longer milk bars will hold out against the fast-food invasion, but for the moment, these simple cafes are a heartwarming sign that Poland won’t be giving up so easily.