A current thread on PF inspired this installment
The Bar Mleczny or Milk Bar is a curious invention dating back to Władysław Gomułka's PZPR (Polish United Worker's Party) era. Ostensibly created to provide the masses with wholesome home-cooked fare at rock bottom prices. Others insist, that its parallel purpose was to "hook" people on milk offering vodka-addicted Poles a more socially acceptable alcohol alternative. Whatever the reason, thanks to deep government subsidies your average Pan Nowak(you know I hardly saw any Pani Nowaks come to think of it) could buy a hot fresh meal for "groszy"(pennies).
During my time all of that was true. The meals were indeed hot, fresh and cheap but by the time I arrived on the scene there was no variety. Translated: NO MEAT!. Kluski, knedle, and pierogi z serem is all I ever saw on the menu boards in my seven years.
My first time in this quirky eatery was in the winter of '78.( I don't know how I missed this place for all those months but I did). The seduction took place one winter evening while I was walking to my tram stop from somewhere off Kraków's main square. I passed this storefront (I want to say near the American Consulate) whose window pane was completely fogged-up. You couldn't see inside! I don't now why that caught my attention but it did; I stopped and peered inside. Through the grimey haze I could make out the following: a counter (stołłówka(caffeteria) style), behind which stood a phalanx of sturdy babcias in their caffeteria-whites replete with headscarves. Bare white walls adorned with one large lonely menu board could be discerned to the right of the grannies. Scruffy-looking men could be seen shuffling in line towards the food while others were sitting, looking aimlessly out onto the street, smoking Sports or Klubowes at small cramped tables. Some were eating; others were just sitting filling in the empty spaces. "What the hell goes on in there"? I thought. It was a very strange site. Is this a restaurant or is it a palce for down-on-their-luck robotniks(blue-collar workers) to gather and nosh on something while they're waiting(for whatever it is they are waiting for). From my curbside perch I looked straight up and saw "BAR MLECZNY" in large simple communist-functional blue block letters. "Milk Bar"? MILK BAR?? "What is a milk bar? Why would people stand in line for milk?! This is very weird. It must be a communist thing so I should just walk away. I tried to do just that but as I turned to walk away there was something about this place that nagged at me to come inside. Something odd and alien to what I was accustomed to was going on in there and I felt this powerful pull, commanding me, like a drill sergeant , to go inside. "GET INSIDE!" the voice commanded.
What the fu*k! .......So in I go. Immediately the smell hits you like a baseball bat to the head. The smell of sweet, garlic, dirty dishwater, steam and disinfectants mugged my olfactory senses leaving me breathless. It's ok, I said. Keep going. I made it to end of the line where I stood behind a lanky Pole wearing a dirty navy blue beret on his greasy dirty blonde hair sucking on a cold "Sport" in his mouth. Through gapped teeth this proletarian greeted me with a nod and mumbled something unintelligible. I nodded in return with a half-bow praying he will not initiate a conversation because my Polish is crap! Mercifully,he turned around facing forward remaining mum. I waited my turn, upon reaching the counter I told babcia #1 what I wanted (not much of a choice) "kluski in mushroom sauce"(which I practiced saying in Polish repeatedly while in line), got my number and waited. OK! That's why they're waiting!! After what seemed like a long time, I picked up my food and the warm kompot babcia #3 shoved in my face and sat down at a table by the steamy front window. The food was hot,surprisingly tasty and satisfying. I even managed a conversation, albeit very clumsy, with a robotnik named Dariusz, who had a sister in Clifton, New Jersey. When I told him I was also from NJ, he wrote a short letter on the thin napkins provided and asked me to mail it for him(he gave me a 10 zł coin. I couldn't refuse).
I left that weird place with a full belly, several message-riddled napkins in my pocket and a big Cheshire grin. I was very proud of myself and of my achievement. Afterall, I ordered food and "communicated" with a local all by myself! It was another good day; I couldn't wait to get back to the dorm and regale PT with my adventure.
There was a Bar Mleczny in Warsaw, na Marszałkowskiej, that I didn't think much of at the time, but now remember fondly... home-cooked meal, cheap prices, no pretensions.
I think I've been there at a milk bar in Krakow, Ul Grodzka. not far from the main square (maybe 1 minute walk). I did not know the concept of Milk Bar at that time. It cost about 10-15 Zloty for a main meal (mashed potato, chicken and beetroot?), a bowl of Zurek or Borsch soup and some drinks (the same meal cost around 30-50 Zloty in other restaurants). I prefer Milk bar to Mc Donalds but my Polish friends love KFC/ Mc Donalds more because they said it's considered as a posh restaurant.
A typical Milk Bar meal
We have an Asian milk bar in Poznań called Ojisan's. Brilliant food, brilliant service and brilliant prices.
I've also been to a more 'traditional' milk bar, but the amount of tattooed, drunken chavs, homeless and virulently sick, put me off a bit.