Part of the reasons for me doing this blog is to highlight those areas of life in Wrocław that one doesn’t hear about in the English speaking world. I like to write articles about issues and things that one doesn’t read about in tourist literature or state websites. On this blog you can read about the real Wrocław, or real Poland, as seen through my eyes.
My example for today are Bar Mleczny (Bar Mleczny literally translates as ‘milk bar’. As they are not actually bars that serve exclusively milk, I shall use the Polish term.) A few facts:
Bar Mleczny* are ace
In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that this article may be read by people of all ages, I would put that stronger.
They are in fact a communist invention. You see, during the setting up of communism in Poland most restaurants were nationalised and state authorities later closed many down. The idea was to enable all workers to get cheap meals at their place of work. However many people were working in small firms that had no canteen, hence the creation of the Bar Mleczy. There the worker could get their food, and cheap food at that (the meals were subsidised by the state.) They took their name from that fact that until the 1980s most meals were dairy based and vegetarian.
From my point of view, they remind me of what in GB is called ‘greasy spoons’, places where one gets, as we say, cheap and cheery food. As occasionally happens with me in Poland, I am reminded of times past in GB, as ‘greasy spoons’ are dying out due to the growth of restaurants and chain….(well, how do you describe the likes of McDonald’s? Eateries?) places. A walk around Poland is occasionally a walk into my childhood.
Why Bar Mleczny are ace
I really like them for the following reasons:
The food is cheap.
One can buy a meal of, say, pierogi ruskie and beetroot for about a Euro. (A meal for about a Euro! In most places you’d be very lucky to get just a sandwich for that price. A sandwich with a bread that isn’t very tasty wrapped in plastic.) Or you could get potatoes with some kind of cutlet (like cheese or spinach**) with some kind of sauce. That wouldn’t cost much more than a Euro either. As a side dish you can get not just beetroot; you can chose from about six different salad dishes. They also sell fish, like panga, or occasionally salmon chops; both for very reasonable prices. They also do various soups (such as żurek and the ubiquitous barszcz).
As a special treat for about sixty cents you can also get pancakes (with savoury fillings like sour cabbage and/or mushroom or sweet filings like cherries, apple with white cheese, and jam. In summer you can also get fillings of various berries). For drinks you can get tea, strawberry compote, butter milk or kefir.
The food is healthy
As you have just read, there is a big selection of vegetables. Just the salads can provide you with decent nutrients (such as in the aforementioned beetroot, also grated carrot in juice, red cabbage and various combinations of lettuce with other vegetables and cabbage; some with garlic). As the Bar Mleczny are still subsidised by the state, one can eat healthfully cheaply.
There you meet average people
If you confine your time in Wroclaw to restaurants in the city centre you’ll be served by people speaking English (even if you speak Polish to them). Those who serve you may have spent time living abroad and therefore speak English or other languages. They are more used to non-Poles. In the Bar Mleczny however you will be served by people from a different background; not those who were in the right age post-2004 to go and live abroad, but those who were possibly working in the Bar Mleczny pre-1989, or young people who would never dream of going abroad. Therefore, speaking Polish is a must. For me this is a positive thing. There I can use the language of the country I live in. In all the Bar Mleczy I know in Wrocław (well, I know four of them) the staff show that pecular-in-a-nice-way look on their face when they hear me speak, ‚On mowi po polsku!‘ They are delighted that I speak their language and are full of exitement and smiles. Or something approaching friendly service (not a big thing in Poland). This look on their faces continues when I return, but after a while I become ‚normal‘ there so I am treated like a normal person. That means something, eh? Anyway, this experience doesn’t really happen in the city centre.
Anyway, I guess that you don’t need to speak Polish to go there. I have seen people in Bar Mleczny (yes, even in Ołbin where I live) who speak English there, and they seem to get by. Perhaps they point. I know though that some staff speak English.
This can however cause confusion.
Once I went to my local Bar Mleczny when I was fairly new in Poland. I wanted pierogi ruskie with beetroot, so asked for that. The girl said ‚na miejscu?‘ I thought she was asking me if I wanted meat (mięso means meat) so I said no. Then she put the food into a takeaway dish. Hmm, thought I. Next time I’ll say yes. I did say yes next time, when I thought I had heard the same question. Again, I was given a takeaway dish. Hmm again.
I thought, sod it. I’ll say ‚tu‘ (which means ‚here‘) and point down the next time I was asked. The girl asked me something. I didn’t really hear/understand, but said ‚tu‘. Then she gave me the pierogi ruskie on a plate (‚result!‘, thought I). It seemed like a lot of pierogi. I also had to pay twice as much as normal. Anyway I tucked in pleased with myself for finally negotiating this issue.
Then I realised what had happened. She asked me how many helpings I wanted. When I said ‚tu‘ she thought I had said ‚two‘.
Next time I was asked, I simply said ‚I want to eat here‘ to make things clearer.
There you meet a variety of people
Young not too rich types like me. Students. Homeless people (in Poland, by the way homelesss people are different to those in other countries, in that a much higher proportion of them in Poland have alcohol problems and therefore often turn up drunk but trying to be polite). Businessmen in suits. Local labourers. They’re all there.
Not like in Mleczarnia or many other places in town which are dominated by students or young professionals. Not so much diversity there. Not like my favourite place Falanster where young leftists and/or artistic people hang out. Not like the alternative/hippyish types who go to Kalaczakra. In a Bar Mleczny you can meet people from more or less any social grouping (I don’t say class as Poland is very much a different place when it comes to a class system.)
A visit to a Bar Mleczny is much more real than any tourist-orientated restaurant or café. You won’t find menus in English. You won’t find people getting dressed up to go there. There you see people as they really are. That can be cool. It can also involve people slurping their food noisely; dirty tables (during the busy times) and a reduced selection if one goes late. There’s no pretense there. I find that cool.
I would not like it if they were to die out. Wrocław may end up like most places in GB or Germany where the small local places become rare places, dominated by chain restaurants which all look the same, where the food is expensive and of poor quality; where the state don’t care about the quality of food that one eats.
Below is a famous scene from a Polish comedy from 1980; which takes an affection dig at Bar Mleczny.
NB: In Bar Mleczny you get your own cutlery and platewear!
Poland is not a paradise by any means, but in a Bar Mleczny one sees, well, a kind of heaven.
Which Bar Mleczny is your favourite? You can answer via the comments underneath.
In case an of you live in Kraków, here you can see a list of Bar Mleczny which English speakers seem to rave about.
* I am using the Polish word Bar Mleczny while writing in English. Really, I should add an ‚s‘ to the end to denote the plural. That would however look a little odd and may give the false impression that the singular has an ‚s‘ on the end. The plural in Polish is Bary Mleczne
** You can buy meat as well. I don’t eat meat though, so cannot advise you on what they sell.