There is one consistent cuisine and culture-based institution prevalent in all big Polish towns and cities: the Milk Bar, known locally as ‘Bar Mlecznys‘. Visiting a Milk Bar is not the most obvious thing a first time tourist to Poland does, but they are notoriously the cheapest places in Poland for breakfast, lunch and an early dinner! They are also the best places to experience how Polish people really eat.
Some Milk Bars have a long and coloured history to them, starting all the way back in 1896 when Warsaw-based dairy farmer Stanisław Dłużewski opened the first Bar Mleczny and called it Mleczarnia Nadświdrzańska. In the early days, Milk Bars sold cheap milk and egg-based meals, but they have since developed into much more than that. After World War II, ‘normal’ restaurants in Poland were hard to find, so if you wanted to eat out, you had no other choice but to go to a Milk Bar.
Once communism ended, Milk Bars started to disappeared as business declined in favour of an influx of new foreign restaurants and investments from global chains. But Milk Bars are supported by the welfare state, so their favour came back round again. Around 2010 Milk Bars made a revival and have thrived ever since. Every Milk Bar in Poland has its own unique name and style, even though each one is subsidised by the Polish government, hence the cheap prices. Here are some of the most historic and relevant Bar Mlecznys in Poland.
The journey begins in historic Gdańsk. Where else? Commercial Capitalists out there might be disappointed to hear that legendary Gdańsk remains pristine and pure to its roots; right in the middle of its most popular tourist street, Ulica Długa, is a cheap and cheerful Polish Milk Bar. This is Bar Mleczny Neptun, a real gem of a place, if you are able to find it. Get excited about delicious pierogi, soup, salad and meat dishes served from 7:30 am in an old two-story building. Apart from the great food, another bonus is the price. You can be sure to find the cheapest meals in this part of Gdańsk without any doubt!
Situated next to a huge church in one of Warsaw’s coolest districts, Praga, the Bar Mleczny Rusałka is a great option for dinging along the Wisła River. Being opposite the church has always meant good business for this Milk Bar. Visitors expect an excellent selection of soups, which includes Zupa Barszcz (red soup), as well as superb Nalesniki (Polish style crepes) and great pasta like the Makaron ze Słonina (sweet pasta).
It often comes as a surprise to tourists that just metres from the walls of Warsaw’s Old Town, you can eat a full lunch with a drink for under 10 złotych! Welcome to the Bar Pod Barbakanem with its distinctive orange walled exterior and good Polish food at cheap prices. This place can get busy in summer months, but it is worth it – a really good place to understand what a Milk Bar is all about.
Another superb Warsaw venue with a historic feel about it is the Bar Mleczny Prasowy, which dates back to 1954. It’s located on the main Marszałkowska street in a grey building. Inside is a bigger interior than most Milk Bars as Bar Mleczny Prasowy is needed to satisfy the hoardes of customers on weekdays, particularly during the 12 – 2 pm peak times. Enjoy one of the cheapest places in central Warsaw to eat with pierogi from 6 złotych, soup from 3 złotych and Kompot for 2 złotych.
In Kraków’s Old Town, amid all the hustle and bustle, away from the swanky upmarket restaurants, bars and bistros, you’ll find a real gem: the Milkbar Tomasza. From the outside it looks very basic, but that’s the beauty of it. Once inside, delicious, fresh, Polish food is served in style, or at least in the style every Milk Bar should aspire to. Another incredible point to note about Tomasza is that it is a mere five minute walk to the heart of Kraków, where you’ll find Cloth Hall and the Rynek (main square).
Here’s a question you might be wondering: Is the original Milk Bar from 1896 still open? Yes it is! Though no doubt it has been closed and re-opened a few times in its history, as well as seen a few re-brandings. However, in modern day Warsaw, just round the corner from the city’s upmarket street, Nowy Swiat (New World), sits the traditional Mleczarnia Nadświdrzańska. It still serves value cutlets, pierogi, salad and kompot. This Milk Bar is perhaps the most historic venue of its kind, yet it serves fresh tasty meals every day. Not one to miss!
Bar Mleczny Junior is a classic Milk Bar housed right in Starogard Gdański’s old town square. For a Milk Bar, they have one of the best social media campaigns out there, with tasty photos constantly appearing on their Facebook and Instagram accounts. Even while embracing modernity, the shop remains the cheapest place in the Kociewie region for breakfast, lunch and dinner. ‘Junior’ is a real gem and one where you’ll find many more locals than tourists.
One of the closest Bar Mlecznys to Germany is the Bar Mleczny Zacisze in Szczecin. With its colourful walls and simple menu layout, this bar is a cheap and easy place to go for lunch. The menu is on the wall and looks like its black letterboard price list hasn’t changed in years. The only issue with Bar Mleczny Zacisze is that it closes on weekends and has more limited hours than others.
The most historic Milk Bar in Poznań is the Bar Mleczny Apetyt, and like its Kraków counterpart, it sits just a few minutes walk from the city’s historic Old Town Square. It’s a cozy air-conditioned venue with free WiFi, which is not a standard for Milk Bars. For the cheapest prices in town, it serves home-made dishes and specialties like the nalesniki (pancakes) and pierogi (dumplings) with assorted fillings.
Wrocław has quite a few Bar Mlecznys up its sleeve, but this one is run by a local couple, Jacek and Agatka. It sits on a prominent corner just a few minutes walk from the famous Panorama of the Battle of Racławica. It serves tasty, fresh, regional food in a simple and clean atmosphere, and as usual, each dish is offered at subsidised prices.