When in Poland, a meal at a milk bar is a must. Here are three milk bars in Krakow worth hitting up when you’re in town.
When one hears the term “milk bar” nowadays, Christina Tosi’s nostalgic dessert empire is usually the first thing to come to mind. Yet, the term actually originates in Poland. Though the first one is said to have appeared in the late 19th century and they increased in popularity after World War I, the “bar mleczny” grew incredibly popular during the communist era (after World War II). These Soviet-era government subsidized cafeterias provided delicious homestyle Polish food at low prices, offering workers an affordable option for lunch, and their cost was often covered by the employer.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the milk bars began to dwindle, but some are still growing strong while some new additions to the scene are serving a contemporary take. Regardless, old-school-style etiquette should be followed: review the menu (usually on the wall or on a blackboard, or on a laminated piece of paper), select your food (much of which is pre-prepared), collect your meal once its ready, and, most importantly, don’t leave your dirty dishes on the table–return your tray to the kitchen.
Dining at (at least) one when you’re in Poland is a must, and here are three milk bars in Krakow I enjoyed immensely that range from old-fashioned to contemporary, followed by an honorable mention (one that I didn’t make it to but I wish I did!).
1. Polski Smaki
Located footsteps from the Old Town Square, Polski Smaki is a historic milk bar that has undergone a revamp. The interior is warm and inviting, with checkered tablecloths and bottles of pickles and vegetables fermenting around the dining room. Go up to the counter and have a look at what’s on offer, which is likely to be a few different types of pierogies and Polish classics such as “pulpety drbiowe w sosie pomidorowo-bazyliowym” (chicken meatballs in a tomato-basil sauce). Potatoes are the natural choice for the side–don’t forget to ask for the sprinkling of dill on your potatoes! Website
2. Milkbar Tomasza
This contemporary milk bar is also located close to Old Town Square. The cozy decor juxtaposes wood tabletops and exposed brick walls with a touch of color and plenty of light, both from the two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows as well as from the illuminated orbs dangling from the ceiling. The menu offers milk bar classics like soup, pierogies and traditional Polish fare along with some other nosh like panini, pancakes, and bagels. Breakfast is amazing with plenty of omelets to choose from, though the Colleen in me couldn’t resist the full Irish breakfast. You don’t have to clear your own table here, but it’s a nice thing to do.
3. Bar Mleczny Targowy
Well if you want to travel back in time to the Soviet era, Bar Mleczny Targowy is the milk bar for you. To start, it’s a schlep from the Old Town, but well worth it as it sits on a quiet residential street on the ground floor of an apartment complex. It feels unchanged since the communist era and is all-around gloriously old-fashioned from the linoleum checkered floor and the white paneled walls with thin red vertical stripes to red-and-white checkered table clothes to dreary fluorescent lights. Order from the menu on the wall – it’s in Polish so you might want to either familiarize yourself with some of the food beforehand or do your best to communicate. They speak decent English! Or, if you see something on someone else’s plate that whets your appetite, you can point it out. You’ll find all the typical milkbar fare here from borscht, both red and white, pierogies, and gablaki, cabbage stuffed with ground pork, a Polish staple. This place is epic, and you’ll want everything on the menu – regardless of whether or not you can read it.
Honorable mention: The darn heatwave threw a wrench into my plans, so I didn’t make it to Bar Kazimierz, a milk bar in the Old Jewish Quarter that’s supposed to dazzle. I’ll just have to keep it in mind for next time!