Eight Days of Gdansk, November 3: Food, dining and the institution of the Polish “milk bar.”


The first sentence below encapsulates one of those basic truths that tend to be forgotten in the current era of plentiful food and a global economy.

Geographical and political factors had a strong influence on Polish cuisine. The country is located in a climatic zone with cool and barren winters. From that reason in traditional Polish meals vegetables, fruits and fish which can be easily preserved and stored for 3–4 months period played the great role (pea, the broad bean, kohlrabi, or the turnip). The food was preserved above all with readily available fossil salt and usually with drying, pickling or slight fermentation. After implementation of cooling and tinned technologies in the 20th century salting, drying and pickling were kept in the Polish cuisine by the account of historic habits and from the will of keeping traditional tastes – impossible to obtain with those new, technological ways.

Other geographical facet – large areas of forests – had to influence Polish diet and recipes. Sylvan fruits (wild strawberries, blueberries, currants, raspberries, wild black raspberries and others) have always been popular and so they are today. The Polish cuisine has an interesting wild mushrooms table d’hôte. It seems to be unique since wild, edible mushrooms are completely undervalued in Western Europe. On the other hand the game constituted a delicacy for the Polish gentry from always. Today however, the tradition of hunts seems to be in the disappearance.

Poland repeatedly in history lost the access it the Baltic Sea because of wars. For this reason the Polish cuisine is dominated by freshwater fishes. Amongst saltwater fishes once herring enjoyed the greatest popularity. Today – beside herring – fish like codfish, dory pollack, sprat and sole play the special role on the Polish table.

This provides an ideal segue into our destination of the moment.

The multicultural cuisine of coastal Gdańsk
(Link to Poland)

The multicultural cuisine of coastal Gdańsk has always been based on fish. Herring, Baltic salmon, sprats, eel, sturgeons and above all cod, turbot and various kinds of flounder types of fish have appeared on tables, served in thousands of ways.

Recipes were based mainly on Kashubian, German and Jewish cuisine and consumption was always accompanied by alcohol – beer, wine and spirits.

While I didn’t spend a great deal of time in Poland during my 1980s-era travels, I knew what a “milk bar” was then — and now.

Each of the communist countries had their own variation of the workers’ cafeteria, and I ate in many of them while in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and even once in Bulgaria. 

Nostalgia in a Polish Milk Bar, by Rick Steves

 … Sometimes my nostalgia for the old times confounds my Polish hosts. In Kraków, my friend Kasia, wanted to treat me to a fine dinner and asked where I’d like to eat. I said a “milk bar.” Kasia said her mother would never forgive her if I took her American friend to one of these bleak government-subsidized workers’ diners. I begged, promising I’d never tell, and Kasia agreed.

For me, eating at a bar mleczny (milk bar) is an essential Polish sightseeing experience. These super-cheap cafeterias, which you’ll see all over the country, are a dirt-cheap way to get a meal…and, with the right attitude, a fun cultural adventure.

In the communist era, the government subsidized the food at milk bars. The idea: to allow lowly workers to afford a meal out. The tradition continues, and today Poland still foots the bill for most of your milk-bar meal. Prices remain astoundingly low — my bill usually comes to about $3 — and, while communist-era fare was less than lively, today’s milk-bar cuisine is more tasty.

Milk bars offer many of Poland’s traditional favorites. Common items are delicious soups, a variety of cabbage-based salads, fried pork chops, pierogi (ravioli with various fillings), and pancakes. At the milk bar, you’ll likely see glasses of watery juice and — of course — milk, but most milk bars also stock bottles of water and Coke. Try a Polish pastry, especially the classic paczki, a glazed jelly doughnut typically filled with a wild-rose jam.

Returning to the Baltic coast, Bar Mleczny Neptun in Gdańsk gets pride of place in this story.

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.

If we have the opportunity …