I am not that surprised by this. Warsaw has often had to reinvent itself. Large sweeps of the city were razed during the Second World War, and then rebuilt. After Communism fell in 1989, glass skyscrapers sprouted from the earth. Banks, shopping malls and fast food arrived. I had been going there to visit family since I was a child, and watched as Poland joined NATO and the European Union, and then largely avoided the global financial crisis of 2008, leaving the years of Communism far behind.
Over the last two decades, though, milk bars began disappearing, falling to just a dozen or so in Warsaw. By now it’s a familiar sensation in the city: go looking for that milk bar you remember from your childhood, and you’re likely to find that the door is locked and the windows are boarded. Or that a chain café has already taken its place.
Milk bars have their roots in the urban “dairies”, which featured a lot more retail than working dairies and were popular at the start of the 20th century. But most milk bars date back to the 1950s and 1960s, when Poland was under Communist rule. The low prices—then and now—come from state subsidies for basic ingredients like dairy products, flour and potatoes. (In 2013, almost $7 million from the state budget was allocated to subsidize milk bars across Poland). The menu centers on staple carbohydrates such as pancakes, pierogi and dumplings. Meat dishes are fewer and more expensive, around $2.50 each. For the sweet tooth, there is “milk soup” and pasta topped with sour cream and strawberries. “Cheap and like in preschool”, is how my cousin summed it up.
The menu is displayed on a large board on the wall. If there is no price by an item on the menu, that means it is unavailable today, a not-uncommon occurrence. Order and pay at one window, then pick up your dish immediately at the next. A female voice bellows “One portion tomato soup with pasta!”. Through the service window, you can catch a glimpse of the industrial-style kitchen crammed with stainless steel saucepans. One has chicken soup, another borsch. Pancakes bronze above a blue gas flame. Dinner ladies in neat aprons jump nimbly between the bubbling pans. Mountains of kneaded dough sit on the counters, waiting to be shaped into dumplings of different kinds. An indefinite kitchen smell hangs in the air. And yet, despite the cooked food from breakfast until nightfall, many milk bars feel neat, clean and welcoming.
When it gets busy, it is normal to share a table with strangers. Milk bars help to integrated society, says Jakub, who protested against their closure in Warsaw. “There are fewer and fewer places where people can meet on equal ground—older and younger people, richer and poorer, lecturers and plumbers, pensioners and students”. All of them value a cooked meal. Richer customers share spare change with the poorest clientele, who otherwise could not afford a meal.
Get out, she told him. He complied.
By eleven in the morning, the central Warsaw milk bar ‘Bambino’ is filling up for lunch. A young couple stamps in from the snow. “Look, they have most of the items on the menu today”, she says. “That’s because it’s just after Easter”, the man replies, unimpressed. “Let’s take the tripe stew”.
Dwarfed by the spires of the St. Florian’s Cathedral, Rusałka has a different feel. This milk bar’s name means water-nymph. Stepping inside is like diving underwater, as dim light filters through the seaweed-like curtains. The crowd here is simpler, more local. Tea comes served the Polish way, in a glass with a slice of lemon. The tired-looking woman on the till doesn’t want to talk. She reads out my order again, bringing our short conversation to a close. And why not? She lived most of her life in a regime where it was often dangerous to speak.
Once I saw a drunk take on a dinner lady at a local milk bar. There was no apparent reason for his outburst. “You’ve got dirt under your fingernails! Ladies and gentlemen, take a look at what’s serving your food,” he shouted. The dinner lady was a young girl with her blonde hair tied back tightly in a bun. She took a threatening step towards the drunk, her hands on her hips. Get out, she told him. He complied.