Milk Bars of Poland; cheap eats, kind strangers and two lumps of potatoes

Normally our go-to travel meals are picnics and street food.  While our Polish picnics were delightful, the street food was…..well, I wouldn’t eat it.  I know, that’s totally out of character (one of my adorable qualities is that I’m not a picky eater).

bleck

The ubiquitous street food of Poland is the Zapiekanka: a piece of toasted French bread covered with canned mushrooms, yellow cheese and a river of ketchup.

Yucky-yuckski.

Barfski.

Only-if-you’re-drunksi.

Nope.

wroclowspuds

Good thing Poland has Milk Bars.

Milk Bars are government subsidized cafeterias.  Most towns have at least one and the big cities all have several.

The food is cheap, fast and satisfying in the way that hot, home cooked meals always are.

milkbar

Milk Bars are not set up for tourists, so ordering can be an adventure.  Jadłodajni U Stasi in Krakow had an English menu so we were able to order in a straightforward manner.

milkbar

Milk Bars are popular and pretty easy to find, since there’s usually a line of people out the door.  Arriving hungry in Torun after a long train ride, we joined the line of hungry students at Bar Malgoska.  As with almost all the other Milk Bars, the food was served from the kitchen (so we couldn’t point at what we wanted).  As our place in line grew closer to the cashier, HOB requested I order him a specific lists of foods—as if I speak Polish and could read the menu.  Naturally, we started arguing and I snapped at him “Why do you think I can order you this and that?  I can’t read the menu and there’s nothing to point at!”  Just when our turn arrived and I was feeling especially desperate a young man, who must have been listening in our argument, said in English “Can I assist you in ordering?”  YES!  I practically hugged him.  “We are hungry!  Can you please order us two meals of something very Polish?”  And that young man, that very handsome and considerate and admirable fellow, ordered us heaping plates of food and soup.  Thank you kind stranger: you’ve earned a lifetime of budget travel karma.

milkbartorum

I’m pretty sure the soup was borsht and it was tasty indeed.

Here’s what I advise: unless you have an affinity for ketchup sandwiches, plan on embracing Poland’s Milk Bars.  Maybe you won’t learn Polish, but at least bring a menu decoder so you don’t have to rely on strangers to order for you.  The food is cheap (no more than a few dollars a person for a hearty meal) and served up in seconds.  Eating at Milk Bars is also a fun cultural experience: they draw in a wide demographic, from tots on field trips to business people to senior citizens.  Everyone seems to eat a ton and to eat it fast.  Even tiny old ladies are shoveling in giant helpings.  This is cafeteria food, so if you’re looking for gourmet, you’ll be disappointed.  But if you like all your meals to come with two lumps of mashed potatoes, Milk Bars will be your Polish culinary nirvana.

 

14 comments

  1. Thanks for the warning about the “street food.” Even the picture is unappetizing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy to be of service. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that your kind stranger was very handsome too. Bonus.
    For me, the food of Eastern Europe is one of the least interesting, certainly appetizing of any in … the world. During the 4 years we lived in Bosnia and Croatia and used to get away for breaks – we NEVER went to Hungary, Poland – not even lovely Prague – because we just didn’t want more cabbagy and other sodden vegetables. And grilled — REALLY grilled meat – or worse, breaded schnitzel-ly questionable meat. ugh. And potatoes – even those sort of yummy looking heaps with gravy. Nope. Don’t miss it. But I still love your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Let’s say that the stranger’s kindness enhanced his good looks.

      I can’t remember—did you spend time in Albania? Now that’s an Eastern country with fresh and lovely Mediterranean food! Also, Croatia has wonderful olive oil, don’t you think?

      Like

  3. It’s been a long time since I ate the kind of food that you have in the photos. I’m beginning to miss the boiled vegetables and the potatoes and gravy with the meat. The borscht looks pretty. That’s one thing I always liked.

    My trip to Poland happened long after 1990, so I only heard stories of the times they would ask foreigners to bring their own food, and a little extra.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not a vegetarian but I prefer not to eat so much meat, but I do like to go native when I comes to food.

      I’ve known some people who grew up in Poland during the Communist era. It sounds like they had plenty to eat but no variety at all. Perhaps during that time they got cut off from the more adventurous cuisines of their heritage.

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  4. I am not going to miss these culinary and cultural centers.Milk Bar sounds very baby friendly!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha! I read they are called Milk Bars because the food is supposed to be mostly vegetarian. However, in reality the dishes were mostly meat based.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, those yummie milk bars!! I could live in one of them! You should give zapiekanka one more chance though😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe if I could convince them to leave the ketchup off…..

      Like

  6. Having a good chuckle, not only the crazy food situation but the tired/hungry/stressed discussion we all have had when travelling! Funny how it’s never discussed much in travel blogs but travel induced spats are all part of the fun. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I notice you often travel alone, perhaps for that reason 🙂

      I once wrote a blog post about travel spats: still relevant:
      https://picnicatthecathedral.com/2014/07/14/how-to-get-along-with-your-spouse-while-traveling-hint-snacks/

      Like

  7. I love your writing style, and agree that the milk bars are really good, cheap and filling. However, if you are in Poland again sometime, you might want to give the Zapiekanka a try. The locals do call it pizza, but it is not. Most of the time the mushrooms are actually fresh and very thinly sliced. The call tomato sauce “ketchup”, but it’s really more like a very simple tomato sauce. Not sweet, and not vinegar tangy either. The Zapiekanka really is about the bread, which the Poles are masters of. And yes, you can have it with the “ketchup” on the side. You could also ask for the hot chili “ketchup” if you want some spice. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you ChrisIsAGeek. You’re so lucky to live in Poland. I’m eager to go back and you many have convinced me to try Zapiekanka (but I remain convinced it should only be eaten after midnight….)

      Liked by 1 person

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