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In Poland, Traditionalists Want To Revive Milk Bars

Nov 25, 2016
Originally published on November 25, 2016 8:28 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We report next on a wave of nostalgia in Poland. People miss old, greasy-spoon diners known as milk bars, which were subsidized under communist governments in the past. Now, many have gone out of business after subsidies were cut. And Poles who long for tradition are reviving them. Joanna Kakissis reports from Warsaw.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TEDDY BEAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Polish)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: There's a famous scene in the 1980 Polish cult film "Teddy Bear" that's set in a bar mleczny - a milk bar. There's this long line of diners ordering dishes like mashed potatoes with lard. People use cutlery chained to the tables. It's supposed to symbolize a dark chapter in Poland, a time of rationing and bureaucracy, but not to Jakub Szwedowski. He was in kindergarten when Communism fell in 1989. One of his earliest memories is eating Russian dumplings and potato pancakes at his hometown milk bar. Now, he's 32 and lives in central Warsaw, surrounded by wine bars.

Do you go to wine bars?

JAKUB SZWEDOWSKI: No.

(LAUGHTER)

KAKISSIS: He eats out at one place - his local milk bar, Zlota Kurka, or the Golden Hen. That's where I met him. He's been coming here every weekend for the last seven years.

SZWEDOWSKI: (Speaking Polish)

KAKISSIS: "I always get the same thing," he says - Russian dumplings and potato pancakes, which tastes kind of like his grandma's food.

SZWEDOWSKI: (Through interpreter) Tapas bars, wine bars or wherever the hipsters are going these days, those are just foreign fads. Milk bars are ours. And even if there's just one left standing, I'm going to eat there.

KAKISSIS: The first milk bar opened in Warsaw in 1896 when a cow farmer decided to sell cheap, largely dairy-based meals. After World War II, during communist times, there were 40,000 milk bars, though none with cutlery chained to the tables. Public funding to milk bars was cut after democracy, said Polish culture writer Olga Drenda. She spoke by Skype.

OLGA DRENDA: So if they close down, it means that either the city that they rely or - or the state funding has been reduced. The interest in them remains because there is always a group of people who just look for affordable food.

KAKISSIS: I had dinner at the Golden hen with a Polish journalist named Pawel Pieniazek. We ordered dumplings, potato pancakes and a watery fruit drink called compote - all delicious.

So this whole meal was how much?

PAWEL PIENIAZEK: A bit more than four bucks.

KAKISSIS: So four bucks for - basically, for both of us to eat and drink.

PIENIAZEK: Yep.

KAKISSIS: That's not a deal you get in too many places, huh?

PIENIAZEK: No way.

KAKISSIS: Another Warsaw milk bar, Prasowy, closed in 2011 after its state subsidies were cut. Protesters occupied it, and it reopened three years ago with private backing. Bartomiej Jalocha runs the kitchen here. He makes his mama's meaty barley soup. He also makes burritos.

BARTOMIEJ JALOCHA: (Through interpreter) People don't come here just for the prices. It's a place to be seen. Like right there in line, there's a businessman, there's an actor, people from all walks of life.

KAKISSIS: Milk bars, he says, are fashionable now.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Warsaw. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.