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Milk bars in Warsaw give you a taste of the Polish capital’s retro revival

Call it nostalgia, or call it making do. Though Warsaw has modernized since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s also in the middle of a retro revival.

The city boasts slick new shopping malls, architecturally daring office towers and striking new hotels, of course, but instead of tearing down blocky, Brutalist communist-era buildings, locals are sprucing them up, making them look almost cheery.

The much-derided East German-made Trabant cars (Time magazine called them the “car that gave communism a bad name”) and Cold War-era military transport vans now shuttle tourists. Neon signs from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s time, once destined for the trash heap, are now treasured in a museum.

Then there are the restaurants. A variety of cuisines unimaginable in the old Eastern Bloc (sushi bars, Turkish kebabs, Italian trattorias, Vietnamese pho, French patisseries and — heaven help us —  American fast food) has blossomed, but a class of restaurants that was a staple of communist days is enjoying a resurgence.

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Milk bars, or bar mleczny in Polish, are a reminder of the days when meat and fresh vegetables were scarce and state-run restaurants served cheap eats — mostly starches, root vegetables and, as the name implies, dairy. 

Although milk bars now serve a wider variety of foods (and the silverware is no longer chained to the table), the concept remains: inexpensive cafeteria-style establishments that feature comfort foods — soups, pirogi (dumplings) and, literally, a meat-and-potatoes menu.

For many Poles, the establishments are a hearty, homey throwback. For students and wallet-watchers, they’re cheap eats (main courses top out at about 12 zlotys, or about $3.10), and for visitors, they’re a cultural adventure.

I checked out four on my visit in July, and — because the meals are meant to be quick — I also checked out worthwhile nearby spots to visit before or after each meal.

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Bar Mleczny Rusalka

Milk bar Rusalka
Milk bar Rusalka
(Adam Lach / Napo Images for Los Angeles Times )

Address: 14 Florianska (St. Florian Street)

Phone: 011-48-22-619-52-00

The look: I took it as a good sign that the line at lunchtime at Rusalka was long. A cashier set the mood, literally keeping patrons in line as she took orders.

A wall of windows and gauzy curtains let in plenty of natural light on the wood-paneled walls and tables covered with seafoam green tablecloths under glass. The close quarters encouraged high turnover, ruling out a leisurely lunch.

The meal: From a thoughtfully translated English menu, I ordered pea soup laden with chunks of carrot, potato and tiny flecks of ham, and a fried pork cutlet with boiled potatoes and sautéed cabbage. After a few spoonfuls of the soup, I realized that either of these hearty, satisfying dishes would have sufficed.

Fun thing to do nearby: Rusalka is in the up-and-coming Praga district, across the Vistula River from central Warsaw and next to the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel and St. Florian the Martyr (3 Florianska), where Pope John Paul II once celebrated Mass.

Soho Factory at 25 Minska, a few tram stops southeast of here, is a blocks-wide redevelopment of old warehouses and factories. I was taken with the Neon Museum, where dozens of historic pieces that graced the city beginning in the 1950s are preserved and displayed by a passionate band of collectors. All around it are hip design studios, cafes, restaurants and neon and mural art.

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Bar Bambino

Bar Bambino’s large space has been updated with Midcentury Modern design that would look at home in Palm Springs.
Bar Bambino's large space has been updated with Midcentury Modern design that would look at home in Palm Springs.
(Adam Lach / Napo Images for Los Angeles Times )

Address: 19 Hoża 

Phone: 011-48-22-625-16-95

The look: I stopped for breakfast at Bar Bambino, a few minutes’ walk from the main Centralna junction for the city’s trams and buses. Bambino has been in business since the middle of the last century, and locals swear by it.

Its large space has been updated with Midcentury Modern design that would look at home in Palm Springs: clean right angles, wood-grain-pattern wallpaper accented with yellows and vines, and overhead lamps shaped like upside-down Dixie cups.

As I peeked through the pickup window into the kitchen, I could easily imagine myself in the same spot 30 years ago, watching the same cooks in the same matching frocks, aprons and white hairnets.

The meal: Even at the breakfast hour, patrons were ordering generous plates of pirogi, but I stuck to something more breakfast-y yet different and slightly exotic. Flour mixed into the eggs for my omelet lent a golden brown surface and halfway-to-pancake texture; it was topped with grated cheese and creamed spinach. A cup of prodigiously hot coffee had a centimeter-thick sludge of grounds at the bottom. The restaurant also serves lunch and dinner.

Fun thing to do nearby: It’s about a 25-minute walk or a quick bus ride to Stare Miasto — the Old Town, the painstakingly rebuilt and highly photogenic historic center along the Vistula River.

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Along the way is the Frederic Chopin Museum, in an attractively restored former mansion. The Polish-born composer is revered in his home country (Warsaw’s airport is named for him), although as a non-Chopinologist I found the museum hard to grasp, and many of the high-tech displays were out of order during my visit.

Prasowy

Milk Bar Prasowy has been business since 1954, now some walls are painted black.
Milk Bar Prasowy has been business since 1954, now some walls are painted black.
(Adam Lach / Napo Images for Los Angeles Times )

Address: 10-16 Marszałkowska

Phone: 011-48-666-353-776

The look: At this spot, in business since 1954, I happily installed myself at an outdoor picnic table and people- and tram-watched along the busy Ulica Marszałkowska, the south end of this main boulevard through the city center.

Indoors, floor-to-ceiling windows offer a similar view during less pleasant weather. The capacious dining room is painted hipster black, with a mural of sorts fashioned out of the stick-on vinyl letters used to create the menu board.                                                         

The meal: The restaurant had a sheet with a very rough translation of the menu, so I relied on the kindness of strangers (a friendly English-speaking local) to help me order rogot (chicken noodle soup) and a main course of pork loin with a hearty tomato demi-glace and a side of kasha (buckwheat). A nice touch: It came with a bowl of pickles and a shredded cabbage salad the consistency of sauerkraut, minus the briny bite.

Fun thing to do nearby: About a five-minute walk behind the restaurant is Lazienki Park, as rambling, rolling manicured and gracious as anything I’ve seen in Berlin or France’s Versailles.

Cobblestone and gravel paths link gently flowing waterways, sculpture gardens, former royal palaces, out buildings now repurposed as museums or cafes, and the Presidential Palace. Even with a map, I got lost and quickly realized that was part of the fun.

Bar Mleczny Maslanka

Maslanka’s logo, one of the milk bars in Warsaw.
Maslanka's logo, one of the milk bars in Warsaw.
(Andrew Bender )

Address: 43 Jana Pawla II, commercial space 34

Phone: 011-48-516-735-909

The look: Although the blocky exterior speaks of the communist era, this tiny cafe’s cheery, skylighted, powder blue-accented interior reminded me more of a frozen yogurt shop in Santa Monica, and the Coca-Cola umbrellas for the outdoor seating were definitely not communist.

This was the smallest of the milk bars I  visited and the only one where the kitchen wasn’t visible, though a display case held a colorful assortment of prepared salads.

The meal: There was no English menu, but I made it work with the help of the hostess. From many varieties of pirogi filled with meat, veggies or cheese, I ordered mine Russian-style, filled with a potato and farmer cheese mixture, and dressed with melted butter and bits of smothered onion.

First course was chlodnik (pronounced kwod-nik), a gentle, cream-based cold soup of cucumber and root vegetables. When I asked about the ingredients, I was told “everything that is white.”

Fun thing to do nearby: Fun is the wrong word, but the Polin Museum, named European Museum of the Year for 2016, is definitely worth visiting. It’s on the site of Warsaw’s World War II Jewish Ghetto and recounts the history of the Jews of Poland from the medieval days, when it was a golden land of promise and Jews thrived under Polish rule, to the horror of the Holocaust, ending with a rebirth of Jewish culture here.

I spent three hours perusing its interactive displays, although there’s a one-hour guide pamphlet if you don’t have that kind of time.

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO WARSAW

From LAX, KLM, United, Air France, American, Lufthansa and Jet Blue offer connecting service (change of planes) to Warsaw. Restricted round-trip airfares from $928, including taxes and fees.

WHERE TO STAY

H15, 15 Poznanska St., Warsaw; 011-48-22-55-38-700. I could not have been more surprised, or more pleased, with this 19th century building, a former Soviet Embassy occupied by the Germans during World War II and now renovated in urban chic with gorgeous marble bathrooms. Breakfast is served in an airy atrium lobby. It’s about little more than a five-minute walk from Warsaw’s Central Station or Centralny tram junction.

TO LEARN MORE

Warsaw Tourist Office

travel@latimes.com


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