There are still some places in Poland where the spirit of past eras flows with strength and vigor. It sometimes seems that the PRL (People?s Republic of Poland) was not as bad as the great majority of Poles declare. Reminiscences of the PRL days usually evoke strong reactions, ranging from decided hostility to effusive longing. But as controversial as the period is, no one can decry its merit in the creation of the dairy bars (?bar mleczny? — milk bar).
Dairy bars, originally intended as eating-houses for the poor, sprang up like mushrooms in the late 1940s. In only a few years, there were a few hundred of them. They quickly won over pensioners, students, and everyone else who cared about the price of eating out.
The government-run co-operative ?Spolem,? which owned the bars, as well as most grocery stores and restaurants, explained in a newsletter published around the opening of the first dairy bar at the end of the 40s: ?A diary bar is understood to be a self-service, nonalcoholic institution of mass feeding that is open for use by the general public. It provides for the production and sale of dairy and vegetarian dishes.?
Dairy bars served meals based on cereal, eggs, or flour (pierogi ? semi-circular, stuffed dumplings of unleavened dough). They served pancakes, various kinds of soups: tomato, pickle, or sauerkraut, vegetable dishes like boiled carrot with green bean, red beets or spinach and drinks made from boiled fruits (?compote?). This menu was not due to any particular concern for healthy food, but because of a shortage in the meat market.
In the dark ages of the PRL, the women, who stood behind the counter in an apron with the Spolem logo, wielded an unshared power. The decorations were the same everywhere: square tables with checkered oilcloths, plastic flowers and banners on the wall proclaiming, ?Culture is obligatory, even when eating.? The menu was placed on a plastic board, which frequent visitors called ?the timetable.?
All in all, price is what the dairy bars are all about. They were and still are very inexpensive. This is because the bars are subsidized by the state and sometimes by the city council as well. Each year around 15 mln zloty is allocated from the budget for the dairy bar?s subventions. Subsidy is paid at the rate of 40 percent of product value with an added allotment for the owner?s operational margins. Of course, from time to time this has triggered storms. Nevertheless, the dairy bars are often the only chance for poor people to have a hot meal. Some of the bars have signed agreements with welfare providers. These organizations issue food vouchers that are honored in the dairy bars.
In the end, it all boils down to one question?what is left of our past, and how has it changed?
There are still plenty of dairy bars in Krakow, but their character is not the same as in the old days. The best known is ?Pod Temida? on ul. Grodzka. Its popularity is obvious at lunchtime, when the lines stretch out of the bar and people mill about on the street out front. Standing there, you hear almost every European language.
Pod Temida is extensively mentioned in such guidebooks as Lonely Planet. However, popularity has one inevitable drawback ? higher prices. Though still competitive in comparison to restaurants, they are no longer for the poor.
Pod Temida retains but few of the ?dairy bar? traits characteristic of past decades. The crowd is partly responsible for keeping the pot boiling, as the assortment of dishes and trays from Ikea carries us a little further from the days of the People?s Republic.
But the ?good old days? live on just a short walk down ul. Grodzka, past Wawel and Debnicki Bridge. Opposite the ?Jubilat? department store, on the corner of ul. Kosciuszki and ul. Krasickiego, sits the ?Flisak? dairy bar.
This is what it was all about. This is dairy bar hardcore! Flisak has been pulled out alive from the PRL. Though oilcloths no longer cover the wooden tables, everything else is in its place. A plate of soup still costs less than 1 zl and you can get pierogi for around 3 zl. The women behind the counter still exercise a seemingly invincible power. The plastic menu board on the wall (something you are only likely to see in Flisak or a Stanislaw Bareja movie) lists almost no meat dishes, while there are plenty of pancakes, pierogi and soups from which to choose. Flisak verifies that the main clientele of dairy bars is students and pensioners.
?Kazimierz? — on ul. Krakowska, a few steps from Rynek Wolnica in Kazimierz district?is a softer version of Flisak. At noon it is almost empty, with only a few regular customers, mostly pensioners. It looks quite stylish: plastic flowers decorate the tables; paneling covers the walls, and the least expensive chairs possible. But the menu is quite varied and prices are friendly.
Dairy bars are a specific phenomenon. They are an invention of a system most would rather forget. Nevertheless, the Internet is filled with the rave reviews of their fans. In Krakow 15 dairy bars still run about. Most of them are a perfect reminder of the past half century. A kind of curiosity occurred a few years ago, when a dairy bar opened in Bienczyce (a part of Nowa Huta) and quickly closed under rather mysterious circumstances. Yet whatever is said or thought about dairy bars, they are decidedly worth trying.