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A bar mleczny—literally "milk bar" in Polish (though not to be confused with the Australian milk bar)—is a Polish form of cafeteria. The first typical milk bar "Mleczarnia Nadświdrzańska" was established in 1896 in Warsaw by Stanisław Dłużewski, a member of Polish landed gentry. Although the typical bar mleczny had a menu based on dairy items, these establishments generally also served other, non-dairy traditional Polish dishes as well.
The commercial success of the first milk bars encouraged other businessmen to copy this type of restaurant. As Poland regained her independence after World War I, milk bars appeared in most of the country. They offered relatively cheap but nourishing food, and as such achieved even more prominence during the economic depression in the 1930s.
The role of cheap restaurants carried through World War II. After the fall of German Nazi regime, Poland became a communist state, and a satellite of the Soviet Union. The majority of the population was poor, contrary to official propaganda, and expensive and even moderately-priced restaurants were derided as "capitalist". During the post-war years, most restaurants were nationalized and then closed down by the communist authorities. In the mid-1960s milk bars were common as a means of offering cheap meals to people working in companies that had no official canteen. They still served mostly dairy-based and vegetarian meals, especially during the period of martial law in the early 1980s, when meat was rationed.
The prevalent idea at that time was to provide all people with cheap meals at the place of their work. At times the price of the meals served in the workplace canteens was included in a worker's salary. However, there was also a large number of people working in smaller firms that had no canteen at their disposal. Because of this, during the tenure of Władysław Gomułka, the authorities created a network of small self-service eateries. The meals, subsidized by the state, were cheap and easily available to anyone.
Apart from raw or processed dairy products, milk bars also served egg (omelets or egg cutlets), cereal or flour-based meals such as pierogi. After the fall of the communist system and the end of shortage economy, the majority of milk bars went bankrupt as they were superseded by regular restaurants. However, some of them were preserved as part of the relics of the welfare state so as to support the poorer members of the Polish society.
In early 2010 milk bars were seen to make a comeback. They became small, inexpensive restaurants that took advantage of welfare state nostalgia, while providing good quality food and customer service. Due to their good locations, milk bars often fall victim to gentrification processes and are defended by protest groups.
Some people prefer milk bars over fast-food restaurants because of the homemade-style food and low prices. A typical three course lunch can cost as little as 2-3 euro. Currently every major Polish city has at least one "milk bar" somewhere in the city center. They are popular among the elderly, students, and working class, but are generally looked down upon by other social classes.
- A list of Polish bary mleczne
- "Nostalgia in a Polish 'milk bar'," CNN
- BBC video report about bary mleczne
- "Jest rozstrzygnięcie: nowy "mleczak" zamiast Prasowego". Gazeta Wyborcza. Retrieved 2012-02-08.