I am a sucker for cheap local food and when it comes to Poland, I am sucker for the milk bars. What exactly is milk bar you may ask. It is called Bar Mleczny in Polish, literally translated to English as "milk bar" (spare me the pronunciation, I really don't know shit about Polish). These bars originated from the communist time in Poland, nationalized and subsidized by the government (or by communist authorities back then), serving the poor working class. During that time, they mostly serve vegetarian and dairy-based meals as meat was scarce and expensive, thus diary-based products were the only source of protein they could get and provide to Polish people. That was how these bars got their name - milk bar.
These milk bars still exist today and are still subsidized by the government, keeping the price very low and affordable to all people. Most main dishes cost around 2-3 euros depending on what you order. I would compare the food here as cheap canteen food, however there's a homey feeling in the food here that no canteen could offer, and the food actually tastes good. I think eating in a milk bar is the most Polish thing you could do and the food here is the most Polish food you could eat. You would find all sort of people eating here, rich or poor, young or old. It's everyone from locals to tourists, from kindergarten kids to old grandpas and grandmas, from blue-collar to white-collar workers.
Besides from the cheap hearty and homey traditional Polish food, I have grown to like the experience eating in a milk bar. The menu is usually written on the wall in Polish with price for every item. In most places, the menu is daily updated which means that they rotate the main dishes everyday, so be prepared if you come here with a planned dish in your mind cuz you might end up not getting what you came for. But still, come with an open mind and be adventurous, you might be surprised to find out that beef tongue could taste that good after all. I also came to like the struggle of trying to translate every item on the Polish menu, and then most of the time give up and take some chances with a wild choice.
A lot of people complain about the customer service here. Oh but wait, there's no customer service in Poland, even local Polish say so. The staffs in most milk bar do not smile, not at you and not even at the locals here. So don't be too puzzled when you see their stern face. That's absolutely normal and is a part of this experience. And there's no service here either. You go to the reception to order and pay for your food, the receptionist will give you a ticket of the things you ordered. With that ticket, you go to the kitchen window and give it to one of the old ladies in the kitchen and wait for your food at the next window. That's usually the case but I get confused about where to get my food all the time since not all milk bars are designed or work the same way. Pay close attention when waiting for your food because those ladies will only shout out the name of the dish that they put out, and well, there's a lot of people doing the same thing as you do - waiting for their own food. It's best if you know exactly what you ordered, or have some kind of idea what your food would look like, or know how your dish is pronounced in Polish so you would recognize it when they call out. That way, it will save you some moment of confusion and embarrassment. But everything will be fine trust me. It just takes a bit of practice.
Some of the popular Polish dishes at milk bars that I absolutely love are pierogi (a kind of Polish dumpling), borscht (beetroot soup), pyzy (a kind of potato dumpling), pampuchy (a kind of steamed dumpling that Polish people eat with meat sauce), kopytka (yet another kind of dumpling), fried fish and several stew of unusual cuts like tongue and pork neck. Sorry for those fish and meat dishes I have absolutely no idea what they're called. You can google all of them out very quickly I'm sure. Pancakes are very popular as dessert here. Also the most popular drink in milk bars is kompot, a kind of homemade red fruit juice that in my opinion can have various taste depending on what milk bar you go to.
Be sure not to miss this unique experience when you're in Poland. I personally love it and I'm coming back to these milk bars for more Polish food discovery soon.