I can’t believe I never noticed this place before. I mean, it literally shares a courtyard with my favorite Kraków pizzeria. And yet, there it sits: Two open doors — one the humble kitchen, the other the tiny dining room. This is Jadłodajnia U Stasi. One of the best meals I’ve had in over 20 visits to Poland — and, by far, one of the cheapest.
I’m always pumping my local guides for privileged information — the latest restaurant leads for my Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook. Earlier today, over a coffee, I practically challenged Tomasz to impress me. He rattled off all of the touristy standbys. Yawn. C’mon — it’s time to really show me something.
“Well,” he said, glancing around conspiratorially, then breaking out into the uncontainable grin of someone who’s about to give up the goods. “There is this one place…”
Jadłodajnia U Stasi is a milk bar — that uniquely Polish phenomenon of a government-subsidized canteen, originally dating from the communist period to allow the workers to enjoy a meal out. Communism is a distant memory, but the milk bar concept has stuck around. Throughout Poland, you can get a filling meal of authentic traditional specialties for suspiciously low prices. It’s an option designed for locals, but open to visitors as well.
I’m something of a milk bar connoisseur. But I’d never heard of Jadłodajnia U Stasi. “It’s a place where all of the locals go for lunch,” Tomasz explained. “Homeless people, artists, businesspeople, politicians — everyone sits together at shared tables and eats well.” Even the name — jadłodajnia basically means “place for eating” — is old-fashioned. Straightforward. Unpretentious. A weekday-lunch-only place with a loyal local following. It’s clear: I have to try it.
Reaching the dead end of the courtyard — a block from Kraków’s glorious (and supremely touristy) Main Market Square — I step across the threshold into the humble space. With basic tile walls, basic coat racks, basic tables, and no “decor” to speak of, it feels entirely practical…almost clinical. The cashier — a tired-looking salt-and-pepper-haired man in a striped polo shirt and jean shorts — looks mildly surprised to see me. But then, as Tomasz has instructed, I tell him, “Angielski, po proszę.” He ruffles through the stack of photocopied menus, pulling the English one from the bottom of the pile and handing it to me. He makes a sweeping gesture across the tiny room. Sit anywhere.
I find a seat in the corner and get situated. Reaching for the ersatz tissue-paper napkins, I take a small stack of about six of seven — approximating one real napkin. Within moments, a kindly aproned woman suddenly appears tableside, cocking her head at me with a wordless smile: Ready to order? I beg for a few more minutes to consider my options.
The menu — a short but tempting list of Polish classics — is in three languages: German, French, and English. The dishes sound much better in French. Who can resist the viande de pot-au-feu? So that’s what I order: boiled beef, plus a plate of “Russian-style” pierogi. The server disappears behind a tattered red-and-white-checkered curtain into the kitchen. Well-worn pots simmer on a workhorse of a stove, tended by matronly, blue-smocked chefs.
Literally seconds later, the plate hits my table. I take a bite. And the rich flavors flood my taste buds. It’s “boiled beef,” yes, but that undersells it. (So does viande de pot-au-feu, for that matter.) It’s slow-roasted to fork-tender perfection, smothered in a perfectly balanced horseradish cream sauce, with a side of potatoes halfway between roasted and mashed. There’s also a plate of beetroot salad: grated strips of perfectly tender, vivid-purple beets, mixed in with explosive shards of horseradish. Fantastic.
A minute later, my plate of pierogi appears. The boiled-dough casing is ideally al dente. The filling — potato, cheese, and caramelized onion — is generously peppered. Flecks of pork cracklings add a punch of meaty flavor and fatty texture (and make the traces of water draining to the bottom of the plate glisten like gossamer). I’ve had a lot of pierogi around Poland, and most have been pretty flavorless. But these pierogi? These pierogi are perfect.
Savoring my meal, glancing around the room, I notice the steady flow of customers in and out. One thing’s for sure: I’m the only tourist taking photos of my food. Mindful of the fact that this is the kind of place that locals hesitate to tell tourists about — for exactly this reason — I stow my camera and munch discreetly. Everyone shares tables: Young people. Old people. Rich people. Poor people. And everyone focuses on the food in front of them — classic Polish dishes, executed just right.
Not many people get excited about Polish food. And that’s a shame, because it’s delicious. Polish cuisine is hearty comfort food, done exceptionally well — high cuisine for hardworking peasants. In this agriculturally oriented country — where virtually every square mile is rippled with undulating farms — you can taste the land in the food. Poles have mastered umami — that mysterious “fifth taste,” sometimes described as earthy or savory. Beetroot. Potatoes. Braised beef and pork. Cabbage. Smoke. Mushrooms. Dense rye bread. Rich, fatty proteins. Fermented vegetables. Field greens. Slow-simmering broths. All of these are Polish staples, and all are quintessentially umami. (After a few days here, I crave a meal of sharp, spicy food…just to give my palate some umami detox.) At the same time, Polish chefs are also playful with punchy herbs and spices: Cutting through that smothering blanket of earthiness are bright bursts of dill and peppercorn and marjoram and caraway. And, of course, plenty of garlic.
A well-dressed, bespectacled, professorial gentleman asks to share my table. We sit together in silence — sharing only the common language of satisfied “mmmms” — as I savor my last few bites. I notice a few splashes of purple beet juice on my shirt, which I decide to think of as prized, indelible souvenirs of a meal richly enjoyed.
Wishing my companion a hearty “Smacznego!” (“Enjoy your meal”), I bus my dishes to the little stainless-steel window where, periodically, a hand reaches out to collect them. On my way out the door, I pay my bill: 20 Polish zloty, or about $5.
Five bucks. For a meal so filling, I won’t need dinner. Two nights ago, I treated myself to a fancy Polish feast at a prime restaurant on the Main Market Square. Ordering high on the menu, I burned through $50 for a (frankly) mediocre dinner. At Jadłodajnia U Stasi, for literally cents on the dollar, I had a dramatically more satisfying meal — and a much more authentic Polish experience, to boot. If you’re headed to Kraków and want to do the same, just duck down the courtyard at Mikołajska 16. Don’t bother telling them that Cameron sent you…they don’t care. They’re too busy cranking out amazing food at ridiculous prices.