There’s a famously quirky, hard to find, cafeteria in Kraków, Poland that takes the idea of hole-in-the-wall dining to a whole new level.
It’s called U Babci Maliny, and it’s a cultural gem of a milk bar. Milk bars are a uniquely Polish, cafeteria-styled, dining experience. They’re a holdover from the Soviet era when the government subsidized meals for workers, and they’re still the cheapest option for a good hearty meal out.
We ate out at a few milk bars in Poland, and U Babci Maliny was my favorite overall experience. Their pierogi were tasty, the portions gigantic, and their clientele was a mix of locals, tourists, and students. But what really made it standout was it’s hole-in-the-wall location, bizarre decor, and sense of community.
The adventure finding it.
U Babci Maliny is difficult to find. It’s on the basement floor of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences at 17 Sławkoska. We found the street number easily enough, but had immediate misgivings when we opened the heavy wood door to find a long poorly lit hallway lined with doors but no signs.
It was clear that we had just walked into some sort of educational institution. We saw university flyers in Polish for various events tacked to a wall nearby, but nothing for U Babci Maliny. So, we began searching the building. It was quiet. It was dark. And we saw no one. The further in we explored, the more out of place we felt. It was like being in a campus building after hours. It was spooky. After awhile, we gave up and retraced our steps to get out.
Just as we were about to exit the building, I noticed a glass door to one side that I had previously missed. I opened it up onto a dark courtyard. I could barely see the grinning smile of the U Babci Maliny on an A-frame sign. I felt a rush of discovery and called out to Jim. We were on the right track.
It’s refreshingly bizarre decor.
We crossed the courtyard and descended steps into a basement with low ceilings and more low lighting. Colorful decorations and strange knickknacks started popping up everywhere, and we could finally hear the din of an eatery just behind another heavy wooden door. We opened it — a literal hole in the wall — to find a mid-sized dining hall.
It had the grungy aesthetic of a college sports bar mixed with the wildly colorful knick knack collection of a favorite aunt or grandmother. In fact the name U Babci Maliny translates to “Granny’s Raspberry.” There was so much to look at: china collections, flat screen tvs, delicately painted handicrafts, and a fish tank to name just a few!
The communal tables.
There were also variety of tables at U Babci Maliny. We chose one of the long skinny ones with similarly long benches. They easily sat ten or more people on each side. They were communal tables, which means anyone can sit at them even when there are already people sitting down. It’s an awesome chance for visitors to rub elbows with locals and made me feel more a part of all the hub bub, even though I was too shy this time to talk to any of my neighbors.
If you go:
U Babci Maliny is a small local chain with a total of four locations, all in Krakow. We reccommend the original, which is located at 17 Sławkoska within the walls of the old city. After entering the building, look for a glass door on your left that opens onto a courtyard. Follow the sign for U Babci Maliny across the courtyard and down a flight of stairs to the basement level.
Once inside U Babci Maliny, go to the counter to retrieve a menu and order your food. Get a receipt with a number on it. Find a table to sit at. Wait for your number to be called. For us it was called in Polish first, then when no one answered, they called it in English. Get your food from the pick up counter and hand them your ticket.
Sit down and enjoy! Afterwards, make sure to clear your own tray. Watch others to see where the tray return is.
— Laura Rowley