Poles take their meals following the standard continental schedule: a light breakfast in the morning (usually some sandwiches with tea/coffee), then a larger lunch (or traditionally a "dinner") at around 1PM or 2PM, then a supper at around 7PM.
It is not difficult to avoid meat, with many restaurants offering at least one vegetarian dish. Most major cities have some exclusively vegetarian restaurants, especially near the city center. Vegan options remain extremely limited, however.
Traditional Polish cuisine tends to be hearty, rich in meats, sauces, and vegetables; sides of pickled vegetables are a favorite accompaniment. Modern Polish cuisine, however, tends towards greater variety, and focuses on healthy choices. In general, the quality of "store-bought" food is very high, especially in dairy products, baked goods, vegetables and meat products.
A dinner commonly includes the first course of soup, followed by the main course. Among soups, barszcz czerwony (red beet soup, a.k.a. borscht) is perhaps the most recognizable: a spicy and slightly sour soup, served hot. It's commonly poured over dumplings ( barszcz z uszkami or barszcz z pierogami), or served with a fried pate roll (barszcz z pasztecikiem). Other uncommon soups include zupa ogórkowa, a cucumber soup made of a mix of fresh and pickled cucumbers; zupa grzybowa, typically made with wild mushrooms; also, flaki or flaczki - well-seasoned tripe.
Pierogi are, of course, an immediately recognizable Polish dish. They are often served along side another dish (for example, with barszcz), rather than as the main course. There are several types of them, stuffed with a mix of cottage cheese and onion, or with meat or even wild forest fruits. Gołąbki are also widely known: they are large cabbage rolls stuffed with a mix of grains and meats, steamed or boiled and served hot with a white sauce or tomato sauce.
Bigos is another unique, if less well-known, Polish dish: a "hunter's stew" that includes various meats and vegetables, on a base of pickled cabbage. Bigos tends to be very thick and hearty. Similar ingredients can also be thinned out and served in the form of a cabbage soup, called kapuśniak. Some Austro-Hungarian imports have also become popular over the years, and adopted by the Polish cuisine. These include gulasz, a local version of goulash that's less spicy than the original, and sznycel po wiedeńsku, which is a traditional shnitzel, often served with potatoes and a selection of vegetables.
When it comes to food-on-the-go, foreign imports tend to dominate (such as kebab or pizza stands, and fast-food franchises). An interesting Polish twist is a zapiekanka, which is an open-faced baguette, covered with mushrooms and cheese (or other toppings of choice), and toasted until the cheese melts. Zapiekanki can be found at numerous roadside stands and bars.
Poland is also known for two unique cheeses, both made by hand in the [Podhale] mountain region in the south. Oscypek is the more famous: a hard, salty cheese, made of unpasteurized sheep milk, and smoked. It goes very well with alcoholic beverages such as beer. The less common is bryndza, a soft cheese, also made with sheep milk (and therefore salty), with a consistency similar to spreadable cheeses. It's usually served on bread, or baked potatoes. Both cheeses are covered by the EU Protected Designation of Origin (like the French Roquefort, or the Italian Parmegiano-Reggiano).
If you want to eat cheaply, you should visit a milk bar (bar mleczny). A milk bar is very basic sort of fast food restaurant that serves cheap Polish fare. Nowadays it has become harder and harder to find one. It was invented by the communist authorities of Poland in mid-1960s as a means to offer cheap meals to people working in companies that had no official canteen. Its name originates from the fact that until late 1980s the meals served there were mostly dairy-made and vegetarian (especially during the martial law period of the beginning of the 1980s, when meat was rationed). The milk bars are usually subsidized by the state. Eating there is a unique experience - it is not uncommon that you will encounter people from various social classes - students, businessmen, university professors, elderly people, sometimes even homeless, all eating side-by-side in a 1970s-like environment. Presumably, it is the quality of food at absolutely unbeatable price (veggie main courses starting from just a few złotych!) that attracts people. However, a cautionary warning needs to be issued - complete nut jobs do dine at milk bars too, so even if you're going to for the food, you'll end up with dinner and a show. Curious as to what the show will entail? Well, each show varies, but most of them will leave you scratching head and require the suspension of reality.
For the most part, Polish restaurants and bars do not include gratuity in the total of the check, so your server will be pleased if you leave them a tip along with the payment. On average, you should tip 10% of the total bill. If you tip 15% or 20%, you probably should have received excellent service. Also, saying "Dziękuję" ("thank you") after paying means you do not expect any change back, so watch out if you're paying for a 10 zł coffee with a 100 zł bill. With all that said, many Poles may not leave a tip, unless service was exceptional. Poles don't usually tip bar staff.
Poland is on the border of European "vodka" and "beer culture". Poles enjoy alcoholic drinks but they drink less than the European average. You can buy beer, vodka and wine. Although Poland is known as the birthplace of vodka, local beer seems to have much more appeal to many Poles. Another traditional alcoholic beverage is mead. Polish liqueurs and nalewka (alcoholic tincture) are a must.
Officially, in order to buy alcohol one should be over 18 years old and be able to prove it with a valid ID (which is strictly enforced).
Poland's brewery tradition began in the Middle Ages. Today Poland is one of top beer countries in Europe.
Although not well known internationally, Poland traditionally sports some of the best pilsner-type lagers worldwide. The most common big brands include:
Micro-breweries and gastro-pubs are on the rise, in particular in the larger cities, and many delicatessen or supermarkets carry smaller brands, including hand-crafted beers of many types.
Common brands are:
Deluxe (more expensive) brands include Chopin and Belvedere. Expect to pay about 100 zł a bottle (2007 prices). Most Poles consider these brands to be "export brands", and usually don't drink them.
Poland does make wines around Zielona Góra in Dolnośląskie, Małopolskie and Podkarpackie in the Beskids with the most famous Polish vineyard in of the Dionisos of Jasło and Świętokrzyskie in central Poland. They used to be only available from the winery or at regional wine festivals, such as in Zielona Góra. But with a new law passed in 2008, this has changed and Polish wines are also available in retail stores.
As for imported wine, apart from the usual old and new world standards, there is usually a choice of decent table wines from central and eastern Europe, such as Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, the Balkans, and Georgia.
It winter, many Poles drink grzaniec (mulled wine), made of red wine heated with spices such as cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. A similar drink can be made with beer, although wine is the more popular method.
Mead - Miód Pitny is a traditional and historical alcohol drink in Poland. Mead is brewed from honey and has excellent unusual taste similar to wine. Original Polish mead contain 13-20% alcohol. Sometimes it can be very sweet. Today Poles have a strange relationship with mead. All of them have heard of it, almost none have ever tried it.
Poles are very keen on beer and vodka, and you'll find that cocktails are often expensive but can be found in most bars in most major cities.
Throw stereotypes out the door. For Poles, one of the most important staples to quench their thirst is not wódka or beer, but rather tea and coffee.
When ordering a coffee, you'll find that it is treated with respect reminiscent of Vienna, rather than, say, New York. Which is to say: you'll get a fresh cup prepared one serving at a time, with table service that assumes you'll sit down for a while to enjoy it. Mass-produced to-go coffee remains highly unpopular, although chains such as Coffee Heaven have been making inroads. Curiously, there are still only a few Starbucks shops in the whole country.
Ordering a tea, on the other hand, will usually get you a cup or kettle of hot water, and a tea bag on the side, so that the customer can put together a tea that's as strong or as weak as they like. This is not uncommon in continental Europe, but may require some adjustment for visitors. Tea houses with large selection of good quality teas and a relaxing atmosphere are gaining popularity.
For the most part, a good coffee can be had for 5 - 10 zł a cup, while a cup of tea can be purchased for the same, unless you happen to order a small kettle, in which case you'll probably pay something between 20 - 30 zł.
Drinking water with a meal is not a Polish tradition; having a tea or coffee afterwards is much more common. If you want water with a meal, you might need to ask for it - and you will usually get a choice of carbonated (gazowana) or still (niegazowana) bottled water, rather than a glass of tap water. As a result water is never free, and is pretty expensive too compared to the average price of a meal (about 4zl for one glass). Beware that even "still" bottled water, while not visibly bubbly, will still contain some carbon dioxide.
Carbonated mineral waters are popular, and several kinds are available. Poland was known for its mineral water health spas (pijalnie wód) in the 19th century, and the tradition remains strong - you can find many carbonated waters that are naturally rich in minerals and salts. You can also travel to the spas such as Szczawnica or Krynica, which are still operational.
Opinions regarding the safety of tap water vary: odds are it's OK, but most residents opt to boil or filter it anyway.
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