Beer still standing, yeah, yeah, yeah! TFN steps back in time to explore some of Warsaw’s oldest bars
It’s Friday, 5 p.m. Under a smoggy December sky, Warsaw grinds and splutters to the strangled cries of its rush hour traffic.
It’s a grim, bleak sight, but one offset by the capital’s infectious big city vibe. Offering a sense of solace, a steady stream of people trickle into the bars, attracted by the irresistible glow of the city’s spread of venues.
Reflecting the city’s rapid globalization, for many that has come to mean checking into a dapper cocktail bar or a craft beer den with maverick brews sold at eyewatering prices. For others, meanwhile, it’s come to be about the flashy food and drink hubs found in revived factory settings.
But for a minority, the essence of the weekend rests in the foggy little bars that were established during Communism. Though fast dwindling in number, and left utterly winded by the lockdown, these have tapped a new wave of fans among a small group of people.
Capturing the essence of retro Poland, Paragraf is one such example. Revealing itself in two parts, visitors first tread inside a panelled room festooned with illuminated signage advertising big lotto jackpots and local brands of beer; only the plastic petition hanging over the bar hints to the present.
A gentle wave of confusion ripples over the kindly staff when they realize a foreigner in their midst, but the sincerity of their welcome can’t be disputed.
Neither, it must be said, can their alcoholic stock: amid classic ‘get drunk quick’ spirits sits a choice of regional and craft beers that puts many of Warsaw’s more modern-minded bars to shame.
But at this point Paragraf’s venture into the contemporary world ends. Topped with a giant whirring fan, it is to the smoking room most head, and you don’t need a nicotine habit to appreciate its lure.
Like stepping back in time, drinkers huddle around tables fringed by spiky plants and vintage framed photos of bygone times – it’s a hive of hushed gossip and distant-sounding banter.
Unexpectedly, somewhat, not all customers are the wrong side of 80. There are many, in fact, that are closer to 18.
“We’ve been coming here for ages,” reveals one table of students. “We live way out in the suburbs but travel out here often because we love it so much.”
Rakishly attired in turtleneck sweaters and fedora hats, natural instinct lends one to suspect that irony is at play, but this proves not to be the case.
“Of course there’s more fashionable places in Warsaw, but the atmosphere here is brilliant,” they say. “You won’t find the same spirit in other bars – there’s something real about this place.”
It’s a sentiment repeated elsewhere.
Not far away, Bar Kawowy sits behind steamed-up windows that give way to a cramped space heaving with custom.
Trinkets and plants abound, clasping onto surfaces that are a visual feast: tiger print curtains and flimsy wood panels.
Glass sconces dangle overhead, casting light onto decorative vases and an ornamental pig that’s placed on a counter displaying wedges of sernik.
Tables are fully occupied, but we find ourselves beckoned over to join one regular who extols the charms of the place. Mingling with others is a natural hazard, and before long we join conversation with another table – this one filled with young Belgians visiting Warsaw for the first time.
“We’re here to meet a friend living over here,” they tell us. “We’ve visited plenty of other more modern bars, but this one feels like home. It’s a got a great vibe. You can feel history.”
Slapping down playing cards while they talk and swig back pints, you feel their praise is sincere. For them, it’s the ultimate local experience – a way to understand Warsaw and the people that live here.
There are other cult venues though that have felt the need to fast-track to the future.
Acting as an example to all those wishing to successfully make this transition, there can be no finer example than Jaś & Małgosia.
Relaunched in 2014, it first appeared on the city’s map in 1968 and quickly became enshrined in Warsaw folklore.
Set inside a communist era pavilion, it’s rehabilitation seven-years ago saw a comprehensive overhaul of the interior and the injection of an entirely new vibe – today, a new generation of digital nomads gathers to tap into their macs during the day, before being slowly outnumbered by dating couples and local creatives seeking liquid refreshment.
In the background, the click-clack sound of tumbling dice competes with the hip chillout tunes that slide from the speakers: board games, it transpires, are as popular here as the changing exhibitions, weekend workshops and author meet-and-greets.
Though significantly smartened, hints to the past exist via a smattering of 60s furniture, a jukebox-shaped coffee machine and a bar counter designed to mimic those found half-a-century before.
But for Instagrammers, there is no bigger pull than the signature neon that crowns the exterior. Lovingly recreated following a crowd-funding campaign, its return predated Warsaw’s fad for neon and helped kickstart a trend that shows no sign of slowing.
Yet in terms of name alone, perhaps nowhere has a bigger cachet than Amatorska. Established on Nowy Świat in the mid-to-late 1950s, this living legend continues to trade despite being forced from its spiritual home in 2019.
But whilst the postcode has changed, Amatorska’s spirit has endured – as too has its hardy band of loyal regulars.
Now relocated to upmarket Foksal street, fears that Amatorska would morph into a generic bar so typical of modern Warsaw have proved unfounded, with the place instead choosing to honour the wishes of its patrons to remain accessible to all.
And above everything else, Amatorska has always been a place for the people. Attracting a wide cross-section of Warsaw, the diversity of its guests has consistently been cited as one of its major attractions.
Often frequented by the award-winning British journalist Ed Vulliamy, it was in places like Amatorska “that the seeds of Poland’s revolution were born in the early 1980s,” the veteran hack once asserted.
Certainly, it does not take much to imagine Amatorska as a thriving hub in which rumour, dissent and boozy free-thinking would have once flourished among its varied clientele.
Entered under a glowing sign preserved from their previous locale, it remains in tune with its heritage and tradition, a venue that bubbles to the sound of lively conversation.
Yet the connections to the past run deeper – decorated with the same wipe-clean tables and lighting fixtures that adorned the original, other bits and pieces have also survived the move: for instance, a coffee grinder dating back several decades.
Remaining in the same family since its inception, neither is it unlikely that you will find yourself talking to Anna Chmielewska, the granddaughter of Amatorska’s first owner.
“It was heart-breaking when we learned that Amatorska would have to move,” she tells TFN, “but although we don’t know if we’ll ever be able to return, the new location has helped us gain a new generation of guests whilst retaining the old regulars.”
Speaking of the magical times growing up around Amatorska, Chmielewska fondly reminisces of the bank of cakes that were once sold by her ancestors, as well as the hot dogs served from a street-facing window.
“Amazing times,” she says, glowing at the memory. But distant as the past may at first seem, to others Amatorska is the perfect bridge to a different era – though the address has since changed, the sense of community has remained defiantly intact, and in the process ensured that Amatorska has retained the honesty and ambience that its followers clearly cherish.
Likewise, it is this atmosphere that can be considered the main driving force of Piotruś on Nowy Świat.
Touting the dimensions of a shoebox, visitors step inside under a striped awning to discover a perfectly preserved piece of PRL Poland.
Bathed in deep reddish shades, it’s a squeeze at the best of times – piled high with seats, regulars cram inside greeting each entrant with hearty slugs of vodka and enthusiastic gulps of beer.
The sense of camaraderie is impossible to ignore: looking around, you’d imagine that the locals have known each other for years – and most probably decades.
Overseen by Irena Dankowska since 1985, her stewardship of this bar – which itself dates from 1958 – is as celebrated by the barflies as her home-cooked meals.
Yet this should not be thought of as a place closed off to outsiders.
Broad in its appeal and general allure, that much is affirmed by printed cutouts celebrating this bar’s appearance in the international press.
Moreover, while clear spirits are a best-seller, the presence of Polish craft beer demonstrates a willingness to adapt to the times and bend to market forces.
Certainly, this flexibility has been needed. Reputedly close to bankruptcy during the lockdown, Piotruś has had to think fast to safeguard its future.
But that a treasure trove such as this faces uncertainty should be viewed as a tragic indictment of contemporary times.
Featured, among others, in the works of author Marek Nowakowski, Piotruś is nothing if not a precious relic deserving of preservation. Offering a quite unique glimpse into the past, bars of this ilk deserve not just to survive but also thrive.
More than just places for a snatched drink or two, visit to immerse yourself in Poland’s history and tradition while simultaneously basking in this nation’s principles of warmth and hospitality.