The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

In a Warsaw bar (or three)Posted on 7th October, 2010.

Our conversation shifts to the world of bars. We talk about the old ones that are disappearing, one by one. On a chilly night in Wola, you might be waiting for a tram at the dark end of the street, and notice nearby a small window with a blue light, and a darker still doorway. Nothing to give away what might lie behind the glass. Peer closer and you might make out a few tables and chairs,  a few huddled figures, a shiny counter with a few bottles behind it. There is no sound of music, only a drift of conversational voices, the clink of glasses. It may not seem that welcoming. The basics only, with no frills. You may look into the monthly Warsaw Insider magazine – it’s a useful starting point, let’s not deny it – and not find this bar. It’s more likely you will wander along the spruced up Nowy Świat towards the Palm Tree then turn left under some arches, past some Vietnamese fast food places and find here some bars with no name on the doors, housed in the small cabins with the metal grills in front, which seem tiny and intimate but also have a larger crowded basement. Here people just say, We’re going to Pavilions.

The nouveau popular bars in Praga – on Ulica Ząbkowska (which have been there a long time for the cognoscenti and are deserving of their reputation) or around the courtyard on 11 Listopada – we can surely leave you to find those yourself.

We wander the streets, a curmudgeonly pair, bemoaning the loss of the old bars. Warsaw is a fast changing city, where you might notice some evidence of the economic downturn, but in the past decade it has been knocking itself down and building itself up again in a fury of transformation. Already I find myself saying, Where’s that one gone in old Ochota, where there was one type of vodka only and one brand of beer, that seemed like a dusty corridor piled up with beer crates and boxes of crisps and only had two small tables? It’s been swallowed up by the pizza house next door. Or it’s now a wine shop. Or an empty space. Forgotten.

On Nowy Świat there is one bar that seems to have been there since time immemorial, though it looks a little tidier these days. Amatorska, the basics with mirrors, was once the kind of place where an old guy walked in the door and by the time he reached the bar at the end his drink and choice of food was laid before him, where these customers were long standing. Here’s a glass of vodka to wash down a portion of chicken liver or French fries. You might try flaki (tripes), fasolka po bretońsku (beans a la Bretagne), sausages, sometimes pierogi. There’s rather nothing much for veggies. If you venture down the tiny spiral stairwell to the bathroom, you can, we have been assured, experience ‘the true smell of PRL’. The air freshener down there has a particular spicy quality that is both dusty and pungent, and in no way contemporary. It simply smells of the past. (For aesthetes, there is also bar Piotruś opposite, an ancient institution managing not to turn into Starbucks.)

Another bar that seems slightly out of place can be found Al. Solidarności near to Metro Ratusz Arsenał. If you stand on the tram platform (the trams going across the river to Praga), you’ll see a small building at the foot of a block of flats. Large windows, brown lace curtains usually drawn, you wouldn’t know it was a bar. Enter and you find a warm wooden interior, a little careworn perhaps, a number of round tables, people drinking tea or coffee, beer or vodka with a hot dog or wuzetka cake or apple pie. These are places that people pop into after work, or between taxi jobs or shifts. They are palpably untrendy, and all the better for it.

Finally, for an acceptable version of trendiness, or for an evocation of old good times, let’s call in at Przekąski Zakąski, the 24 hour bistro opposite Hotel Bristol on Krakowskie Przedmieście. This one is the original recreation of the old style bars, with a basic selection of traditional snacks and vodka and beer at a basic price. And open all hours. Magnificent and popular – it has a fans page on Facebook of course. This is the place to discuss irregular verbs with a Varsovian, whose sense of English grammar is far superior to mine.

I drink some vodka (present);

I drank some vodka (past);

I have drunk some vodka (past participle).