Smacznego is the signal to start your hearty Polish meal, for hearty it will be: most Polish food is not for the timid or the dieting. The cuisine draws from a number of other nations (Slavic, and otherwise) but still retains some unique features, and home-cooking will usually beat out that found in the growing number of restaurants. Before 1989, eating out was uncommon. Since then, the idea is catching on but is haphazardly executed; something might look good from the outside, but taste like hell on the inside. The best approach to locating a good Polish restaurant: ask. If that doesn't work, go by the number of people in a restaurant. If you see a lot of happy people pigging out, and more hoping to do so, that might be a good place to try.
For some basic menu items po polsku: click here.
Before digging in to a rich entree, start with a soup. 'Zupy' remain a Polish standard, almost always made from scratch, and definitely worth an exploratory sip. In the summer, try the cold, creamy beet and vegetable soup 'chlodnik' or the hot, spicy version 'barszcz' in the colder months. Another soup worth tasting is the creamy, sausage and potato 'zurek'.
Would you like some meat with that?
Once souped up, move on to your entree. Poles offer up beef, pork, sausage, ham, chicken, and wild game with a frequency that shames even Americans. Most 'kotlets' are fried or grilled, topped with a creamy sauce of some sort or another and accompanied by (usually) potatoes in some form or another. A salad might come along, but it'll be a simple affair of lettuce, sliced cucumber, carrots, or tomatoes. More complex salads pop up here and there, so look for them under a separate section of the menu ('salatka' or 'surowka').
Other Polish favorites with international appeal are 'bigos' and 'pierogi'. The recipe for bigos - a stew of cabbage, sausage, meat, and sometimes mushrooms - is a national debate: every Pole has at least one passionately communicated opinion. On the other hand, pierogi seem equally popular but without exciting the same culinary fervour: similar to ravioli, pierogi are dumplings stuffed with meat ('mieso'), cabbage and mushrooms ('kapusta i grzybami'), fruit, or the all-time-best, cheese and potatoes ('ruskie'). Served cold, hot, fried, with or without sour cream, pierogi will satisfy the most neophobic of stomachs.
Like most cuisines that draw from a peasant culture, simple ingredients pop up again and again: for Poles, one staple was cabbage. You'll find it as a soup 'kapusniak', sliced up for salads, pickled for sauerkraut, the foundation of bigos, or stuffed with rice, meat, or mushrooms as 'golabki'. Potatoes are another, which show up in the pierogi, as a side to a meat dish, or fried and served with sour milk as 'placki'.
Not-so-sweets for the sweet
If you want to round out your meal with something sweet, pay for your dinner and take a walk to the nearest ice cream stand ('lody').
Ice cream is the national past-time: Poles lick it up even in the winter.
If you crave something warmer, try packi (pastry stuffed with sweet jellies) or makowiec (poppy-seed cake). Other 'ciasta' on offer in the sweet shops ('cukierna') will tempt any tooth, but remember that in general, European pastries are not inundated with the fat and sugar more common to state-side tongues.
That oh-so-western contribution, fast food or take out, has (sort of) reached Poland. You can find a McDonald's on every other street corner in Warsaw, or a Pizza Hut, or a KFC if home is what you're looking for. But if something more local is your desire, try the ubiquitous 'bar wietnamski' stands (which offer the standard generic Asian dishes) or the burger/hot dog/sandwicz stands that cover the other hemisphere. For a touch of the middle-east, seek out the stands on the corner of ul. Marszalkowska and Swietokrzyska in Warsaw; they offer up some tasty falafel, humus, and other unexpected favorites. Some Polish quick bites not yet pushed off the market are 'zapiekanki' (half a baguette topped with melted cheese and ketchup) or its quite tasty cousin 'bulka z pieczarkami' (a whole baguette stuffed with mushrooms).
Take care when frequenting the fast food stands or bars: some use substandard ingredients and have not yet figured out how to mask them with tasty spicing. Use the 'number of people rule' and patronize those that everyone else is.
Poles like to drink, and usually they like to drink chilled vodka. So don't ever try to keep up, unless you've had lots of practice. Vodka comes in a number of varieties, from clear ('Zytnia', 'Krakus', 'Chopin', 'Wyobrowa') or flavoured ('Zubrowka', 'Pieprzowka', 'Krupnik'). Most nip it back neat, with a chaser of some sort, but mixing it with orange or apple juice is also quite popular. If you're looking for something softer, beer is on tap everywhere and the national brands 'Zywiec', 'Okocim', or 'EB' are worth a taste.
For the non-alcoholic, ask for bottled mineral water ('woda mineralna'), a fruit juice ('sok'), tea ('herbata') or coffee ('kawa') but beware before you sip the latter two. Both are usually prepared by freely mixing the dry with the wet; if you don't wait for your tea to seep, or your coffee to cool, you're ensured a first gritty mouthful. Poles don't add milk to their tea or coffee generally, so you'll have to ask for it ('z mlekiem'). For the soft-drinkers, coke and pepsi (non-light versions usually) are standard, as are some Polish generics.
Two simple things to remember when paying: credit cards and tipping are not the norm. If you need to pay with plastic, notify your waiter before he brings the bill; you'll save a lot of time and trouble (click here for more info). As for tipping, rounding the total up one or two zloty is fine in most places save the western-styled ones; if in such, tip the usual 10-15% if you liked the service. If you didn't, don't.
Dying for some vegies?
Since even Polish salads often contain meat, the decidedly vegetarian should look for 'potrawy jarskie' or 'bez miesne' on the menu of the finer restaurants, or seek out a 'bar mleczny'. These rapidly disappearing milk bars (commonplace in the communist era) offer meatless meals at a cheap price.
What am I ordering?|
Since English is penetrating Poland slowly, you won't find much help from the menu or the waiter. You can get a recognizable meal if you keep in mind these basic terms. Note: don't be surprised if your waiter tells you 'nie ma'; that old communist favorite -- don't have -- hasn't quite died out yet and at times some dishes will not be available.
When do we eat?|
In the bigger cities, the famous Polish hospitality can influence the restaurant hours and 'last guest' can mean just that: the restaurant finishes when you do. Some establishments in smaller towns won't be this flexible, often closing by 21.00. So if you're stuck after hours, try the bigger hotels (Orbis-run) or the train station.
While closing times may vary, one cardinal rule holds for holidays. Almost everyone goes home, where the food is probably better anyway, so don't expect to find restaurants open on holidays except, again, in the bigger hotels.