Beyond the Michelin Guide – writes Wojciech Nowicki

18 October 2023

My thinking about cuisine doesn’t start from the double-starred miracle on Poland’s firmament, but from the basics: everyday food.

Recently, the Cracovian restaurant Bottiglieria 1881 was awarded two stars in the Michelin guide – the first such accolade in Poland, widely regarded as a great honour for the restaurant and Polish gastronomy in general. The latter is something of an exaggeration; while the dishes recall Polish classics, the restaurant has absolutely nothing in common with a typical eatery serving up Polish food. While Bottiglieria reaches for Polish ingredients (albeit not necessarily the most common ones), it doesn’t specialise in the sort of Polish cuisine you’d expect to have grown out of generations of housewives and run-of-the-mill restaurateurs.

My own thinking about cuisine doesn’t start from the double-starred miracle on Poland’s firmament, but from the basics: the kind of everyday food we often crave or even simply eat out of necessity. Kraków’s restaurants are pretty centralised, with the majority concentrated in the Old Town and Kazimierz, slowly spilling into neighbouring Podgórze. With good reason: it’s easiest to attract clients who are passing by while sightseeing (tourists) or desperately looking for somewhere to grab a bite during their lunchbreak (office workers). Recent years have brought a major shift here, too, since many restaurants folded during the pandemic and some of their functions have been taken over by grocery stores. The latter serve up sandwiches, salads, veggie dishes, even something approximating sushi, so they suit tourists on a budget and office workers – both always in a hurry!

For those whose budget lies somewhere between a corner shop and Bottiglieria – the majority of us – choices remain somewhat limited. I have a few favourite spots which are always worth checking out, for various reasons. They are inexpensive, classic and there’s nothing to offend a palate brought up on wholesome home cooking. I’m going to give milk bars a miss here – they have many fans, it’s true, but I find many of them somewhat off-putting. Let’s start our walk with a local cult classic: U Stasi at Mikołajska Street. It’s closed during the summer holidays, but at other times it’s the perfect place to rediscover the joy of queueing. You can’t see it from the street, and news of its existence used to spread purely through word of mouth. Today, it is acclaimed online and in tourist guides where it is often hailed as THE place to eat in Kraków. There’s nothing refined or special here, but everything is up to the same high standard – still something fairly unusual when it comes to Polish cooking. I come here for pierogi – different than those I grew up with, but still good – or for pork schnitzels with potatoes and fried cabbage; for those less-well-off, or simply less hungry, there are plenty of sides to choose from. U Stasi was a breath of fresh air and a welcome respite from student canteens, milk bars and the terrible food served everywhere in the bad old days of the 1980s when I first started going there. It was (and still is, to an extent) a levelling place, of sorts, equally suited to students and admired lecturers and professors. Writers pop in for their favourite pierogi or sausage, and everyone gossips in the queue snaking through the entire courtyard. U Stasi is an embodiment of Cracovian parochialism: everyone’s paths cross here, and it’s worth visiting for this reason alone.

Traditionally, the struggle for Cracovians’ souls took place between Mikołajska and Sienna streets near the Small Market Square: it was once the site of an eatery proudly displaying a painting of Saint Anthony. The restaurant was eventually priced out of its central location, and moved to a rather unexpected site at Bohaterów Getta Square. If you were to compare the relocation with Warsaw, it’d be like moving from Mokotów to the dodgy corners of Praga. Yes, of course the square was there, but no-one really knew what it was for – it was just a vast expanse extending from one of the bridges over the Vistula. Why on earth would anyone go there? And yet, the clientele is there: people pop in from their offices, museums (just around the corner in Zabłocie), apartments in Podgórze and Zabłocie, and from nearby hotels. In other words, Wczoraj i Dziś (Yesterday and Today – trans.) was ahead of its time in its thinking about the city, and it has done all the better for it. Recently renovated, the bright, open space is still as popular as ever. Whenever I go past, I see plenty of people; I have eaten there a few times recently, and I’ve always left happy. The premise is similar to U Stasi: absolutely everything is made on the premises. And that’s probably the most important thing: apart from the restaurant’s incredibly long history, there could hardly be a better recommendation. The dishes are simple and traditional, although I dare say they are presented in a rather more sophisticated way than at U Stasi.

Finally, a bar we’ve all walked past because it’s right in the centre: Bar Smak on Karmelicka Street. It started similarly to the two eateries I’ve already mentioned: you used to place your order at the bar. More recently it changed formats, and shifted to table service – although not always successfully. (It should be said that decent table service has always been a problem in Poland’s restaurants, and it’s something yet to improve fully.) Smak is pretty hardcore in some ways: if you don’t like schnitzels with cabbage or potato pancakes (a major highlight!), if chicken or tomato soup aren’t your thing, this is not the place for you. You can go for the trout, it’s true, but you’ll pay restaurant prices. Bonus (for some): you can have beer with your meal – the other two eateries won’t serve anything stronger than squash. Another plus is the street garden. Bar Smak is almost always packed – because of its central location a stone’s throw from Kraków’s busiest square and its selection of dishes straight from a home kitchen.

Lest I am seen as insular, let me mention a few more favourite restaurants – perhaps less traditional but tried and tested all the same. Let’s start from Paderewskiego Street in Kleparz. It’s home to two Korean restaurants: Mandu serves up traditional steamed dumplings and manduguk soup, while Two Spoons (known at our home as Bibimbap, guess why!) specialises in bibimbap – a light dish of rice, vegetables and meat or its substitutes. Both places have a relaxed atmosphere and attract plenty of young people – in other words they have nothing in common with the more old-fashioned Polish eateries mentioned above. The Ukrainian Kalejdoskop in the underground passage by the railway station has a peculiar charm: although the location seems a bit grim, the cooking is excellent. Try the cottage cheese dumplings – miraculously light and fluffy – or one of the soups, served with noodles or meatballs (my personal favourite!).

Fortunately for us all, I could keep this list going to infinity. But that’s enough for now – let’s grab something to eat!


Wojciech Nowicki

Writer, culinary critic, curator of photography exhibitions and author of albums. He lives in Kraków with his wife and daughter. He cooks in his spare time, and at all other times. He loves fish. He believes that cooking is the best way to escape writing.


Kraków Travel
Kids in Kraków
Close We use cookies to facilitate the use of our services. If you do not want cookies to be saved on your hard drive, change the settings of your browser.