Warsaw Goes Gourmet

(By Guy Wolff / Polish National Tourist Office)
Sunday, September 4, 2005

Salads sprinkled with goat and Gorgonzola cheeses, vegetarian sandwiches on multigrain breads and elegantly presented platters of duck are the kinds of foods we pine for. But we never thought we'd find them on our latest venture to Warsaw.

It turns out post-Communist Warsaw is dotted with spare cafes offering inventive menus and elaborate Old World restaurants with traditional dishes. It's a long way from the days of martial law, when restaurants were forced to close at 10 p.m., and even Polish cheese options were confined to white or yellow.

"There was no restaurant ethos," says Eva Hauser, director of the Skalny Center for Polish and Central European Studies at the University of Rochester (N.Y.), who has lived in and visited Warsaw over the past 40 years.

As a student in the 1960s, Hauser recalled elegant restaurants as a destination for tourists and government officials. The few adventures in dining that she made beyond cafes were venturing out for Hungarian food or to the city's one Chinese restaurant -- which served Polish food with rice. Martial law and a succession of food shortages only hurt these options.

"Now the whole of Old Town is one big cafe," she says.

Frankly, the only hazard that Warsaw cuisine may have is that there are too many good restaurants to choose from. At Dom Restauracyjny Gessler (Rynek Starego Miasta) in the Old Town section, we started out with a creamy goat cheese and tomato salad. For entrees, we picked the seasonal game and the duck with apples.

Half of the meal's pleasure came from the steady flow of stoic twentysomething waiters who filled our wineglasses and doled out sightseeing advice. Our favorite server, Peter (a self-described Megadeth fan), poured us plenty of complimentary house wine and referred us to a jazz club--which turned out to play rap music. After dinner, we tiptoed through the restaurant's labyrinth of rooms that -- with their candelabras and elaborately carved dining chairs -- seemed as if they should belong to an aging Polish royal. A long night of drinking, flirting with Polish waiters and dinner cost about $90 for two.

The next day, we vowed to find a lunch spot that was equally delicious but easier on the wallet. A cafe owner referred us to Pierogarnia (Ul. Bednarska 28-30), where she told us the city's tastiest pierogis could be found.

Pierogarnia was started by the Caritas division of the Warsaw Archdiocese and has gained a reputation for cheap and tasty cuisine. It's on a sloping hill just off of the Royal Route, the city's main tourist strip; look for the porcelain-like pierogi that hangs before its entrance. Stepping into the tiny dining room is like walking into a very tidy cave, with simple wooden tables and stools. Workers in traditional dress hand you heavy wooden menus in English.

Customers choose their pierogis and then line up to order them at two windows. Our selections: the spinach, cottage cheese and wild mushroom variety, plus the meat pierogis. The cafe owner was right: They were the best we'd sampled in Poland. Lunch for two was about $10.

Our last discovery was a restaurant at the Centre for Contemporary Art in UjazdowskiCastle. Qchnia Artsystyczna (Al. Ujazdowskie 6) has an airy front room with chili peppers stenciled on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Tables are covered with hounds-tooth print cloths and decorated with bowls of flowers.

We polished off pear, Gorgonzola and mixed green salads--the perfect menu for another afternoon of sightseeing. Lunch for two was about $20.

For info about travel to Poland, contact the Polish National Tourist Office, 201-420-9910,

© 2005 The Washington Post Company