Poles are passionate about their food, and their cuisine is an intriguing mix of European and Eastern influences. While often wonderfully flavoursome and nutritious, it does live up to its reputation for heaviness. Meals generally start with soups, the most popular of which are barszcz (beetroot broth) and zurek (a sour soup of fermented rye). The basis of most main courses is fried or grilled meat, such as kotlet schabowy (breaded pork chops). Two inexpensive specialities (10–15zł) you’ll find everywhere are bigos (sauerkraut stewed with a variety of meats) and pierogi, dumplings stuffed with cottage cheese (ruskie), meat (z mięsem), or cabbage and mushrooms (z kapustą i grzybami). The national snack is the zapiekanka, a baguette topped with mushrooms, melted cheese and tomato sauce. There are a few veggie cafés for vegetarians sick of cabbage, including the Green Way chain.
Restaurants are open until 9 or 10pm, later in city centres, and prices are lower than in Western Europe: in most places outside of Warsaw and Kraków you can have a two-course meal with a drink for 40zł. The cheapest option is the local milk bar (bar mleczny; usually open from breakfast until 6/7pm), which provides fast and filling meals for workers, students and anyone else looking for affordable Polish food.
The Poles can’t compete with their Czech neighbours when it comes to beer (piwo), but a range of microbreweries (browars) supplement the drinkable national brands. Even in Warsaw, you won’t pay more than 12zł for a half-litre. Tea (herbata) and coffee (kawa) are both popular; the former comes with lemon rather than milk. But it’s vodka (wódka), ideally served neat and cold, which is the national drink. As well as the clear variety, it’s well worth trying the flavoured types – king among Polish vodkas is the legendary Żubrówka, infused with bison grass.