Over 50 years ago, the hoodlums in Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel “A Clockwork Orange” spent their time at a watering hole called “the Korova Milk Bar.” To understand the origin of Phoenix’s Milk Bar, a year-old bar and restaurant in the Evans-Churchill neighborhood, it’s necessary to go back further — over a century to late 19th century Poland. There, no-frills restaurants serving humble comfort foods based heavily on dairy served clientele from all walks of life in Polish cities. Under communism, they became state-subsidized cafeterias for the proletariat.
With Poland now prosperous by eastern European standards, milk bars have become endangered in their home country. That turn of events only heightens the irony of our local Milk Bar, which unexpectedly yet successfully blends Polish soul food with a trendy lounge environment in an emerging nightlife district. The result is a place where one can eat stuffed cabbage or goulash while listening to clubby music and drinking cocktails. In line with that atmosphere, Milk Bar is an adults-only establishment, so there are no PB&J pierogies for the kids.
Phoenix’s Milk Bar is located in a building appropriately painted white at Third Street and McKinley, five short blocks from the Roosevelt / Central light rail station. The nearest bike racks are outside the brand new Proxy 333 apartment building at Fourth Street and McKinley. The small building is broken into a main dining room, a prominent bar, and small side rooms that can be booked for private parties. Outside facing Third Street, there’s a patio with two metal statues of cows, apparently a tribute to the source of most milk.
The decor recalls a boutique hotel lounge. Lights gently pulsate in varying colors that create a moody atmosphere and make Instagramming one’s food a challenge. A quartet of images of Pope John Paul II in an Andy Warhol style celebrate the best known Pole in recent history. The staff often wears suspenders, a subtle reference to the outfits worn by Malcolm McDowell and his partners in crime in Stanley Kubric’s 1971 film adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange.” Even if Milk Bar is of Polish heritage, it has enough sense of humor to celebrate the story’s fictional milk bar.
Milk Bar is open only at night with a menu designed for sharing or grazing. There are no appetizers or entrees, but instead two columns of intermingled dishes, some of them purely Polish and others, like a taco with kielbasa as its filling, a clear attempt at cross-cultural fusion. An easy way to start the meal is with an order of pierogies, Poland’s version of a dumpling and not terribly different from those found in east Asian cuisines. Farmer’s cheese and potatoes or sauerkraut and mushroom are traditional choices; jalapeno and cheddar introduces a Southwestern flavor.
Milk Bar’s bruschetta, another shareable starter, take an Italian bar food now ubiquitous on local menus and adds an eastern European twist of its own. The cebula bruschetta are topped with a sweet and savory blend of pureed pomegranate arils and minced onion complemented by a peppery note from arugula. Other variants are adorned with toppings such as mushrooms, eggplant, goat cheese, tomato paste, and even plum butter. A simple dish of a pair of crisp potato pancakes with sides of sour cream and applesauce is yet another suitable appetizer choice.
While pierogies and bruschetta are on the menu year-round, some of the bigger plates vary with the seasons. During winter, a hearty cabbage roll identified as “golumpki” is almost like a Chinese soup dumpling with flavorful juice flowing when the outer leaves wrapped around the meat filling are pierced or squeezed. In summer, the vegetable is part of a lighter choice known as “haluski,” a simple dish of cabbage with noodles in a sauce of butter and garlic. Likewise, a hunter’s stew called “bigos” is replaced by an almost equally hearty goulash served with potatoes or noodles.
During cooler months, borscht, an eastern European classic, is the restaurant’s signature soup. It gives way to a cold beet soup and an expanded array of salads as temperatures warm. A salad of apple slices over mixed greens with walnuts is the lightest and most familiar choice. Other more substantial salads incorporate cucumbers, beets, and pickled vegetables. For dessert, pierogies reappear on the menu, this time with sweet berry fillings. Another choice is a plate of crepes, also known as the “blintz blitz,” offered with even more types of berries than the pierogies.
While the villains of “A Clockwork Orange” drank actual milk laced with various drugs before committing their crimes, the beverage menu of the Phoenix Milk Bar is oriented toward inventive cocktails with an unsurprising emphasis on vodka. The Dirty Commie is an assertive martini with its blend of vodka and pickle juice garnished with fresh dill and a slice of pickle. With its use of black currant vodka, the Polish Princess is slightly tamer but not too sweet. The Commonwealth, a mix of Polish vodka and Lithuanian herbal liqueur is a light, effervescent drink suitable for summer.
For those not inclined toward Vodka, Milk Bar offers wine and beer, including some brews from Poland, as well as sodas, fruit juices, teas, and coffee. With its unlikely mix of a chic bar setting and humble working class food, Milk Bar doesn’t seem like a concept out of any corporate boardroom. Maybe it’s that unique combination of traits that makes Milk Bar so likable, though. Whether the inspiration comes from an author’s vision of the future or the Poland of the past, Milk Bar is one of the more interesting restaurants to emerge in present-day Phoenix.
801 N. Third St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Roosevelt / Central Station