Milk Bar might be the most unusual restaurant to open in downtown Phoenix this year. The stylish restaurant and bar, which had its soft opening in February, is a modern update on the iconic barmleczny (Polish for “milk bar”), the traditional worker canteen that reached the height of its popularity across Poland during the Communist era. These bleak cafeterias, famous for feeding the proletariat inexpensive yet wholesome meals, seem like an unlikely source of culinary inspiration.
But before diving into Milk Bar’s menu of classic Polish grub, there’s the matter of its unusual, ultramodern design. The whitewashed building — previously home to an art space, hair salon, and private residence, among other things — doesn’t exactly blend in with the high-rise complexes cropping up around Roosevelt Row. The building was completely redesigned by owner and budding restaurateur Darek Pasieka, a local architect perhaps best known for rehabbing the 800M apartments in downtown Phoenix.
Pasieka, a graduate of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, has transformed the formerly drab Milk Bar building into a bright, distinctly modern space — part Euro-inspired lounge, part Palm Springs experiment. The exterior has been outfitted with sleek concrete steps and pavers, minimalist desert landscaping, and two gleaming bull statues that watch over the sprawling outdoor patio.
Inside, dance club music blares over the house speakers, while panels of ambient mood lighting flicker languidly over the bar, which is stocked with an impressive collection of import vodka labels. Some light-hearted touches — including a pop art portrait of Pope John Paul II (Poland’s most famous son) and light fixtures constructed out of milk bottles — help temper the flashiness of the space. But all this attention to design begs the question: What kind of food can you expect from such a style-conscious joint?
The answer is unpretentious, down-to-earth food, dressed up and delivered to the table by pleasant servers in black bowties and suspenders. Chef Sergio Cabrera Padrón, with some help from Pasieka’s mother, Diane, takes the best from the original Polish milk bars — rustic, moderately priced dishes — and translates them into a refined tapas-style menu.
A good place to start is with the house field board, which offers a rustic sampling of sweet-and-savory elements. It includes a creamy, homemade farmers cheese and a small, slick mound of bacon pâté. The board comes with slices of German homestyle bread, ideal for scooping up the incredibly rich, porky paté, which smears easily onto the bread like jam. The mellow cheese, soft and unaged, helps balance the salty richness of the bacon, and a handful of raisins and orange slices add bright pops of sweetness. It’s a deft balance of simple flavors, an achievement that’s replicated across many of the restaurant’s dishes.
Of course, what’s Polish comfort food without homemade pierogi? Milk Bar offers the traditional dumplings with an array of fillings, the best of which are the cheese and potato variety. The slick little half-moon dumplings were excellent on a recent visit — savory, garnished with crispy crumbles of bacon, and fragrant with sautéed onions. The sauerkraut and mushroom dumplings, accompanied by a cool side of vodka-spiked sour cream sauce, were a close second.
801 North Third Street
Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday