Strefa Piwa, Kraków

Józefa 6, 31-056 Kraków, Poland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –10/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Any new bar venture in Kraków’s old Jewish quarter Kazimierz (unarguably the coolest district for nightlife in Poland) needs to work hard to wrench people away from the dozen other exceptional bar options in the vicinity. My first visit to Strefa Piwa in 2015 was enjoyable, but the venue was young looking with that fresh wood-shavings smell still lingering in the air, yet to develop character either as a place or with its own crowd. In just a short space of time, that has now changed.

Strefa Piwa translates to ‘Beer Zone’, a rather generic name if there ever was one, so I stick with the lingua franca when referring to it. The pub itself is quite small – a narrow room with a curved ceiling in the style of a Czech pivnice decorated with a rather striking chart painted across the expanse of the walls, linking a hundred beer styles with their parent families. This decoration gives a clear indication about their raison d’etre -it’s heavily beer orientated, which is of course a good start with any bar. I quite like the fact the interior is a nice cross between a simple cosy drinking den with some of the architectural features of a beer hall. It’s not a specific reason to visit, but adds to the genius loci. The mirror to the left hand side of the bar always suggests there’s a second room, but trust me, there isn’t.

Two years ago a visit to Strefa Piwa would have been largely one to seek out a quality beer, what with the venue being in its infancy and  atmosphere still being a little quiet. I’m pleased to say since that visit Strefa Piwa has developed a core audience of locals who share the space with clutches of young travellers and backpackers. It’s a friendly, hustle and bustle type place in the evening that isn’t overly bothered about competing with the faded antiquey style bars down the road in terms of décor, isn’t going to drown out conversation with pumping music either and does well in providing a slightly different offering for the area.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Because the décor is simple, it is the kind of pub that needs a throng of people to lend it vitality, but now it has that, Strefa Piwa serves up a great combination of incredibly high quality beer and a chatty, vibrant venue, that is also down-to-earth enough to avoid the pitfalls of some pretentious multi-tap beard-stroking craft venues out there (we’ve all been to them).

To compliment the nod towards Czech pubs in the design, there are a few high quality Czech ales (such as Kout na Sumavy) along with rotating craft Polish beer. The range is wide enough that you can find something great along a range of styles, with 7/8 tap options and a large bottle selection. As per usual the pricing, while a tad expensive by Polish standards is among the cheapest for craft ale you are likely to find around Europe. They have also opened a beer shop next door, which qualifies as one of the least surprising business moves going. Fine, of course, avail yourself of that if you feel the need, but we are more interested in the pub, right?

Strefa Piwa succeeds by offering something different to the majority of Kazimierz bars (although Omerta is quite similar). The pointedly different style to the ruined antique chic typifying the style in other Kazimierz bars seems to appeal to a local crowd who are more interested in drinking good stuff and socialising than ‘being seen’. You can pop in, sit down, calm down, and find a corner your mates and you can have a chat – that’s a key appeal of a pub, after all. The reviews online don’t lie – 4.6 stars on Google after 250 reviews is a phenomenal mean average considering it’s a simple pub, and that speaks of a widely friendly and likeable place, not just a hipster venue, and it’s not the first time the pub has caught the affectionate praise of a bar blogger , nor I suspect will it be the last.

Strefa works well as a stop off in between the bars around Plac Nowy in the centre of Kazimierz and the old town in Krakow, or just to drop by in and of itself for a casual pint. It’s a strong option that’s improving every year.

Like many pubs courting a young crowd they must be careful to make plans for when the place is no longer flavour of the month. For now they’re safe, but it wouldn’t hurt them to introduce a few community events, or consider a small extension to create more space.

If you lived anywhere near Kazimierz, Strefa would be right up the list for a stop-off, very much your home away from home public house, as it were. It’s just a pity only Cracovians get to enjoy the pleasure more regularly, the jammy bastards. Even though Strefa is up against stiff competition, jot this one down in your notebook! You won’t regret it.

 

Papa Joe’s Biersalon, Cologne.

Alter Markt 50-52, 50667 Köln, Germany

**PLEASE NOTE THAT PAPA JOE’S BIERSALON & PAPA JOE’S JAZZLOKAL ARE 2 DIFFERENT PLACES IN COLOGNE**

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Some forms of pub going occur entirely outside of the confines of English culture, and one of these is to be found in Cologne, where Papa Joe’s Biersalon has become a local favourite.

The traditional of socialising and even group singing alongside strangers is much more common in Germany, and during the height of the evening, the singalongs in Papa Joe’s constitute a proto-form of kareoke, except instead of one person singing, most of the pub joins in.

To make matters weirder, the songs are ‘performed’ hourly by a mechanical marionette by the bar, the range of tunes being a remorseless cast list of traditional German favourites with the typical organ, harpsichord and accordion ensemble. You’ll be gawping at first, through the sheer  eccentricity of a setup that by now locals know like the back of their hand.

Sitting among the crowd, even if you aren’t joining in the singing (there is no obligation to) is to take in a heady experience of local life, a sample of German national expression even, if you want to take it further. The venue itself adds to all of this; is traditional in style but theatrical in shape with raised seating around the perimeter of the ‘pit’ area in front of the bar, and a corner stage to boot. With the bar’s history, it isn’t surprising the place is adorned with jazz instruments hanging from the beams and snippets of musical ephemera plastered to the walls. There’s plenty to look at.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Drinks are best procured from the bar area as table service can be a little slow at peak times. The local beer Gaffel Kolsch is on tap and delicious, at a standard price for the city centre, and while that ought to do you just fine, there are some decent other options these days too (if you fancy a hefeweizen for example).

The traditional seating and cosy interior is about the only aspect of the experience I can think of that was akin to English pub going. Everything else was rather quaint, quirky and shameless in its kitsch ‘old-time’ quality. Expect to see a huddle of young folk bombastically belting out the standards by the bar, while the middle aged folk sit further back, rocking their heads and crooning along.

If it’s not the mechanical instruments it’s live jazz music, bawdy poetry recitals and all other sorts of 1920s-era throwbacks to keep everyone entertained. Concerts are free and it’s always busy. Unsurprisingly, given its location in the heart of Cologne (you could run there from the front door of the Dom in a minute flat) Papa Joe’s has become an institution, creating an atmosphere you can’t just bottle or duplicate at will.

If you’re a little anxious about forced jollity I can certainly understand a degree of reticence, but you have to be there to understand. Even if you’re still wary, you’ll be pleased to note there is some respite in-between the shows, and you can hang out perfectly as you would elsewhere, just in a lovely and lively pub.

After visiting in 2007 I kept a grainy video on my phone of our time there, and over the next few years, generally spent penniless and occasionally depressed, I would occasionally pop that video on and remind myself of the good times spent in here to cheer me up. That phone and video has now gone, but the memory lives on strongly.

It’s an essential place to drop by in Cologne, particularly as some of the brauhauses can tend to melt into one after a while. Papa Joe’s it offers something utterly different, strange, and yet pitted in the local tradition. Throw down a far jars of Gaffel Kolsch, gawp at the spectacle in front of you, and hey, even join in if you dare. After the festivities head around the corner to a kebab shop for a Turkisch pizza (making care to consume it before the alcohol wears off). Welcome to Cologne! In fact – welcome to Germany! This is the kind of pub you can justify a plane ticket for all on its own.

Bernard pri Lýceu, Bratislava

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 9/10
  • Style and Decor – 6/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 10/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

The appeal of pure, unfettered going out to the pub, without extra bullshit or pretensions is something that grows on you the longer you spend time in Czechia or Slovakia, both countries that are strong on substance over style. Backing this philosophy up is their retinue of absolutely excellent world class beer kept to strict and exacting standards that is so singularly enjoyable you can find yourself in many scuzzy and otherwise unappealing dive bars still with something worth clinging onto (literally) . Not only that, but the sheer simplicity of the arrangement. A warm homely room with comfortable seating and good beer for a chat and a good time among your peers. Whatever gimmicks bars with throw at you, a million beers on tap, a sheet urinal with slices of orange in it, or drinks priced according to the stock exchange, it all eventually comes down to a room, a drink, and a good time. If you haven’t got that, you may as well be running a hardware store for all I care.

This Bernard Pivo insignia pub typifies working class drinking, set with only a car park between it and the dual carriageway out of town. It’s easy to reach if you’re near Bratislava old town, 15 minutes walk, so close you can still hear the trams exiting the tunnel under the castle (well worth a closer look in the dusky hours). The discount supermarket and sex shop next door certainly hammers home the gritty location, yet in spite of its grim view of the motorway and dubious neighbours the pub offers a surprisingly pleasant terrace area outside with covered bench seating that compliments the pub itself quite well.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Don’t expect a warm welcome at the door, for this place is not about such fripperies. Czechoslovakian (in this sense I believe the defunct term still is applicable) service is almost routinely noted for being gruff and workmanlike at best and openly hostile at worst. The real welcome hug, if you were searching for one, is written on the blackboard stand by the pub, boasting nearly the full Bernard range, from the simple 10 degrees light lager or  ‘desitka‘, at barely a euro for a glass right up to the stronger special beers. Walk inside and find a very simple cosy room decorated like it hasn’t seen the fall of the Berlin wall, with a dinky bar area in the corner. There is a TV adjacent and some ice hockey memorabilia dotted around the place.

Don’t expect anything fancy – though I hardly telegraphed that it would be, did I? – it’s a classic local drinking hole with a vaguely nostalgic sporty theme. The staff won’t speak English (unless really, really pressed to) but neither do they utter any objection when you order a beer – they know why you are here and behind the stoic expressions they are pleased to serve, in that solemn Slavic way. The other patrons inside barely even turn around to acknowledge you, clouded in their haze of cigarette smoke and drunkenness, something which might give you peace of mind if you find the prospect of entering pajzls like this place intimidating.

There isn’t really space at the bar to have a beer na stojaka so if you’re going for a good time not a long time, your arse will need to make contact with some furniture. Not to worry, expect plenty of seats inside to go at. Hey, why not surprise them by choosing in Slovakian – desitka, jedenackta or dvanackta (3.8%, 4.5% or 5.0% Bernard lager) prosim – you might cause a flicker of an eyelid, which would be something of a successful extraction from a Slovakian tapster in my experience. Or they’ll just be annoyed you spoke Czech to them.

The terrace is a bit more communal, so even if you aren’t involved in any socialising directly and have arrived on your own there is a friendly feel to sit amongst the hubbub, and comes recommended over sitting indoors if the weather is fair. If you’re there in January dive inside the Dive! The pub crowd is an odd split between young couples and students who sit outside and typically grizzled old boozehounds who wander in and out between cigs and beer, but this crankily functional dynamic works in its favour and I quite like places like this that throw different groups of people together. That’s what a true pub should do.

The Bernard is excellent, disappearing down the hatch with alarming ease. Quite often you’ll arrive with the noble intention of staying for one, then ten minutes later, having found yourself dispatching a whole large beer, well and truly snared into staying for another, partly because you don’t want to move on so soon, partly because the beer is so fucking good. On both occasions I found myself dispatching several in short order, the price and quality proving irresistible. If you google the pub most of the photographs are simply pictures of glasses filled to varying levels, testifying to how well they keep their beer in this pub that anyone thinks someone would want to look at that.

While there are many humdrum aspects to Bernard pri Lyceu you could probably find in dozens of other hospodas in the city, I couldn’t think of a better example of a comfortable, strongly-supported working class venue, and the beer and value just tops it off.

When compared to the central brewery and pub Mestiansky Pivovar with its glass, chrome and corporate feel, Bernard pri Lyceu provides a stark contrast but equally, a welcome reminder of the more homely and simple values of pub going. I would include it on any night out in Bratislava. If you don’t believe me, check out what other people are saying.

 

 

À la Mort Subite

alamortsubite
Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

There is sometimes a premium to be paid on a special occasion, so on my annual visit to A La Mort Subite I breathe in deeply and dive more deeply still into my wallet, on account of the luxurious overall experience of visiting this splendid Bruxelles bar.

Distinctly Parisien in format, this opulent faded-grandeur art nouveau venue (translation: At The Sudden Death) is one of Brussels and Belgiums most famous bars, so no surprises or left-field picks from me this time. A la Mort Subite might count as a brown café for the bench seating up the sides of the long room, if it wasn’t for the lack of brown elsewhere. Cream walls and pillars, the elegant ornamental décor stacked with studded crenullations, mirror panels and a stately, out of time design. You have a venue somewhere in between a café and a salon, originally built as a place for socialites to be seen in, yet, being Belgian, still focused predominantly on beer. The décor has such an authentic and preserved quality (no change since 1928, save for the occasional running repair) so it’s difficult to think of too many other places that are alike.

Mort Subite supplies the draft beer, and this brewery serves fruit beers and lambic effect rather than the real wild yeast sour lambics McCoy. They are still rich in flavour and sweetness, and a tad sour, but lacking any sort of dryness and depth that might indicate the traditional lambic brewing process. A small serving of their kriek for example, which would be a good choice, will set you back five euros on its own. Some of the other options are fairly astronomical considering the price one can drink for elsewhere in excellent surroundings. Mort Subite beer may as well be drunk here as much as anywhere on the globe. With this being Brussels you can expect a small food menu with cheese, charcuterie options and the usual pub food like croque monsieur to help your beer go down (as if anyone should need help finishing a Belgian beer!)

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The bar clearly feel they are unique to set such a high price, and annoyingly, they are right. An afternoon drink in A la Mort Subite can feel rather like a drink in a grand café, nice enough in itself, but the bar character starts to come alive in the early evening time as the crowd changes, and you can suddenly start to absorb some of the atmosphere and understand the underlying reasons for the endurance of this place. A special bleary eyed feel starts to develop, the sharp lines and corners blurring into the cream colours, like dropping into a dreamworld. That’ll also be the strong beer…

The grandeur and glamour of socialising in the inter-war era is yet to be recreated around Europe on any identifiable level, save for the odd outstanding example, partly because of the lack of venues who have committed to investing the kind of money to pull it off well, and also because the eventual crowd it attracts tend to have little to no appreciation of their surroundings anyway.

Service is almost classically continental, with wide stomached balding René type characters smoothly dissecting the venue with assurance and steady hands under the drinks trays. They are immaculately professional and patient considering conveyor belt of foreign tourists and the format of table service requiring more work than is strictly necessary. These characters add further to the sense of intransigent and reliability that lend a place a certain charm, that A la Mort Subite certainly possesses.

Although the evening and night crowd appeals to a few nostalgic locals who insist bars like these used to be abundant, a large volume tourists of venture in during the daytime, and because of the heritage of the place, often an aged crowd at that. The only sudden death that occurs in this bar is from pneumonia and cardiac arrest, I suspect.

Changing the venue in anyway seems to be verboten, and I wouldn’t approve major adjustments either ,however it seems to me there is nothing to stop the place rejigging the drinks choices and doing some marketing from the outside, as this venue is not designed for middle aged obese American sat in Burghaus jackets, it is designed for the young, the stylish and the vibrant. The way to really bring back the good old days isn’t just to leave the décor and service meticulously unchanged and hope for the best. The good old days were good because they were vital, vibrant and inhabited a nascent social scene. The place could do more in that regard by hosting more events, perhaps some understated live music, and so on.

In order for A La Mort Subite to take the next step, they need to be brave enough to recapture the zeitgeist in a way that doesn’t upset the period features, rather than settling for being a museum.

A La Mort Subite is a preserved remnant of a particular era and a great opportunity for anyone with a real passion in the rich and diverse history of socialising, beer drinking and recreational culture to step out of the every day experience and soak in the special character of the place. There are scarcely grander or more historical venues to recline and get merry with some astoundingly good beer. It may be so well known as to be passé, and it isn’t the pinnacle itself of pub going, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the best bars in Europe.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 4/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10