Leopold’s Delicatessen, Split

Ujevićeva poljana 3, 21000, Split, Croatia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Although I am about to praise this bar and urge you to visit, I should firstly state that I really hate its name. Yes, Leopold is a nice guy who knows his stuff, and that’s a cool name but ‘Delicatessen’ seems sickly sweet for a beer bar. The quicker it is reduced to Leopold‘s or even Leo’s the better! Get in touch with Leo and tell him yourself!

There have been some comments made online that alternative beer is now mainstream in Split, which may be well-intentioned to promote the place, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that isn’t the case at all. Most of the time you’ll be stuck drinking Croatia’s terrible trio of crap lagers or Staropramen if you’re lucky. Yes, Split remains by far the best city for drinking good beer in Croatia, but even then, you could count the number of good bars also selling good beer in the old town itself on one hand, and some of those are not especially good value, leading to a loss of local custom – the net result is they become touristy and lose their charm. Those that manage to retain local custom and offer something worth visiting rather than a generic Caffe Bar experience are thin on the ground in Split, and pretty much non-existent across most of Croatia.

Leopold’s is certainly one of the standout bars in the city centre, not just for beer but for atmosphere and somewhere you must bookmark to visit while in Split. This place is a beer bar, first and foremost – you’ll see some ad hoc meat and cheese slicing going on at the bar, sure, but the reason everyone is here is to try Croatian craft beer, perhaps taking a dip into the fridge for a reasonable interesting array of bottle offerings.

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On tap are some really beautiful tasting Croatian beer which will seem like you stepped into a parallel universe after spending your days in Croatia drinking their depressingly bad mainstream brands Karlovacko, Pan and Ozujsko.

There are 4 taps on rotation, all with Croatian beer from small breweries across the country, (though they also sold the way over-exposed mainstream beer Punk IPA too, which may pass for interesting in Croatia but not for a British traveller).

Thankfully the Croatian beer I tried was pretty good, one by Nova Runda and a single hop version of L.A.B’s Barba the standouts. They have brewed these beers carefully so as to not scare the locals, not over-hopped, but with enough punch and unfiltered flavour to be comfortably superior to all the mainstream Croatian beers. Good for a session, you might say, that milder drinkability that suits Mediterranean summer drinking. Thanks for not going the Polish/US craft route of slamming as many bitter hops in there as possible. The place is also interested in scotch whisky and bourbon if you are too.

The bar itself is pretty interesting to look at, with some nice mosaic-tiled patio furniture and vinyl records stuck to the ceiling. There’s also a swing seat in the middle of the bar which is a bit of a novelty, and a classic ‘dive’ bar layout that will instantly appeal. Leopold’s also seems to have a slightly annexed looking terrace which was well-appointed but the surroundings feel featureless (like a parking lot) – not the best from the options available.

However, the splicani prefer to congregate outside (this is common practise in the country and probably why there are so few Croatian bars with interest interior décor), and at some point as the evening progresses you will probably find yourself sharing space with some annoying American backpackers. Leopold seems to arrange tastings in advance with large groups – unfortunately halfway through my visit 20 Americans darkened their doors and the staff immediately began catering for them, seemingly exclusively. Perhaps that was bad timing but being moved from my seat and then having to listen to them droning on left a sour note, and not the good kind you get from a quality lambic.

They organise events such as live music on the terrace, barbecues (don’t miss out on these if you get the chance!) and seasonal beer like Oktoberfest, another excuse to skip past the bad macro lager in Croatia.

I have every confidence if you can dodge the worst excesses of the passing tourist trade Leopold’s is one of the best, certainly in the top 3 bars in the old town of Split. Agree? Disagree? Join the chat on facebook

Józef K, Gdańsk

Piwna 1/2, 22-100 Gdańsk, Poland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Any trip I make to a new city invariably involves researching local breweries and popular pubs in advance (this blog wouldn’t be up to much if I didn’t), which I find to be an enjoyable way to drum up excitement for an impending holiday, and useful so as to ensure you aren’t wasting your precious time abroad chancing it in drab dumps. There is always space for the odd unforeseen opportunity, however, and the ‘rabbit hole’ experience where you find to your surprise and delight you have found somewhere by accident is one to cherish. When you plan, be careful not to micro-manage those opportunities away.

While breweries are easy enough to seek out, for various reasons it can be difficult to filter out drab mainstream bars and Irish Pubs while google searching for bars abroad (thanks Lonely Planet for the gazillionth Irish Pub recommendation, you lazy middle aged wankers). In order to drill down to find alternative pubs and bars where locals go, or where there is anything different going on it can take a bit of persevering. Depending on the country, if you can’t find anything, that may mean it just doesn’t exist (eg. Croatia), but Poland is one of those countries where even if good bars aren’t obvious at first, it doesn’t mean they aren’t around.

Jozef K was one such place I probably would have walked straight past if it wasn’t for word of mouth recommendation from a guy I know who had recently visited. Granted, it is located on Piwna (‘Beer Street’) in Gdansk, one of the main nightlife spots in an old town not short of good options, but has no courtyard and the entrance is so plain you would never get an idea what was inside unless someone told you, or unless you were morbidly fascinated by the plain exterior of that particular building.

The bar is situated in a modernist building with impressive and elegant narrow windows stretching from the ceiling downwards. Strangely enough I can’t remember too many bars with such windows, of a kind which reminded me, weirdly, of the science block at my secondary school. These soaring windows allow quite a deal of light into the bar, and you’ll find the place operates with the lights off until fairly well into the evening.

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The style of the place is salvaged defunct scientific equipment + antique furniture which is a combination which could look odd, but when placed together and mounted so they all align with each other creates an impressive feel like a museum of professor’s study that has gone rogue and become a bar. Certainly techy and geekier than your usual retro chic bar, but pointedly elegant with it. It borders on the ‘ruin bar’ aesthetic but manages to be its own thing really well. There’s lots of stuff to look at, so when you’re tucking into a lovely strong Polish beer you can let your eyes wander around the room appreciating the effort, which stands apart appreciably even among those bars it is inspired by. That good.

Jozef K also appears to be the place to see and be seen if you’re a millennial in Gdansk, and in the evenings there are groups of townie types who will appear after 10pm, who don’t quite appear to understand or appreciate the aesthetic but have an intrinsic understanding of their obligation to be there. The seating is a little sparse which reflects how quickly the transition from sleepy afternoon place to buzzing night venue takes place. It gets very lively indeed.

Jozef K’s beer choice is admirable, as nearby brewery Browar Amber is represented well  – one smaller brewery that pre-dates the Polish craft ale explosion and serves beer in styles tradition to the region. Being a Pomeranian brewery, their offerings are largely Germanic, with interesting bocks, double pilsners and pszeniczne, a useful word to learn (psheh-neetch-nay) as it means wheat beer! It’s great to see the brewery concentrate on heritage styles rather than copying the popular US styles as so many other Polish breweries have opted for. The price at the bar is typically competitive for Western wallets – not necessarily the best value for the city but for an English tourist paying between £1.50-£2 for a beer will not break the bank.

Jozef K deservedly earns a reputation as a good all-rounder. The atmosphere and style is good, the vast majority of the other visitors are Danzig born and bred, good cheap and slightly different beer and it seems to occupy an important role in the local pub scene. The music works well for the environment and it moves seamlessly from stylish and studious cafe bar to lively night bar. There are no real lows to think of and a visit comes highly recommended.

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.

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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.

 

Špunka, Vilnius

spunka

Užupio g. 9-1, Vilnius 01203, Lithuania

This boldly-named drop in bar is well located at the epicentre of the republic of Uzupis in Vilnius (or attached to depending on your opinion), meaning it’s a short walk for anyone heading there from the old town, as well as pulling in people from the suburbs.

It’s initially surprising that they chose such a modest sized venue; it really is a small place, with the bar occupying almost half the surface area of its one main room. All the evidence suggests there’s enough footfall and interest for them to have made a pub three times as big and made a success out of it. However, this appears to have been a deliberate decision to make a ‘drop in’ type bar.

At times, crowding around the bar is the only real option, but for much of the evening you should be able to grab a stool either at or opposite the bar and drink on the ledge or you may get lucky and find a table by the window.

 

 

 

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The bar is only interested in serving Lithuanian ales from small/medium-sized breweries – quite rightly so – meaning there are some exciting options on tap, including a couple of dark lagers, farmhouse ales and the region’s showstopper, Baltic porter, essential on any trip to Lithuania. You will find their own attempts at US craft beer styles, such as Dundulis Humulupu IPA which tend to be well made but nothing outstanding. Any obscurist will be in hog’s heaven peering at the taps and decent bottle selection.

The beer is a little more expensive than your average Vilnius pub, however not pushing towards any really offensive levels for Westerners. Beer aside, the best thing is the local, cosy feel to the place. It’s designed to feel pub-like rather than stark and modern, and treads a fine line between that typical ‘craft beer pub look’ and a venue seeking its own traditional character. We’ve all been passed those drop in dives in Europe where old men have tried to turn what looks like a corridor into a pub. Spunka is a successful experiment in making that idea more widely appealing while still capturing that ‘drop in’ feel.

You’ll find a nice range of people in here, the odd tourist, grumpy old men sharing space with excitable youngsters, sharing space with a business crowd, sharing space with couples having an intimate drink together. This makes it a must-visit when you go to Vilnius.

The main downside is there is nowhere to sit down and relax, so although you may want to hang around, the stool seating just isn’t comfortable enough to want to spend your whole evening there. Essentially drop by, socialise or hang at the bar for one or two and move on. For some places that feels just right. In Uzupis, never mind Vilnius in general, there are several quality options to choose from.

My favourite part of the visit to this bar in late November was watching the snow start to fall outside as I sipped my glass of porter. It’s something you rarely get to experience in England but there is suddenly an elevation in atmosphere a pub takes on when the snow falls outside, like a collective spontaneous agreement to stick two fingers up to the weather and get merry,  wrapped up in a warm cosy and friendly place, drawing you further and further into its thrall.

There are apparently sister pubs, one in elsewhere in Vilnius and a few further afield which if they stick to this fine balance, the genius loci I suppose, will be worth your while. With a name like this, you’re going to find it quite difficult to forget about. A fine establishment and a memorable pub.

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

 

Lórien, Palma di Mallorca

lorien
Carrer de les Caputxines, 5A, 07003 Palma, Illes Balears, Spain
In a city geared up for café culture, tapas, pintxos and wine, the pastime of drinking beer and pub-going currently plays a definite bit-part role in Palma. Going for a night out here generally revolves around visiting various tapas bars on an evening, which are often lively and buzzing but lacking any standout décor and character to distinguish themselves. Indeed, the crowds in those places, the endless snacking and paucity of good beer options become a drawback after a time.
Thankfully Lorien has stepped into the breach, a superb genuine beer pub with a Lord of The Rings theme. This whole notion hangs loosely around the frame of the pub though, think tasteful artwork, motifs and patterns rather than role play and costumes! It isn’t like The Prancing Pony either, although few places are.
The pub tailors itself for an audience who have been starved of choice and quality of beer, stocking a range of Spanish and Mallorcan craft ales on tap along with a healthy supply of beers from more traditional parts of the world. This will come as a refreshing change of speed from the relentlessly uniform options of Estrella or Mahou everywhere else in the city. You’ll be surprised at the length and breadth of the beer menu.
There is a corresponding uptick in price which is hardly surprising given the sheer lack of competition, but given the alternative option is standing around food-munching Mallorcans in corporate tapas bars, or drinking wine in inappropriately intimate cellar bars, it’s worth it.
Furthermore, Lorien succeeds by being a real pub. You will find corner bench seating arranged in a communal, inwardly facing main room – a pub, in essence – and unsurprisingly a rather different crowd of young people than the dress-to-impress crowd in the tapas bars, going for a drink and a chat in a cosy and informal setting.

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The bar staff are almost textbook beer monsters: bald, big beards and big beer guts, and are more than happy to chew over your drinking options. You’ll find English is commonly spoken, as is often a big plus of craft beer places abroad when you’re trying to decipher what to drink, or just to have a friendly conversation.
However, this is more than just a venue for craft beer, there is a real effort made to engender a local drinking spot and community. Thankfully Lorien strikes the balance right between the studious beer contemplation and a friendly community.
Anyone frustrated by the other options and angling for a good beer and a communal pub in Palma must start by making a pilgrimage to Lorien, perhaps meeting your own Lady Galadriel along the way!
There are no two ways about it – if I lived in Palma, Lorien would be my local of choice.
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10