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.

 

Papa Joe’s Biersalon, Cologne.

back to Germany

Alter Markt 50-52, 50667 Köln, Germany

**Important: 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.

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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.

Since then I returned in 2018 and 2019 to find that, thankfully, hardly anything had changed.

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

back to Slovakia

  • 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.

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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, jedenactka or dvanactka (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.

Since first exploring this pub in 2015 I have been lucky enough to return three times since, in 2018, 2019 and 2020,

happy to report that little has changed (except perhaps the price of a beer, which isn’t as good value though still around the cheapest in the city). In particular, I was able to visit at different times of day. The evening atmosphere turns into a little clubhouse with its own special atmosphere. As before, so now. Excellent pub.