Retro rewind: Poland’s hospitality industry revives interwar chic

‘Some people say that the classic style never gets old,’ says Emil Oponowicz, co-owner and barman at Warsaw’s swish, quasi-speakeasy Woda Ognista. But is the interwar revival in Poland’s food and beverage industry here to stay?

Woda Ognista (Fire Water) is a glitzy vault of Polish interwar opulence, hidden right in the city centre. Descending a tiled staircase that feels like you’re entering the bowels of the earth, you are met with gold-flecked walls of the snug interior, all dark woodwork and exposed brick and mellow lighting. Sparkling off the walls like candles are the faceted cocktail shakers of yesteryear, and effervescing from those in the hands of the barman – all kitted out in waistcoats and braces with slick side partings – is a near-constant, rhythmic babble of fine liqueurs and spirits; mixed sensuously, tenderly, with exaggeratedly long cocktail stirrers. One might imagine Poland’s Maurice Chevalier, Eugeniusz Bodo, sauntering through the doors. In fact, the legendary entertainer is featured on the bar’s latest seasonal menu, featuring cocktails designed after other male icons of interwar Polish music.

Woda Ognista is not the only gastronomic enterprise in Poland with a focus on interwar cuisine and lifestyle. Many of Poland’s bars and restaurants are now turning to the roaring twenties; supping on a more luxurious past where standard pre-war tripe has been replaced with glamour. Back then, gourmet was all the rage. Poland’s interwar culinary menu was as diverse as the country itself, where Polish gentry tradition slotted against national dishes from every corner of the country, alongside portions of Jewish cuisine, with neat desserts modelled after French pastries. “Finally people felt that they lived in an independent country,” said Emil Oponowicz, co-owner of Woda Ognista. “So obviously they started to look for the same entertainment options as Paris, London or New York citizens.”

Woda Ognista is unique in being one of the only Polish cocktail bars focused on interwar culture – a new Specials Menu focusing on one aspect of interwar culture is released every season, packed with stylish photographs and stylish themed cocktails. From this season’s menu, drinks come in at a fashionable 28 zł each. But it’s a trend with roots in the wider growth of Polish luxury goods, explained Dominika Telega-Bałdyga from Restaurant Week, the largest and most popular culinary event in Poland. 

Just as back in the interwar era, with economic prosperity and increased consumption, Polish customers are open to novelty and superior quality – and manufacturers are matching demand. “Guests will enjoy a lively gastronomic scene with increasingly fashionable and courageous concepts which follow the global trends,” she said of the current and future Polish culinary market. A 2014 KPMG report into ‘The Alcoholic Beverages Market in Poland’ concurs. The report found that 31% of adult consumers of alcoholic beverages claim they try to choose alcoholic beverages with higher than average quality and forecast that innovation – particularly at the premium level – would continue to grow as a trend in Poland.

Back to the ‘20s

Woda Ognista is no stranger to this form of innovation. Though Oponowicz agrees that the interwar era is having a renaissance in the modern culinary sector, with certain similarities between the periods, this comes with a twist. “We never copy old recipes; we don’t use exactly the same spirits,” he explained. “We are most of all inspired by them, to make something which will be delicious today. With our original menus, we are trying to educate and create fun for our guests. Inter-war storytelling and seasonal Polish ingredients – that’s our secret.”

Woda Ognista might be one delicious secret – but there are more to be found in the nooks and crannies of cities across Poland. Another example is Kraków’s Mercy Brown: a classically enigmatic speakeasy infused with an inebriating Polish style – and a dose of hipster swagger. With an illicit taste in the mouth, Mercy Brown is accessible only by request – and bar manager Szymon Cieśla said this is all part of the fun. “Since the beginning,” he explained, “turnover was less important than our guests’ experience.”

With a mere 69 seats, the bar closes its doors when full to encourage a more intimate drinking experience, flavoured by interwar decadence. “The design of our bar is inspired by bars from the 1920s and Burlesque theatres,” he added. “Since the first day of our existence, once a month, Mercy Brown hosts burlesque artists from all around Europe.”

For Cieśla, it is a cultural swing, rather than economics, which contributes to the popularity of wannabe-interwar styled bars in Poland, and a trend further aided by the growth of television or film series on the era, like the British ‘Peaky Blinders’.

The Beguile of Gatsby  

The speakeasy-style in the food industry is all about borrowing the flavours, cultures and lifestyles of the interwar period. And Woda Ognista is no different, even down to the menu. “We always try to match our menu themes to a season,” said Oponowicz. “‘Skamander’ (inspired by the pioneering 20th-century Polish poetry group) was our spring menu, just because poetry was the first thing which we connected with this particular time, with love and a lightness of being. For this season, cocktails were full of flower and herbal flavours.” The most difficult part, he explained, is meticulously matching these cocktail ingredients to the stories from the period, or the typical roles played by interwar actors and actresses in movies or theatres. 

But there’s a more general Polish cultural influence at play, too. In recent years, there has been a drive to propel Polish national products on to the global stage. And, explained Oponowicz, it begins with the interwar period. “It’s enough to look at our historical spirit – Vodka. It’s a product which we’re very proud of and we’re trying to spread its heritage around the world.”

And who better to encapsulate this than J.A. Baczewski, a darling of the interwar alcohol industry that has found new life and markets across the world today. Their current tagline is ‘Return to Splendour’, and interwar culture remains a pivotal part of their manufacturing and advertising strategy. “To make a long story short,” said Pawel Gorczyca, Managing Director of the Polish franchise, “all our products are literally from the interwar period. This refers to original recipes, branding, packaging. Our company does not create new products, we only re-create those from before the war.”

Interwar Poland was home to many family-owned, cutting-edge businesses, who drew out a constant stream of experiments in new flavours and pioneering approaches. Baczewski, to name one, was demanded and devoured across Europe, with 123 products on its price-list. After the war, however, Polish gastronomy was in crisis, low in variety and low in quality. “It took many years,” said Gorczyca, “to reach again the level of pre-war ‘greatness’ or ‘splendour’. For Poles, the interwar period is and will remain a strong reference-point in this regard.”

De Gruyter’s 2015 survey, ‘The “Retro” Trend in Marketing Communication Strategy of Global Brands’, reflected similarly. They concluded that historical crises in economics, politics or nationality prompted homemade, traditional brands, “connected with a feeling of security and calm” to rise in popularity. In the face of globalisation, and Poland’s high esteem for the interwar golden age, this is an enchanting cocktail for Polish gastronomy in the future. Gorczyca admits that he is unsure whether this trend will last. “I am not good at predicting the future,” he quipped. “I specialise in the past.”

But for Telega-Bałdyga, the era certainly stands out, epitomising a timeless style. “It is definitely the search for our own culinary identity, the return to simplicity and top-notch products, selected with modesty, but to a splendid result – in accordance with global trends.” She thinks this is not merely a fad. The global growth of speakeasies and, in Poland, the “search for experiences from that period”, promises only a roaring success – not that dissimilar to the meteoric rise of Eugeniusz Bodo, and so many others, back in the day. As a result of his success, Bodo, of course, became a bar owner too. 

And Oponowicz thinks he would feel right at home in Woda Ognista’s glorious 21st-Century revival of interwar gastronomy and culture: “I’m completely sure that he would appreciate our hospitality,” he said. “Who knows, maybe he would give us a touch of his incredible voice and stage skills.”

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