In January, Gazeta Warszawa conducted a public poll to find out who Varsovians believed were the most influential people in their city in the last 25 years (results will be announced later this month). Among the impressive list of high profile nominees was none other than Grzegorz Lewandowski, founder of Chodna 25, an unassuming klubokawiarnia (Polish for “club-café,” a cross between a bar and a coffee shop) considered home to the city’s energetic counterculture.
From the outside, the idea of nominating someone for “the most influential Varsovian in 25 years” simply for opening a café can seem puzzling, especially when one considers all the immense changes that Warsaw has experience since 1989. But ask any Varsovian and they’ll tell you straight away that one of their greatest sources of pride is the city’s vibrant klubokawiarnia scene, in large part, thanks to Lewandowski.
Before World War II, Warsaw was well known throughout Europe for its robust café culture, the site of much cultural innovation and political engagement in the prewar era. Under Communism, the city’s café culture dwindled, largely replaced by milk bars (cafeteria-style canteens serving up cheap and unadorned Polish fare for the masses) as the center of public life. But thanks to Lewandowski, that all changed in 2006 when he first opened the doors of Ch?odna 25, named after its address in an assuming storefront located in what was then the largely neglected surrounds of Muranow, Warsaw’s old Jewish district.
At the time, Chodna 25 was the only klubokawiarnia of its kind—a place where, at any time of day or night, one could grab a coffee or a shot of locally made vodka and then sit for hours talking heatedly about art or politics in the cozy confines of a room that both embraced Warsaw’s modernist past through an eclectic blend of prewar furnishings, while it also looked colorfully into the city’s future via the graphic, neon art hanging from the walls.
Fast-forward eight years later, one can now find similarly vibrant club-cafés throughout Warsaw, from Kafe Kulturalna to Solec 44. Likewise, these club-cafes are where one can discover some of the city’s most engaging design. For those seeking a bit of Warsaw design history, there’s the 30s modernist interiors and iconic mosaic tile floors of Pastwo Miasto, as well as the space age, mid century architecture of the former train station that now houses Warszawa Powisle. Then there’s Bar Prasowy, which enlisted Sojka & Wojciechowksi, one of Warsaw’s most cutting edge interior design firms, to design its crisp 21st take on the classic milk bar. Similarly, the integrity of the historic interiors at Bar Studio—also owned by Lewandowski and housed inside the iconic Palace of Culture and Science—has been maintained, while cleverly transported into 2014 by the highly conceptual design work of the Centrala Designers’ Task Force. Finally, no list of stylish klubokawiarnias would be complete without mentioning the vegan restaurant/bike shop/club-café, Relaks Café, whose stunning mixed-material mosaic floors and modernist floating florescent lights were expertly designed by Moko Architects, a firm responsible for some of the quirkiest and most unique interiors in the city.