For my recent work trip to Warsaw I had planned in one extra day for exploring the Polish capital’s specialty coffee scene. Although it was ridiculously cold, the sun was out on that beautiful Saturday morning and I thanked myself for not giving in to my colleagues’ attempts to drag me out on a wild night of drinking on the previous night. It was 8 am and I was feeling as fresh as a daisy. Actually, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had bumped into them on the way to the breakfast lounge.
As I left the hotel to do a wee bit of sightseeing around the old town, I pulled out my map of Warsaw to determine what would be the best route to visit the 4 places that I had been recommended by some of the coffee loving locals who I had met at Filtry Cafe and Kawki na Stawki. In the end I decided to jump on a southbound tram to check out the one place that seemed to be the furthest away. Everyone I had spoken to had strongly advised me to visit Relaks because they made some of the town’s best coffee. As I peered out of the dirty windows of the knackered tram I saw plenty of large apartment blocks, a few churches here and there and lots of chain stores that seem to be everywhere in the capital. There was nothing in particular that hinted at the fact that we were entering one of Warsaw’s cooler neighbourhoods, Mokotow. I think this is one of the greatest things about Eastern European cities. Very often hip areas look like any other, until you meet the people who live there and see the many independent shops, cafe’s and restaurants that are breathing new life into former workers’ quarters.
After getting off the tram and wandering down Jaroslawa Dabrowskiego street I first saw a funky little burger joint and then a stylish interior design store before stumbling into Relkas. On this Saturday morning the place was packed with young families, creative types with seriously cool tattoos and the usual caffe latte slurping hipster chicks. The walls were covered with arty posters and the venue’s set up invites you to start conversations with your neighbours. I immediately liked the place.
What amused me the most was that apart from delicious looking pastries and great smelling coffee, Relaks also stocked all the soft drinks that have been pouring out of Germany and into the coolest clubs and bars from Amsterdam all the way to Warsaw. Fritz Cola, Club Mate, Sauer Rhabarber Schorle and Spezi. They were all there. I could have been in Berlin for all I knew.
Initially Relaks had started off as a bike shop with a coffee section. Not unlike Lola in Den Haag. However, as Nikolai, one of the baristas on duty that morning told me, the concept didn’t really work out that well. I suppose the sheer size of the city makes it rather difficult to cycle from one place to another and in general, biking and Eastern European lifestyles don’t seem to quite get along, yet. When I lived in Bucharest in 2009, I don’t think I ever saw a single bike anywhere.
Yet, since opening 3 years ago, Relaks has become of the city’s most famous specialty coffee shops and by default, a melting pot for people from all walks of life. Nikolai also told me that in the last year, several new caffe’s had opened up in the area and all of them were trying to copy Relak’s winning formula to get a slide of the local coffee cake. As a true patriot would, he said: “Obviously we’re too cool to be copied but I wish them the best of luck.” Wink, wink.
The coffee was unsurprisingly very good. I picked a lovely spot on the window sill next to some local advertising guys to enjoy my Flat White and almond croissant while taking in the atmosphere. After having been in Warsaw for the last few days and having been able to discover some of the city’s best specialty coffee spots, I was still getting positively surprised at the diversity and consistently high levels of quality that the local specialty coffee scene possessed.
One of Relaks’ biggest trump cards is that it employes a number of former Polish barista champions, who are now lending their skills to making some of the best coffee in the city. When I had first arrived in Warsaw and gone for a walk in the center of town, I had feared that I might end up having to drink terrible coffee from the likes of Coffee Heaven and Starbucks throughout this trip, but as experience has repeatedly shown, often the best coffee in town is not where you expect it and therefore by default, worth traveling for. If you know where to find it, that is. 😉