Places That Serve History

Zagreb has been around for a while; officially it's more than 900 years old. There were settlements here even before it was named Zagreb, but let's stick to this latest stretch of its history.

Naturally, it has changed as centuries went by and we can't really know where people used to go for a bite or a drink four, five or six centuries ago. But from the places that still exist today and from those that don't but do have a recorded history – we can learn some useful trivia. People like facts about the first this or the oldest that, so let's dig into the history of eating and drinking out in Zagreb.

“The interior of the oldest tavern in Zagreb, as though time stands still.” Image credit: Pod starim krovovima FB

As long as there were people here, there were some types of establishments for the hungry and the thirsty or those just seeking company. We don't know much about the medieval days, but we can surely say that throughout the 19th and the early 20th century, two places that start with the letter K were crucial for Zagreb's social life – krčma (inn, tavern) and kavana (coffeehouse). The first one would be more plain, selling beer, wine and lemonade, while the latter was fancier, with formally clad waiters, games like billiards, newspapers, and coffee, tea and spirits on the menu. People agree that the oldest continuously running krčma in Zagreb is the legendary Pod starim krovovima in Basaričekova Street. It opened in 1830, at first as a private wine cellar, while today it's a cosy café/bar with a rich cultural programme. Zagrebians nicknamed it K Šnidaršiću, as it was called in the cult film Tko pjeva zlo ne misli, where it was featured as the main character's favourite spot. The best part is that it is still very low-key, with customers of all ages and profiles, and non-touristy even though it's behind St. Mark's Square, one of the major sightseeing spots in the Old Town.

“Kavkaz, one of Zagreb’s legendary coffeehouses, just got renovated.” Image credit: Kavkaz Kazališna kavana FB

When coffee appeared in Europe and coffeehouses gained popularity, Zagreb adopted this new trend quite quickly. Documents claim that the first real coffeehouse was opened in 1748 by a man called Leopold Thunn. Others soon followed, and around 1900 there were 25 Vienna-style coffeehouses in Zagreb. Ban Jelačić Square, the heart of the city, is the place where there were several grand cafés, although they changed managements and appearance over the years, before becoming obsolete. You can still feel some history in the former Gradska kavana and today's Johann Franck, a modern establishment combining a café, bistro and club. Some famous coffeehouses that were at their peak in the vibrant period between the two world wars but continued running even during my time include Corso in Ilica and Kavkaz (Kazališna kavana) across the Croatian National Theatre. While Corso sadly closed down more than 20 years ago due to ownership issues (reconstruction is underway and re-opening is announced for 2019), Kavkaz just had a grand re-opening a few months ago. If you ask for the oldest café in Zagreb, many will point to Palainovka, tucked away on the peaceful Ilirski Square, originally opened in the 1840s, but with several closings and re-openings. It also underwent a renovation some five years ago, so the interior is now modern, although having a coffee on the terrace in summer, surrounded with historic buildings, brings back some long-forgotten days.

“Palainovka, an old café from the 1847, still standing.” Image credit: Taste of Croatia

And speaking of some historic firsts, the first proper brewery in Zagreb was also in Basaričekova Street, established in 1721. There’s a plaque on the wall to prove it. And what goes great with beer? Pizza! Of course, the first pizza came to Zagreb much later than the first beer, sometime in the late 1960s. Opinions are divided over the first pizzeria, but the first nice one, with a decent selection and higher quality, is Purger in Trešnjevka neighbourhood. It's been there since 1979 and still has its loyal customers. It kind of functions like a time machine, too. In the category of the oldest continuously running restaurants, you will hear names like Stari Puntijar or Okrugljak in the northern part of the city, both with a long tradition.

“Okrugljak restaurant saw a lot of history in its 100+ years.” Image credit: Okrugljak FB

See? Going out, drinking and eating can be about history, too. This part of Zagreb's history maybe isn't that much covered in various guidebooks, but certainly tells a lot about the city and its people.

“Once a grand coffeehouse like its role models in Vienna, now a night club.” Image credit: Johann Franck FB

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Author: Morana Zibar/Taste of Croatia