FROM MONTE CARLO from Marbella to Milan, no glamorous destination is complete without a Nobu. The gourmet Japanese-Peruvian restaurant chain has become a staple in virtually every tourist hotspot. In each place, a wealthy clientele gorged themselves on pieces of black cod dipped in miso and yellowfin tartare while a DJ in expensive-looking shows, plays low-key house music.
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Last summer, Warsaw became the most recent and, at first glance, the least likely addition to the list. The Varsovians accepted it well. With entrees ranging from 25 zloty (€ 5.50 or $ 6.50) for the edamame beans to 170 zloty for the signature black cod dish, the place was crowded most evenings, closures permitting. The Nobu reserve Sake was designed to last 18 months; he was shot in three. The average expense for the opening was higher than in the Monte Carlo branch.
Wealthy Poles devouring sashimi reveal more than just latent love for raw fish. Ultimately, they tell a story of European convergence. At EUthe heart of it’s a simple bet: Through the magic of the free movement of goods, capital, services and people, its 27 divergent economies will evolve together, until one life lived, say, in France is of a level comparable to a life lived in Poland. Normally, convergence is indicated by a line marked Poland on a GDP map making its way to those marked by Italy, France and (still quite out of reach) Germany. But convergence is not limited to capital. To understand it better, look at restaurants in a city.
Nobu is the top end of Warsaw’s burgeoning food scene, which has grown from a burdensome affair to one of the fastest growing in Europe. Nolita, a chic restaurant, allows patrons to feast on octopus covered in wasabi and teriyaki. A glut of vegan restaurants has made the city an unlikely mecca for those who despise animal products. Places serving Polish dishes have transformed a once joyless culinary culture into a diverse and, at times, excellent one.
This helps convergence in several ways. Playing catch-up with your neighbors is hard to do if the brightest in a country are tempted to leave. Salaries are still around three times higher in Germany and the Netherlands. But ambitious young Poles are heading to places like Berlin or Amsterdam not only to earn more, but because these are great places to live. There is less incentive to leave when there is a thrilling city at home.
There is also a greater push to come back. After working in Michelin-starred restaurants in Great Britain and Denmark in the first half of his career, Robert Trzópek returned to Poland ten years ago. At that time, it was still difficult to find a market for gastronomy. Now, however, his restaurant, Bez Gwiazdek, which serves dishes exclusively from a different part of Poland each month, is packed on a Tuesday night in August. Varsovians feast on small plates of tomatoes with fermented strawberries, potatoes, cottage cheese and caviar.
Better nosh also offers an incentive to potential newcomers, rather than returnees. If places like Warsaw are to attract high paying commodity traders as well as administrative staff, then they have to become better places to live. It is a way to solve the enigma of the women of footballers. Roy Keane, former Sunderland manager AFC, a football club in an old-fashioned town in the north-east of England, complained that players were reluctant to sign because their spouses preferred to live in London or Manchester. Nicer grub is part of the solution.
Restaurants are the most striking example of the demographic convergence of Poland with the rest of the EU. Poland, like its western neighbors, has become a country of massive immigration. Before the pandemic, in 2019, Poland issued 724,000 residence permits to people outside the EU—About 260,000 more than Germany, the second highest. To see the effect of the influx, head to a bar or restaurant in Warsaw, where the staff will usually be Belarusian or Ukrainian. Order a take out and the biker who delivers it will often be from South Asia.
Convergence can also be a question of changing social mores. Once again, restaurants demonstrate this the best. Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice party is an enthusiastic homophobe, while local politicians lure gays with “LGBT-free trade zones “. Warsaw restaurants are leading the response. At Youmiko, a vegan sushi restaurant, a pride flag on the door is titled “You are home here”. Politics is even behind the rise of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, says Alex Webber, who edits The Warsaw Insider, a city guide. In 2016, the then Polish Foreign Minister articulated a vision of a nightmarish future with a “mix of cultures and races, a world of cyclists and vegetarians”. Eating vegan ramen is a small but delicious act of resistance.
Europe will be forged in ceviche
The disadvantage of convergence is homogenization. Eating out in Warsaw can be a disorienting experience at times. In some places you could be in Berlin, Madrid or Amsterdam: the food would be the same, just like the furniture and the font of the menu. Even the waiter would sport the same tattoos and beard. Some in Warsaw fear the city will lose its sense of self. Ironically, this fear of homogenization is shared by the right-wing government. While liberals fear restaurants will become the same, conservatives fear being drawn into the mainstream European public on gay rights or abortion, which is almost completely illegal in Poland.
Convergence via consumption cannot go further. It will take higher wages, better schools and better prospects for those who remain before Poland can catch up with its neighbors. Would a high-flying Polish woman want to stay in a country where the government considers her little more than a baby machine? Would a homosexual be happy in a society determined to deprive him of certain rights? Yet Warsaw can be a cosmopolitan dream, even if the Polish government is sometimes a nightmare. A plate of black cod and a bowl of vegan ramen isn’t much. But it is a start. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “The Black Cod Theory of Integration”