“I am thrilled that we have phenomenal guests who like this space and understand our rather relaxed approach to managing the restaurant. We attract people who do not care about silverware or select napkins, they mostly come here to socialize.”
Mali bar, a hospitality hit by the founder and gastronomic manager Ana Ugarković, has been one of the most popular “places to eat” in Zagreb ever since its opening in 2012, both among the local population and the more numerous tourists. It is a bar practically made for a comfortable lunch and refreshing dinner, whose subtle minimalist interior turns the focus to what matters most in that kind of a hospitality establishment: food and drink. Inspired by traditional Basque diners, Mali bar is a bistro whose interesting menu is based on the idea of food sharing and trying a “proper” meal in small, tasty bites accompanied by wine and happy socializing. It is undeniably pleasant to spend a few hours in its pleasant ambiance. So we paid Ana a visit and asked her to reveal a few little secrets of her master kitchen and tell us about everything that is happening around it.
Ana Ugarković: Everything around Mali bar happened by chance in a way, but actually not entirely. My friend, the owner of Karijola, noticed this doorway at 63 Vlaška Street and realized it had great potential. Since he had already been in the hospitality business for a long time, I trusted his judgement, although the courtyard looked terrible in the beginning. There used to be an old, dilapidated building in the place of Hostel 63, there were different workshops here, etc. Specifically, a long time ago, a picture framing business existed where Mali bar is located now. There were also airplane modellers and other kinds of modelling… I remember many nearby shops that are now closed. Vlaška used to be a boutique street, but most of them have closed down in the meantime. One of the rare old shops that have survived is Ivić delicatessen, which has existed here ever since the eighties. The neighbourhood has been completely transformed nowadays, with all those interesting restaurants, cafes, cultural spaces and shops.
But at the time when my friend took over the space of Karijola, it was practically a wasteyard. It is incredible how the whole courtyard managed to transform in just four years, because one thing led to another. When we came here, after Karijola, we tidied it up a bit more, so the owner of Hostel 63 seized the opportunity, then the wine makers from Vintesa came, etc.
— Altough Ana Ugarković hasn’t been living in the quarter until few years ago, she was close to it thanks to her family’s history. Her mother was born in Vlaška, and both her parents and a sister still live in the street. When everything has fitted into place, moving in the ‘hood was a logical step forward.
Ana Ugarković: I was born in Sisak, and I hadn’t come to Zagreb before the late nineties because I had studied abroad. I had lived in Črnomerec for ten years before I came here. My partner Igor and I like living in this courtyard, because we are not directly in the street, but are enclosed in our own little, somewhat isolated micro-world. Except when I’m shopping for groceries for the restaurant, I often spend the whole day here.
The courtyard space has probably also influenced the conception of the restaurant to an extent. Igor and I are in this business together — at first we wanted to open a cafe with snacks, nothing serious. But after a while, Mali bar started living its own life, based a bit on the people’s reactions and a bit on our own wishes… Now, we are more on the bistro line, this is not just a cafe with food. You can have a proper meal here. We are actually very glad about that! I am thrilled that we have phenomenal guests who like this space and understand our rather relaxed approach to managing the restaurant. We attract people who do not care about silverware or select napkins, they mostly come here to socialize.
— Mali bar’s imaginative menu exemplifies a leisure seriousness of Ana’s approach to cooking. Everything is based on seasonal change of ingredients and dishes.
Ana Ugarković: I go to Dolac market every day, and the selection is phenomenal at this time of year. Artichokes have been very popular in the past month, because you can’t get them later. We are known for different pastas we really enjoy making, we love big ravioli filled with egg yolk, with sugo with asparagus… We serve proper dishes every day — pasta, meat, etc., and our guests like to order several different dishes so they can share and try them. That was the original idea behind Mali bar.
When it comes to the interior, I knew exactly what kind of atmosphere I wanted to achieve, and the limited budget encouraged our DIY creativity. It was primarily important to convey what we found pleasant, because if we feel comfortable working here, the guests mostly recognize that. Also, many of the guests are our neighbours. They work or live in the neighbourhood — I run into them five times when I go out to get the newspapers, and then they come to eat at my place. In that way, our big Zagreb shrinks significantly on a daily basis, at least for me.