The life of a compulsive foodie searching for unexplored territory, unheard-of food specialities and venues in which to give full vent to his appetite, has become a tough one of late. It actually seems that every corner of the globe has already been mapped out and experienced by some enterprising tourist with an even greater appetite. However, there is still one uncontaminated place, a jungle of folk cuisine that nobody is yet familiar with and it is well worth a visit. We are talking about Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria and a paradise for those who love stodgy food and late nights – at a cost that is less than you probably imagine.
Bulgaria – a former Soviet Union country, mainly known, by few people in any case, for its roses and monasteries – is certainly not the first destination that comes to mind when planning a gourmet trip. But once you do set out to discover “the new Bulgarian cuisine and its up and coming chefs” you return home convinced that this is a curious country in its approach to food, one of big smiles and even bigger portions, where it costs very little to experiment and have fun. Far from any beaten gourmet tourist track, let alone the Michelin Guide, a visit to Sofia is like returning to East Berlin in the nineties. You experience the same atmosphere of street level revival guided by the young owners of micro businesses that - amidst delightfully run-down houses, graffiti and abandoned buildings - are opening hidden away venues, vegan restaurants, organic food stores and cocktail bars of international aspirations.
A melting-pot cuisine
Bulgarian cooking is a crossroads affair between Greek, Turkish and central European as well as costing very little – you just have to change 200 Lev (100€) and you can go around for a couple of days and even bring home some souvenirs. They serve huge salads as a starter, in Greek style, with feta or similar cheese varieties called shopska, a sort of tzatziki called snezhanka and a babaganoush called kyopolu. Soups followed by main meat courses: kebapcheta (meatballs), kavarma (stew) or grilled beef, pork or lamb.
Vegetarians can order the banitsa (puff pastry filled with cheese or vegetables) or ewe’s milk cheese with eggs baked in the oven, a filling dish going under the name of sirene po shopski. A complete meal served at a table in a city restaurant costs around 20 Lev (less than 10 in a country village), 40 Lev if you pick out a trendy little venue in the city centre between Garibaldi Square, Ignatiev avenue and Tzar Shishman street (like the ones recommended below). In bakery windows, the banitsa, flatbreads or brioches are so big they make you feel Lilliputian and cost no more than 2 Lev, 1 €. A bottled beer is priced just over 1€, 2€ for draught, 4€ for a cocktail and the end of meal rakia (the local grappa) is brought to the table in a bottle. Luckily, there is no need to drive and even the taxis are cheap.
Here are the best Sofia Restaurants and venues we have unearthed – unknown even to Lonely Planet and Le Routard
There is no point in searching for it as you wander through the streets, because this venue is located on the first floor of number 68 Neofit Rilski street. It is an apartment in the true sense of the term, converted into a club serving beer, liqueurs and a bite to eat (savoury quiches, desserts, home-made vegetarian and vegan dishes). Each room is differently furnished like a house for freaks or hipsters or granny’s parlour. It closes late and starts to fill up after midnight.
A bistro housed on the first floor of an early twentieth century-style villa offering modern Bulgarian-style cuisine or modern-style Bulgarian cuisine. A selection of local ham and cheese specialities and a wine list that is also Bulgarian and honestly priced. English translations and a “design home” décor with odd pieces picked up here and there and mingled with Ikea furniture, which all adds up to a very cosy atmosphere.
One more bar
Located below Lavanda, this venue, which is ideal for an aperitif or after dinner drink, offers International cocktails that are reasonably well mixed. The sort of place you would like to see in a big city, with soft lighting and a private club sort of atmosphere.
The cocktail bar
In a glass pavilion in a central square with tables set outside in the summer and soft little lights in the winter, a DJ and a happy hour, The Cocktail Bar is indeed the right place to go for an expertly made drink.
Sofia is full of typical restaurants, draped in traditional folksy fabrics. This one looks like auntie’s drawing room with its wood furniture, lace doilies and vintage dinner plates used to serve up a slightly more refined version of the local cuisine. The usual Bulgarian fare, a few international dishes and home-made desserts. In the summer, you can eat in a delightful little street-facing courtyard. There is also an English menu online.
Divaka is a venue furnished in a modern way where you can eat simple traditional food in generous portions, of a quality that is higher than the standard offered in tourist venues. It is patronized by Bulgarians but also has a menu and a website in English.
An extremely elegant venue in a sumptuous building, this is a luminous restaurant in the daytime and a cocktail bar in the evening, softly lit in shades of violet. Prices on a par with Europe and a selection of international bottles.
It would be a real pity to visit Bulgaria without seeing a traditional performance of folk dancing, normally included in tourist restaurant menus. Music and hopping girls in red dresses enliven the evening and put a stop to conversation. Then, if you are lucky enough to sit beside an organized group of tourists you may even get a glimpse of some pork flambé entering the room. Luckily, there are always starter salads to fall back on and, at 10€ per head, it is well worth experiencing (once in a lifetime). This is the most popular restaurant of its kind – mentioned in all of the guide books.