TOP 100: MY OWN CHOICE
Where the best places to eat are is one of the most important questions a foreigner has in a new or relatively unknown country. Knowing this, Vagabond has sought the sound advice of insiders, who have selected for you humble eateries, exotic places and exquisite establishments for a great or intriguing dining experience, or just shared their informed opinions on Bulgarian food.
"A roadside establishment, the Istanbul Turkish restaurant is on the motorway to Plovdiv, shortly before Ihtiman. With its unassuming interior, it was built to cater for Turkish truck drivers. The food is, however, so tasty that well-informed Sofianites gladly splash out on the petrol and time to go there for lunch during weekends. While arranging the skewered lamb, veal, chicken or mince over the charcoal fire in the modest room, the chef is also baking incredibly delicious bread in the wood-fired oven. You can hardly find better Turkish cuisine in Turkey itself and this is not just my opinion; the Turkish drivers eating at the next table will tell you the same."
GEOFFREY KEATING, Irish Ambassador between 2005 and 2010
"Speaking of tradition, I should say that my favourite Irish pub in Sofia is J.J. Murphy's. The interior has an authentic feel to it and, in the summer, the walled garden is a great place to spend an hour or two with a pint. The food's not bad either. I recommend the leprechaun burger, but only in spring or autumn when the Balkans are wreathed in rainbows and you can be sure of a good supply of fresh ingredients.
I am told that the little creatures are easily trapped and that they do not suffer in any way, although I have noticed that their pots of gold are removed before they reach the table."
LUCY COOPER, Vagabond editor in 2006-2007
"If you're after traditional Bulgarian fare in the capital, look no further than Pod Lipite. This is the place to take visitors, friends and family to give them an authentic taste of Bulgaria. Those wanting an all out Bulgarian dining experience can try the chicken hearts, livers, pan-fried calf's head or other strange pieces of animals. But if this doesn't appeal, stick with the pork knuckle, cold meats, sache, or wild boar. There are some vegetable options too and they do a great kyopoolu."
MEHMET GÜCÜK, Former Turkish Ambassador
"The Mahaloto Restaurant has an attractive ambience, particularly in the summer, with a simple and welcoming atmosphere in its courtyard. The interior is like a wine cellar transformed into three halls and decorated with old knick-knacks and furniture. Unlike so many other places, the menu is only about four pages long, but the content is very satisfying. The Caprese salad is particularly appetising, as are the steaks and chicken dishes. The chocolate mousse is also worth trying. There is a separate menu of the day and the staff are very friendly."
MICHAEL GEIER, Former German Ambassador and Slow Food Movement member
"Bulgarian cuisine is fresh (the salads!), delightful (kavarma) and very sociable, but it was born before calories were counted. Since my arrival from low fat East Asia, tight jackets and split trouser seats have tormented me! In the meantime, I'm reading Bulgarian cookery books. I have to decide which of the many tempting Bulgarian wines to offer friends on a cold winter's night in Germany, along with photos of our travels in this beautiful country."
ALEXANDRA DIMITRAKOPOULOU-BRANNIGAN, Greece-Ireland
"Pastorant instantly became a favourite restaurant in Soﬁa. Salads and pasta were simple, homey and very tasty. Top marks to the tiramisu. Decoration was feminine, cosy, romantic and gloriously mismatched. Staff are easygoing, friendly and efﬁcient."
"A little jewel in the centre of Sofia is definitely L'Etranger. This French restaurant has a carefully selected menu which will definitely suit all tastes. The Bulgarian custom of starting a meal with a fresh salad and rakiya followed by one of their excellent wines contributes, of course, to the spirit of togetherness. A custom which will always bring back good memories."
TOVE SKARSTEIN, Former Norwegian Ambassador
"I love that every menu in Bulgaria begins with a list of various salads, including the Shopska as the consistently common addition. Main courses usually offer meat, but as a Norwegian, I generally go for fish. I have learnt that a salad starter is a must. I skip the rakiya, which is too strong for me. I often joke with Bulgarian friends that drinking rakiya is such a necessity as it helps to kill the germs in the salads, but they usually don't find it too funny!"
"Every city has its classic watering holes. New Orleans has Café Du Monde, Los Angeles has Phillipes French Dip Sandwiches and New York has The Oyster Bar. These are places that have been around for generations – where locals remember their first culinary experiences as childhood rites of passage. Thanks to 45 years of Communism, there are scant few of these classic restaurants here in Sofia. The Czechoslovakian Club (15 Krakra St) is one of them. My favourite thing here is actually a side dish. It's a doughy, bread-like, dumplingy thing called knedly. I also like the stewed pork with sour cabbage. It's not a light meal but it's worth the calories. Be sure to come here hungry and be prepared to leave very full."
MICHAEL WELLNER-POSPISIL, Former Director of the Czech Cultural Centre in Sofia
"Hambara bar has a discreet entrance without a sign. Walk through a tiny alley and you'll see a door made from rough wooden planks. If it's closed don't hesitate to knock or, better still, bang on it with your fist. The diners on the other side who are waiting to be seated will open it for you. The interior is lit only by candles and above the toilets you'll see a sign that says, Redaktsiya, or editing room. The toilets alone are worth seeing. Because the bar is so discreet, only regular customers come here, intellectuals mostly, or musicians, artists, and art lovers.
DIVYABH MANCHANDA, Former Indian Ambassador to Bulgaria
"Whenever I am asked about the Indian restaurants here, I give cautious replies. There are four in Sofia which come to mind: Taj Mahal, Koh-i-Noor, Saffron and Gurkha, where Indo-Nepalese cuisine is served. As you know very well, the job of a diplomat, particularly of an ambassador, involves the serving of the cuisine of their country. So, in our house, which is resplendent with Gayatri's acrylic and water colour paintings, we always serve Indian meals to our guests, like poories, channas, basmati rice, tandoori chicken, pao bhaji, pakoras, samosas, and for the sweet part gajjar ka halwa and several kind of barfee."
TSUNEHARU TAKEDA, Former Japanese Ambassador to Bulgaria
"Most of all, Bulgarians like sushi and tempura, particularly fried prawns. I have also been curious to sample the newly opened Japanese restaurants here and I have been among the first to try them out. When I arrived in Bulgaria, there wasn't a single Japanese restaurant and now there are several. In Sofia I would recommend as the most delicious SASA and Hamachi. They serve tasty sushi and tempura and I hope they will continue to keep up the authentic Japanese taste."
"In spite of being well known and always busy, Olive's is a place I would like to recommend. They have a wide range, very international. I especially love their Norma Jean Burger, their diced fried potatoes with spices, their Olive's salad and their grilled peppers. Both the portions and the prices are very reasonable. Service is first-rate and they speak English."
BERTIL ROTH, Former Swedish Ambassador to Bulgaria
"Motto is blessed with a very central location. The restaurant is very trendy and mostly patronised by younger people than me, but I very much appreciate the pleasant garden for simple summertime lunches."
"My favourite, upmarket restaurant in town – at least for lunch – would be Checkpoint Charlie. Why? Well, first, it's very close to my office, and it has a fantastic lunch menu with no exorbitant prices and a very mellow atmosphere – just right for unwinding after the stress of work. But, it also has a great ambience at night when there is often entertainment accompanying the excellent food. All my meals there have been well prepared, tasty and served in a professional manner."
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