Whether you're a newcomer or a veteran expat in Bulgaria, you'd have noticed it already – the local wining and dining scene, in the cities at least, is anything but short of places. Perhaps Bulgarians' die-hard habit of unwinding among friends, salads and rakiya has a lot to do with it. It also explains the huge numbers in restaurants on week nights. What Vagabond's group of diners outlined in 2008 was the diversity of choices on offer despite any expectations to the contrary. Well, Sofia is not New York and it still lacks international dining staples such as a Thai venue, yet here, too, you can find just the right venue for your mood and taste – from the traditional and the sophisticated to the ethnic, the family-run and the inventive. Follow into the footsteps of our diner's and – who knows! – you may discover a hidden gem.
The expat diners' list is topped by the usual suspects in the genre, the traditional Bulgarian restaurants. It's easy to tell them – the foreigners there usually outnumber the locals. Even if this sounds a bit touristy, they offer the experience you may want to show your visiting family and friends. Pod Lipite, or Under the Linden Trees (1 Elin Pelin St, phone: 866 5053); Vodenitsata, or The Watermill (Dragalevtsi, by the cable car, phone: 967 1058); Manastirska Magernitsa, or Monastery Kitchen (67 Han Asparuh St, phone: 980 3883); and Pri Yafata, or At Yafa's (28 Solunska St, phone: 980 1727) are all famed for good reason: well-cooked traditional Bulgarian dishes, high-standard service and very good value for money. Pri Yafata seems to have an additional advantage: its musicians; their repertoire covers the entire globe ensuring sing-alongs and dances.
Vagabond's diners are equally impressed by Sofia's classic restaurants: old-timers that have made it through several decades and generations. Krim, or Crimea (17 Slavyanska Street, phone: 981 0666, 988 6950); The Czechoslovakian Club (15 Krakra St, phone: 441 383); Lebed, or The Swan (83 Samokovsko Shose, phone: 992 3045) and the Vkusnoto kebapche, or The Delicious Kebapche (20 San Stefano St, phone: 946 2027) continue to attract a steady track of visitors – including dignitaries and the artistic world – who savour the lamb, the knedly and beer, the fish and, well, the delicious kepabche.
Similarly, in a country where consistency is a problem, it is an achievement to have a handful of restaurants that have stood expat diners' test of time. These include Otvad aleyata, zad shkafa, or Beyond the Alley Behind the Cupboard (31 Budapest St, phone: 980 9067), perfect for both mekitsi on a Sunday morning and a wedding party; Chepishev Restaurant (27 Ivanitsa Danchev St, phone: 959 1010), offering a delicious lunch after a walk in Boyana; Dani's (18A Angel Kanchev St, phone: 0898 535 355) for its sandwiches and cappuccino; Grozd, or Bunch of Grapes (21 Osvoboditel Blvd, phone: 944 3915) where one enjoys a meal among local patrons; and notably Egur, Egur (18 Sheynovo St, phone: 946 1765, 0896 668 302 or 10 Dobrudzha St, phone: 989 3383, 0896 668 301) for the superb Armenian dishes and wine.
Those with a penchant for discovering new places must already be familiar with some of the more recent arrivals on Sofia's restaurant scene. Pastorant (16 Tsar Asen, phone: 981 4482) has become a favourite – fresh salads, tasty pasta in a homey atmosphere. The restaurant at Diter Hotel (65 Han Asparuh St, phone: 9898 998) has been singled out for its touch of class and Chicken Stroganoff; Les Bouquet Restaurant at the Les Fleurs Boutique Hotel (21 Vitosha Blvd, phone: 810 0800; www.lesfleurshotel.com) has delicious food in romantic surroundings. The Chef's Restaurant (on the road to Samokov, phone: 0896 723 222; www.chefs-bg.com) has found the right way to blend the Mediterranean kitchen and the Bulgarian cooking style.
Strange as it may sound, but this Sofia-centred piece on restaurants cannot go without international food. Described as a jewel, the French L'Etranger (78 Tsar Simeon St, phone: 983 1417) has a small menu but a dedicated team of followers; both La Capannina (Nikola Vaptsarov Blvd, Maleevi Tennis Club, phone: 962 8683 or 9 Narodno Sabranie Sq, phone: 980 4438) and Osteria di Sofia (32 Hristo Belchev St, phone: 987 0999) get the thumbs up for their lovely Italian food; and the Hungarian soup at Pri Latsi, At Latsi's (18 Oborishte St, phone: 846 8687) makes people book in advance.
If you're looking for a Soho-styled venue, head for Motto (18 Aksakov St, phone: 987 2723), equally good for lunch with friends or just cocktails among the stylish folk. Alternatively, go to the Red House Café (15 Lyuben Karavelov St, phone: 988 1888) for a plate of cheese and wine in a black-and-white setting.
Curry cravers have highlighted Taj Mahal (11 August St, phone: 987 3632) and Ramayana (5 Arsenalski Blvd, phone: 963 0866) for their curries and chapattis. Ouzo and fresh Mediterranean fish lovers now have Kumbare (14 Saborna St, phone: 981 1794) and Elea (127 G. S. Rakovski St, phone: 987 0339). TM Restaurant (34 Yuri Venelin St, phone: 989 12 12) is described as one of the best for Turkish-style cooking, coffee and sweets.
Fancy venturing outside the sophisticated venues? Then don't miss the colourful eateries and chains of pizza places such as Ugo and Olive's, where local crowds enjoy the food amid hearty conversations. Sofia also has its handful of unpretentious but worthy ethnic eateries. The Middle Eastern fast-food joint Baalbek (4 Dyakon Ignatiy St) has an upstairs small seating area for a quick lunch of hummus, warm pita and a Fatoush salad. Other well-kept secrets include Istanbul 2000 (104 Kiril i Metodiy St, phone: 931 6026) – located in one of the oldest parts of town, behind Zhenski pazar, or Women's Market, it is worth a visit for the fantastic salads, kebabs and the breads that come out of a wood-burning oven. Just around the corner is Ege Türk Lokantası, where some inventive gesturing will get you amazingly good home-made Turkish food.
Our diners pointed out that finding out your own dining gems is part of the pleasure of living in a foreign country. For a start, explore your Sofia neighbourhood and you are likely to find small, family-run, lesser-known venues that rival the famous ones in terms of quality dishes and friendly ambience. Indeed, the same is true for places outside Sofia – most hotels in the countryside will offer home-made dishes that are first rate just because the chef uses home-grown ingredients and follows recipes that have stood the test of time. If you're unsure where to start, our diners recommend the Moravsko Selo Bio-hotel near Razlog (The Predela area, phone: 0898-621-765); the former residence of Communist leader Todor Zhivkov in Arbanasi (Hotel Arbanasi Palace, phone: 062 630 176); or the restaurant in the Astraea Spa Hotel in Hisar (68 Ivan Vazov Blvd, phone: 0337 633 11); Blagoevgrad's Varosha Restaurant (10 Bistritsa St, phone: 0888 363 006; www.varosha.net); Odeon Hotel and Restaurant in Plovdiv (40 Otets Paisiy St, phone: 032 622 065; www.hotelodeon.net); as well as La Famiglia in Varna (1 Bregalnitsa St, phone: 052 610 290).
Given the variety of places highlighted by expat diners throughout the year, they seem to have had a good time experimenting with food and drink outside home, just as locals do all the time.