I believe professional chefs like myself have a different eye to your average punter when we go to a place to eat. We watch the hygiene levels, the presentation, the value for money and, crucially, the service, to judge if this is a safe place to go to. Having trained in one of the top training colleges in England, and having worked in top hotels and restaurants in Dublin, one thing I can say about restaurants in Bulgaria is that standards can slip, as service levels and particularly presentation are often poor. It is as if the standard truism of food preparation, drummed into us in college, that people eat with their eyes, is unknown in many places here. The good news is that there are some gems, and I am delighted to get an opportunity to talk about some of my favourites.
Having lived here for nearly two years and being a frequent visitor for about four years before that, I am fairly well acquainted with what Sofia and Bulgaria have to offer: a multitude of cheap eateries, quite a lot of mid-range places and a select number of expensive ones. The diamonds are to be found in the mid-range places, as I have not been particularly impressed with the expensive ones. If I have family or friends over from abroad, I always like taking them to the traditional Manastirska Magernitsa, or Monastery Kitchen (67 Han Asparuh St, phone: 980 3883) which takes its inspiration from all the monasteries dotted around Bulgaria. All the recipes, and there are a staggeringly huge number of them, come from these monasteries. In fact, that is the one criticism I have of the place – their range is so large that when you find something you like you have forgotten what it was by the time you get to the end of the menu! I always tell people: when you find something you like, stop, and order that. Service, normally the bugbear of Bulgaria, is impeccable here, very friendly, and the staff all speak good English, so you have no worries on that front. You get a large basket of home-made bread replete with spices when you sit down, and the atmosphere, with both winter and summer gardens, is just right. I can especially recommend their home-made desserts, but everything is fine – salads, main courses, grills – and all are presented very well. With prices being reasonable, it is the perfect place to treat friends to some genuine Bulgarian cuisine.
Also on Han Asparuh St is the Diter Hotel (65 Han Asparuh St, phone: 9898 998), which has a nice restaurant in the basement. This has a touch of class and is perfect for a romantic, intimate dinner. I have had their Chicken Stroganoff there a few times and can strongly recommend it. They have also got a very pleasant garden area and overall the atmosphere, the quality of the food and the presentation are superb. It is one of the as-yet undiscovered gems of Sofia, although I fear the publication of this article may change all that.
In spite of being well known and always busy, Olive's (12 Graf Ignatiev St, phone: 0894 Olives) is another 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. They do nice chicken dishes and they also serve pastas and rice dishes with everything presented in good taste. Both the portions and the prices are very reasonable. Service is first-rate and they speak English. I love their décor with all these old signs having comments on them. It is a good place for going out, knowing that the food will be tasty and the atmosphere and service excellent.
I must make a distinction, however, between the restaurant on Graf Ignatiev and the one on Vasil Levski (75 Vasil Levski Blvd, phone: 0885 Olives). In the latter the service is nowhere near as good, I don't know why, as the atmosphere and the food are fine.
*Chris Nolan is an Irish chef living in Sofia and just about to launch the first ever bagel restaurant and take-out in Sofia on 18 Stefan Karadzha St
Another, possibly surprising, place I can recommend is Fancy Restaurant in the City Center Sofia mall (2 Arsenalski Blvd, phone: 963 4480). It is on the floor with many restaurants so you won't miss it. Now, if you are going out for a nice meal, a shopping mall doesn't spring to mind. Here, though, tasteful décor, attentive service and excellent food can make this a good choice even for a romantic night out. I can really recommend their Slow Beef which, coming in at under twenty leva, makes it an even better treat. Served with a superb jus, it is worthy of any of the more expensive restaurants around Sofia. They also do a beautiful salmon there and their presentation is among the best. It is an Italian restaurant so there are plenty of pizzas and pastas along with tasty salads. It is a pity in some ways that it is in a mall, because it doesn't strike you as a place to go out for a night. But don't let that put you off. At night, with the lights on outside, it can feel as cosy as anywhere you can find. It is a little more expensive than some I have mentioned, but well worth it.
If I am looking for a nice meal without any pretensions, I go into any of the Ugo chain dotted around Sofia quite a bit, and I have never gone wrong. It is cheap and tasty and as good as many of the more expensive places.The value to be had in Sofia is in finding that restaurant in which the food is good, the atmosphere nice and the service faultless, without paying a premium price for that privilege. It can be done, certainly in the places I have listed. Standards do need to come up in general and if I am ever asked to do a piece on places not to go to, I would be very happy to oblige; there is no shortage of such places in Sofia. Luckily there are also enough little gems to make the city an enjoyable place to live and eat in.