by Bozhidara Georgieva

From early morning to late in the evening, the Bulgarian capital abounds with places for a delicious meal, a cup of aromatic coffee or a glass of craft beer, and for meeting friends

Recently I witnessed something that until not that long ago would seem strange, but nowadays is completely normal: in a bar, after midnight, two ladies were deep in conversation about the strong points not of a man, car, school, fashion brand or even a summer holiday destination. They were talking about a particular brand of craft beer with enthusiasm, understanding and pleasure.

We are living in times when food and drink are our main topic of conversation. Happily, we don't do this because there is a shortage of any of them. On the contrary – humanity has never been overwhelmed by such an abundance of culinary traditions, products, tastes, recipes, drinks and beverages.

Immersed in this abundance, we are trying to get the best of it. We pick organic or home produced vegetables and fruit. We are interested in which is the latest superfood and its antioxidant, amino acid and vitamin content. We return from our travels with suitcases packed with foreign wines, cheeses and spices. We watch cooking shows, read and collect recipes, try them and discuss with friends and colleagues where did we fail and where did we succeed.

Is this madness? Even if it were, it is a pleasant madness and it has engulfed not only Bulgaria, but also the world. But behind the unprecedented and seemingly frivolous interest in quality food and beverages there are deeper reasons. The invasion of the fast food chains and the cheap foods made of low-quality products led to a contrary reaction and gave birth to the desire for more healthy eating. The travel abroad has not only lost its feel of exoticism, but also became a reason for us to get to know new culinary traditions, to fell in love with them and to try to bring them back home. Internet, with its countless recipes, blogs and vlogs, doesn't only inspire us to seek new products and combination of tastes, but also instructs us on how to prepare them.

The crucial role in this culinary revolution, however, is of the owners of restaurants, cafés and bars. Always a step ahead of the ordinary lover of good food and drinks, they follow the latest world trends. They discover rare beers, wines, products and culinary traditions, experiment with them, recreate them after the original recipes, or create their own content, and serve the results in establishments with cozy or avant-garde design. For us is left to enjoy ourselves, and to quietly wonder whether we will ever be capable of preparing steak, salmon, risotto, hummus or creme brûlée that will taste at least a bit like the steak, salmon, risotto, hummus or creme brûlée in the menu of our favourite establishment.

Sofia, for obvious reasons, is the Bulgarian city where the latest culinary trends arrive first and spread the widest. There, the national culinary traditions co-exist with the cuisines of peoples from all over the world: from the Far East to the Mediterranean, to the US and Latin America. They cover each minute of the day: from the morning breakfast with aromatic croissants that are as if taken out from some French bakery to the lavish dinner complemented by craft beer or aromatic wine, which ends with a dessert that you cannot refuse in spite of the fact that you are already full.

To make things even better, Sofia also offers you places where after the restaurant closes, you can continue to enjoy good drinks, good music and the company of friendly people with who to have fun until the small hours.

In such circumstances, all of us are left with the only option of immersing ourselves in the best sense-rewarding trip around Sofia.

Café and bakery GATÓ: The secret of a happy day
Breakfast is the day's most important meal, but you will hardly find a better place where food not only boosts you with energy, but also with excellent mood, than Café and Bakery GATÓ (Sofia, 35 Bigla St, phone: 089 436 7610, FB: pekarnagato). Each morning you discover here a tasty surprise, prepared by the skilful hands of the bakery's staff: pastries with hand-made dough, aromatic fresh bread, rolls with home-made jams, pies. Whatever your choice is, you can be sure that it has been prepared by selected ingredients, and that its taste corresponds with the season. GATÓ also offers aromatic coffee, and the cakes and cookies inspire you to drop at the bakery in the afternoon as well for a delicious break from the busy everyday routine.

Aubergine Restaurant: Bliss for the palate, heaven for the soul
Good food makes people happy: the team of Aubergine Restaurant (Sofia, 11 Carnegie St, phone: 0889 991 867, www.aubergine.bg, Facebook: Aubergine) know this and give all of their skill and enthusiasm in order to give you a mouthful or two of happiness – and in the very centre of Sofia. The Aubergine's strong points include the fresh and quality ingredients, the attention to detail, the constantly renewed menu, the friendly atmosphere and the special room for VIP events. Food, however, is the thing that makes Aubergine the favourite place for so many inhabitants and guests of Sofia. The menu is substantial without being overwhelmingly long, and concentrates on favourite recipes from the international cuisine. There you will find as well all-time classics like Caesar salad, hummus, several types of risotto, meatballs and pork ribs in BBQ sauce, and also suggestions relying on the vegetable, which gave the restaurant's name: bruschetta with aubergine and Asian-style stuffed aubergine. Skilfully selected labels from all over the world await you at the wine list and if you prefer beer, choose Bulgarian craft or gourmet one.

Byblos Lebanese-French Restaurant: Take on a culinary journey
When you cannot go to the Middle East, the Middle East comes to you – with a clear French twist. It is enough to visit the Byblos Lebanese-French Restaurant (Sofia, 25А N Vaptsarov, phone: 0887 484 823, www.byblosbg.com) once and you will be hooked forever. Immersed in the elegant, tranquil ambiance of the restaurant, you will have difficulties choosing whether to begin with tabbouleh, Lebanese salad, hommos or baba ghanouj, before moving to a plate of foie gras, followed by magret de canard, pork tenderloin with caramelised pears, salmon with almonds and capers or classical Lebanese shish taouk. The desserts are equally seducing: from ashure to chocolate soiufflé to a selection of Arab desserts. The Byblos carefully selected wine list offers Bulgarian and imported labels, and the rich day menu gives you yet another reason to visit. The restaurant also has a separate hall for private and corporate parties, and if there are free spots in the nearby parking, it will pay for your car.

Lebed Restaurant: The taste of the classic
Which is the best way to enjoy marvellous cuisine, amazing nature and romantic sunset without going far from Sofia? By all means, this is Lebed Restaurant (Pancharevo, 83 Samokovsko Shose St, phones: 02 992 1111, 889 008 888; www.restaurantlebed.com). Located on the green bank of the calm Pancharevsko Lake, Lebed for years has been a preferred place for connoisseurs of good food who don't want to compromise with quality or ambiance. The restaurant with equal ease provides you with the discreetness needed for your romantic dinner, and the excellent organisation required for a large family lunch with the children or the wedding of your dreams. The menu steps on beloved recipes from the European and Mediterranean cuisine, and includes as well fish and seafood, more traditional meat dishes and vegetarian options.

Vodenitsata Restaurant: True Bulgarian cuisine
Rich folklore programme of rituals and dances, traditional atmosphere, the crystal clear air of the Vitosha: clients of Vodenitsata Restaurant (Dragalevtsi, Vitosha Park, phone: 02 967 1058, 0888 703 103; www.vodenitzata.com) have countless reasons to come back. The restaurant has long become the favourite place where Sofianites bring foreign guests to introduce them to the best of the Bulgarian culinary tradition, or come by themselves just to enjoy the food. The menu abounds with all-time classics like Rhodope beans, kyopoolu and kachamak, and wonderful grilled meat. Don't miss the Vodenitsata specialities and the chance to try Bulgarian game. The ambiance is equally attractive with its green garden in the summer and the cosiness of the traditionally furnished salon in the winter.

KANAAL: More than beer
Founded in 2011 and inspired by the culture and spirit of the Netherlands and Belgium, but with authentic Sofia character, KANAAL (Sofia, 2 Madrid Blvd, www.kanaal.bg) is the first specialised craft beer bar in the city. The selection is unique for Bulgaria and is on a par with the best niche bars in Europe, stressing on boutique, interesting, rare beers from small breweries in Europe, the Balkans and the USA. The owners import more than 350 types of beer, among them from De Molen brewery (The Netherlands), Evil Twin (USA), Omnipollo (Sweden) and traditional Trappist ales from Belgium. You can buy beer for home with a take-away discount, or attend the tastings or beer events organised by KANAAL. The bar is also the right place to be in Saturday night or Sunday afternoon for a DJ party with jazz, soul, funk, disco and electronic music. KANAAL organises also movie screenings, bazaars, concerts and poetry readings, for the newest events check the programme on www.facebook.com/kanaal.bg.

Actor's Club: Just have fun
When you want to relax in an artistic atmosphere with delicious food and a lot of good music, book a table at the Actor's Club (3 Malko Tarnovo St, phone: 088 827 9255). Tucked in one of the most intriguing locations in Sofia – the Youth Theatre, – the place is equally good for lunch with the selected offerings of the menu with Bulgarian cuisine (including vegetarian options), for an evening cocktail and a party until the small hours. Regardless of whether you are celebrating a birthday with your friends, organise a corporate event or just want to immerse yourself in good music, Actor's Club will leave unforgettable memories and will inspire you to come back again and again.


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