by Simone Koniger*

Entranced by the food but annoyed by smoking and mobiles? You're not the only one

Simone Koniger

If you need information on Bulgaria, its culture and its people, then get yourself a good guide book. But if you want to find out if its views are realistic you can do no better than check out the places yourself. My husband and I have been in Sofia for about five months now and we've already discovered many fine places to wine and dine. And we have also learnt a lot about Bulgarians through our culinary expeditions.

To begin with, there are the restaurants and places in our own area, Pette Kyosheta (the Five Corners), in the western part of the centre. We discovered Zhaltata Kashta (The Yellow House), near the Madara Swimming Pool, by chance but have been visiting ever since (36 Tundzha Street, phone: 952 0878). This small restaurant has two rooms, one with an open fire place and an old wooden floor, decorated with souvenirs from all over the world. The menu features mostly Bulgarian dishes, but also Italian-style Risotto and an Algerian salad with eggplant, red pepper and couscous. There is also a varied and excellent choice of meat and poultry: lamb, chicken and veal. And, we happily noted, fresh fish and huge pot dishes.

If you fancy a beer afterwards I recommend Birariya Pette Kyosheta (the Five Corners Pub) (25 Skobelev Blvd, phone: 952 0049). The pub comprises three separate areas including a garden. It offers no less than seven draft beers including Staropramen, Becks and the German Schloss Kaltenberg (dark beer). It looks like a pub in the Netherlands or Belgium with its wooden decor and friendly staff. Like The Yellow House they also have a menu in English.

Not too far away from the Five Corners Pub there is a little café, Vila Rosiche (in the backyard of 26 Neofit Rilski, phone: 954 30 72). It has a relaxing atmosphere and is an ideal place to have coffee or tea and sample some tasty homemade cakes.

There are many renowned restaurants such as the fish restaurant Captain Cook (12-14 Pencho Slaveykov Blvd, phone 954 9098 ), where we go once in a while. I find the nearby Barbados equally good (34a Totleben Blvd., in the Shipka Hotel, phone: 954 1234) as well as Tambuktu (10 Aksakov St, phone: 988 1234). In all three you get mouth-watering fish and sea food, which obviously comes at a price. In Captain Cook, however, you may find yourself surrounded by some strange looking men accompanied by flamboyantly dressed girls. Aside from the tendency towards exhibitionism the TV screens in every corner can get on your nerves.

The omnipresent problem in most Sofia restaurants is the heavy smoking. Sometimes the offenders in question don't even stop while eating! You can also find people talking on their mobile phone so loudly that it seems like they are broadcasting to the entire restaurant. It seems to be worse than in Bucharest where we used to live. Restaurants are obliged by law to have a non-smokers section. But you know how these things work in practice – often the non-smoking section is confined to just one table.

Another relatively new hang-out is Chai vuv fabrikata (Tea House), (11 Georgi Benkovski St, phone: 0888 431 007), not a particularly easy place to find. A café combined with an art gallery, it has plenty of fine teas to choose from like the famous Yogi tea. They also offer great wines such as Salta (Shiraz) from the Zagreus winery. On Fridays and Saturdays there is live music, mostly jazz, and you have to pay five leva extra.

For a brunch or just a nice lunch whenever in the Vitosha Blvd area, I heartily recommend the Cactus Restaurant & Bar (20 Hristo Belchev St, phone: 986 7431). You will enjoy the cute and bright conservatory with plants, a little pond and a glass roof. Thankfully, the food is as good as the surroundings with freshly made bread, tasty salads, antipasti and succulent steaks.

My all-time favourite, however, is L'Etranger Bistro Francais (78 Tsar Simeon St, phone: 983 1417). Offering French cuisine at its best, this cosy little bistro owned by a friendly Bulgarian-French couple provides excellent service. A hand-written menu on a white board invites you to choose from the delicious, freshly prepared meals.

High class restaurants like the Uno Enoteca (45 Vasil Levski St, phone: 981 4372), Da Vidi (36 Khan Asparukh, phone: 980 6746), and Club Lavazza (13 Vitosha Blvd, phone: 987 3433), offer a very good range of Mediterranean food and a great choice of wines. But be prepared to pay for good quality.

As for bars or pubs, I like to go to the Toucan Bluzz & Rock (112 Rakovski St, phone: 980 8707) or the Bitburger (20 Stefan Karadzha St, phone: 981 9665), a German beer hall, both with regular live music events. Of course all the Irish pubs in Sofia are a popular rendezvous for meeting friends. But they all look more or less the same as everywhere else in the world.

Outside Sofia, in the suburb of Bistritsa, there is the Gradina (Garden Restaurant) (south of the main square, phone: 0889 544 449). With typical Bulgarian cuisine, it's a great place to rest after a walk in the mountains. On weekdays it's open only in the evening, but at weekends it also opens for lunch.

After a walk at the Iskar dam we like to have lunch at the restaurant on the west side next to the camp site. It has a big terrace overlooking the fishing boats and in the background you can see the Rila Mountains. It is called Shtarkelovo Gnezdo (682 Sofia Road). Once inside, you will be forgiven for thinking it needs a lot of renovation, but the Bulgarian food (the menu is only in Bulgarian) is tasty and inexpensive.

When it comes to Plovdiv, we would not miss having dinner in the old town. A recent visit to the Puldin Restaurant (3 Kniaz Tseretelev St, phone: 032 631 720) justified all recommendations. This huge complex has a delightful atmosphere with individually styled rooms, a dininghall in the cellar on two levels and illuminated ancient stone walls from the Byzantine era. The food was excellent, accompanied by two ladies performing classical music. Just around the corner and behind an antique shop you can find a café where a young and lively crowd come for a beer or a cocktail. There's a tree growing through the roof and a small terrace overlooking the city.

Having explored Sofia and Plovdiv's old town, we are looking forward to undertaking other trips around the country and discovering more fine restaurants and pubs.

* Simone Königer is from Munich. She teaches German as a foreign language and works as a tour leader in different countries. Simone has lived in Bulgaria since November 2006, after a 16-month in Bucharest.


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