MY OWN CHOICE: A REGULAR DINER HIGHLIGHTS SOFIA'S BEST WATERING HOLES AND RESTAURANTS

by James Springer

Will Rogers is reputed to have said: "I never met a man I did not like". My variation on this is: "I never met a meal I did not like". Well, OK, there have been some bad ones, definitely, but I think you get my point: I like to eat.

James Springer

The fact that I have a rather large appetite and don't cook at home means that after 18 months in Sofia I have numerous dining spots and bars to share with you. I'll try to cover the best of the expensive as well as the more modestly priced eateries.

So, why not start at the top? I think the best "expensive" restaurant in Sofia is probably Beyond the Alley Behind the Cupboard (31 Budapest St, phone: 983 5581, 983 5545; just down the road from Vagabond's editorial offices). The cloakrooms there are fancier than most peoples' living rooms. I would describe the cuisine as continental with a Bulgarian tinge. All my meals there have been superb and I've heard nothing but great comments from other guests.

While Beyond the Alley Behind the Cupboard may be the best, it's not my favourite, upmarket restaurant in town - at least for lunch. That would be Checkpoint Charlie (12 Ivan Vazov St, phone: 988 0370). 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.

My preferred upmarket venue for a really special meal is Gara za Dvama, or Railway Station for Two (18 Benkovski St, phone: 989 7675; the next street from Vagabond's office) which serves delicious, genuine Russian cuisine and a wide selection of vodkas. It's named after the famous Russian film about a couple who meet and pass time in a train station - well worth seeing. Not surprisingly, the restaurant has been designed like a passenger carriage, including the entrance door, and has a great ambiance. You have to reserve a table because this little jewel has limited space. You don't need to go overboard on the menu. For example, one order of a herring starter, the beet salad and the beef tongue can easily be shared by a couple.

Another superior restaurant is Egur, Egur (18 Sheynovo St, phone: 946 1765, preferred venue, and 10 Dobrudzha St, phone: 989 3383). Armenian food is the name of the game here, well prepared and served in a great atmosphere - the owner apparently has a musical background and various scores decorate the walls. This is another good place for a romantic occasion. Also I recently tried Krim (17 Slavyanska St, phone: 988 6950), again in the luxurious category, and can heartily recommend it.

For very good German food, draft beer and a great atmosphere you can't beat the Bitburger (20 Stefan Karadzha St, phone: 981 9665), although it's somewhat pricey. It also has a very affordable lunch menu as well as great, live retro music and dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. For excellent Moroccan food and atmosphere I can highly recommend Annette (27 Angel Kanchev St, phone: 980 4098).

You'll find tasty Indian food and a great atmosphere at the Taj Mahal (11 11th August St, phone: 987 3632), as well as at the Ramayana (5 Arsenalski Blvd, phone: 963 0866), but here, more for the food alone. For a genuine Bulgarian atmosphere and traditional food my favourites are Pod Lipite, or Under the Linden Trees, (1 Elin Pelin St, phone: 866 5053) and also Manastirska Magernica (67 Khan Asparukh St, phone: 980 3883) which may take the prize for having such a large menu that it has an executive summary. Both of these restaurants offer fine food and attentive service at very affordable prices. Many people recommend Pri Yafata Tavern (28 Solunska St, phone: 980 1727) for its authentic and traditional Bulgarian cuisine.

A relatively new place that has an American or Western European feel is Olives (12 Graf Ignatiev St, phone: 986 0902). It has a special lunch menu but also an attractive overall menu with a western slant (inexpensive), and is a great place for having a party in the evening. Not far away is Restaurant & Bar Cactus (20 Hristo Belchev St, phone: 986 7431) which has a rather intimate feel and affordable food. A very well kept secret is the Opera Restaurant (corner of Vrabcha St and Rakovski St) in the basement of the Sofia Opera House. It offers a very modern decor and an excellent menu for the price, including an unbelievably generous deal for lunch.

One of my favourite moderate places for a pleasant intimate atmosphere with decent food is Mediterraneo (9B Oborishte St, phone: 944 9582). An encouraging sign is that you hear a lot of French spoken here (their embassy is just up the street) and the Gallic palate knows how to seek out a good place.

Another gem, especially for the garden during fine weather, is Dobro (on Yanko Sakazov Blvd in Oborishte Park, between Krakra St and San Stefano St, phone: 943 5526). This is the place for mussels when in season but everything on the menu is tempting.

I don't subscribe to the notion that all Irish pubs are the same, especially in Sofia. In my view J.J. Murphy's (6 Karnigradska St, phone: 980 2870) is by far the best, especially for its convivial atmosphere, excellent food and draft beer - everything on the menu is high quality. I can also recommend Flannagan's (next to the Radisson Hotel on Narodno Sabranie Sq, phone: 933 4740) for having drinks in its garden during the late spring, summer, or early autumn. Both pubs are handy for sports viewing.

How about clubs later in the evening? I enjoy Brilliantine on Battenberg Square (3 Moskovska St, phone: 986 3112), especially for its dynamic projection of retro music and jampacked crowds, but, unfortunately, it can be difficult to get in. Planet Club (1A Oborishte St, phone: 981 3532) is also interesting. We know the well-known crowd with their fancy black cars and four-wheel drives do frequent the place, as do the many women seeking their attention, but, as long as you're aware of that and can keep it in perspective, it is very interesting to sit back and watch it all. Don't miss the incredibly fancy cloakrooms - a show all in themselves! I have often enjoyed the live music, mostly retro, (dancing is allowed) and late show (starting about 12:30am) at the Sinatra Piano Bar (5 Arsenalski Blvd, phone: 0886 101 078). Well known professionals play great music, mostly jazz, pop and rock, at Swingin' Hall (8 Dragan Tzankov Blvd, phone: 963 0696) and, again it is a place for dancing as well as simply listening to the music. A great bar for good DJ music and chilling out is After 5, (near Battenberg Square and Brilliantine on Malko Tarnovo St, between Tsar Osvoboditel and Dondukov).

So, we've explored the venues, now let's put together some packages for an evening of fun: What could be a greater evening than seeing a performance at the Opera House, then walking two blocks for a great meal experience at Gara za Dvama, and after that a short walk to Brilliantine or After 5 to finish off the festivities? Or, how about taking in a movie at City Centre Sofia and then crossing the street for a good Indian meal at Ramayana or a visit to the Sinatra Piano Bar, or all three? Alternatively, why not have a traditional Bulgarian meal at Pod Lipite and then walk over to Swingin' Hall to listen or dance to some great live music?

Finally, have a great time while you are here in Sofia and be careful out there!

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