Restaurant Krem or The Russian Club – as it was better known locally
So, having established that the Sofia hotels are top drawer, my original task also asked me to select a couple of restaurants that the first time guest to Sofia would savour. This immediately led my mind back to the very first day, indeed night, I set foot in Bulgaria. It was a cold February night in 1992 when my Balkan Air plane touched down in Sofia; there was a light covering of snow on the ground and having collected my bag and found the people meeting me, I battled through the throngs of budding taxi drivers, each of them with cigarette alight creating a haze of blue smoke and outside into the waiting Lada. It had to be a Lada as there wasn’t much choice at the time.
I am sure George Smiley was lurking in the shadows somewhere, but I couldn’t spot him. Fifteen minutes later – there were a lot fewer cars on the road in those days – we arrived at the then famous Krem restaurant, located in the centre of the city, and the popular haunt, apparently, of anyone who was anyone or who wanted to be anyone! The scene would not have looked out of place on an ‘East meets West’ spy thriller, as the piano played in the background, and diners laughed and clanked their glasses in celebration, as the cigarette smoke got progressively thicker. From memory, my first choice from the menu was “’Grilled Lion’”. I think it was as a spelling mistake…… though maybe not!
The next day I had my first taste of Sofia by daylight and that meant lunch, this time at the Budapest Restaurant on Rakovski Street, which is now a redundant building although the Happy Bar and Grill next door is booming! Lunch was like the previous nights dinner, the same piano music, the same background noises -glass on glass – the same menu, and same amount of smoke. It was all quintessentially Eastern European.
Happy Bar and Grill Rakovski Street
Mentioning the Happy Bar and Grill perhaps also prompts the “then and now” debate. Back in 1992 restaurants were dark and sombre and tended to be more formal in their approach, and whilst the Happy Bar and Grill would not wish to be categorised or compared to any type of eating establishment from that era, they do perfectly show how “then and now’’ has evolved. The Happy Bar is bright and modern, whilst bringing the dining pleasure into the comfort zone of most wallets, even if Grilled Lion is no longer available.
For anyone wishing to still sample Eastern Europe dining but with the modern day twist two excellent central suggestions are the Grozd and Pouchkine Restaurants. Both remind me of the Krem, and Budapest Restaurants, and both show how things have progressed over the past two decades or so.
The large glass windows of the Restaurant Grozd never have a shortage of activity to gaze upon. Situated next door but one to the Turkish Ambassadors Residence, and between the imposing façade of the Sofia University and the iconic Orlov Most – Eagles Bridge – and also opposite the (in) famous Soviet Army Monument, the restaurant has an archetypal Eastern European feel that has been brought into the 21st century. The slightly formal impression belays the excellent food and service, and all at reasonable prices. The piano is missing, however, though perhaps rightly so.
The Pouchkine Restaurant is a relatively new restaurant, which befits its name as the carefully restored building used to be the old Russian Embassy. The building was in fact one of the first to be built in Sofia, after the country was liberated from the Ottoman Empire. The central location, immediately behind the ornamental and much photographed Russian Church also adds to its attraction. That vital element that defines class is once again evident: the piano, is played discreetly whilst the food selection, the presentation and style show classic eating in the 21st Century.
Finally, on this trilogy of ‘’then and now,’’ one simply has to look at the main commercial street in Sofia, Vitosha Boulevard, to appreciate the ongoing evolution taking place. What was once a battleground for pedestrians, walking on uneven pavements and competing with the tram’s – which in turn, battled for the same piece of tarmac, as cars navigating their way in between illegally parked vehicles, in all sorts and sizes but usually black in colour – Vitosha Boulevard, was once the worlds 14th most expensive real estate in Europe, and was a disaster zone.
As numerous shopping malls, themselves huge monoliths, opened their doors, the shops which once fought to be positioned on Vitosha Boulevard now fought to get their faces into the right mall and in the right position. This invariably meant vacating the main shopping street, as their potential footfall was likewise doing. As city planners planned, and those plans included a modern day pedestrian main street, shop owners complained that this would harm their business.
The reality is though, that this – in the longer term – has improved their business. If this wasn’t the case, then almost every capital city’s main street wouldn’t be a pedestrian area would it? A case of naivety mixed with inexperience perhaps? What we have now on the main street – and don’t laugh – is a Barcelona esque Les Rambles. For those not having been to Barcelona, which – and judging by the frequency of the airlines flying from Sofia to the Catalan Capital, is likely to be very few people – Les Rambles is the bustling heart beat of Barcelona, along which tens or even hundreds of thousands of people promenade daily, in order to shop, eat and drink.
Vitosha Boulevard Sofia
Taking a weekend stroll and looking up Vitosha Blvd from the Sveta Nedelya Church towards the imposing yet picturesque Vitosha Mountain – especially in spring with snow still positioned on the peaks – the tree lined Boulevard is invariably thronged with people of all ages. Meandering up and down the Blvd, whilst watching the mime artists and the buskers, then stopping at one of the many excellent modern café’s or restaurants – and joining the rest of the occupants in their favourite pastime – it is time for some people watching.There are stacks of popular haunts, but if in doubt, try the Social Café or adjacent Raffy Bar for either drinks, eats or ice cream.
What is also noticeable are the varieties of languages that are spoken. English is heard everywhere, Spanish, Greek and Italian is also in evidence, and one quickly realises that Sofia is a truly international city. The cafes and bars bustle with activity, long after darkness has arrived, and perhaps this, as well as the low prices in European terms, is the main reasons why the city is undergoing a Renaissance.
The final piece of the jigsaw in this puzzle, is the fact that more footfall on the main street means that the big names in shopping are now coming back in increasing numbers, to the places they vacated not long ago, and this in itself is driving even more footfall, and record visitors to the ”unwanted’” pedestrian areas. Oh, how things change.
By Mark Thomas, CEO HRG Jamadvice Sofia