Eating out is a tough but pleasant job if you know how to find the right place, consider your mood and are sure about the reason for going out
I came to Bulgaria as a hospitality industry expert, and gastronomy is an important aspect of my work. People hire me to open their hotels, provide consultation for their tourism projects or simply for my opinion on various matters. Clients rely on my professional help, which is based on the international experience that I have gained working on many different projects and at my own restaurant in Switzerland (www.restaurantpalace.ch).
Bulgaria, however, is different, and that is probably the reason why the expats who stay here enjoy it so much. Rules, behaviour and social expectations in Bulgaria are unlike those in Central Europe. So coming here and expecting to implement "our" style of service, French cuisine and table manners, makes life hard and the restaurant venture possibly unsuccessful. Finding the right concept somewhere in between these two cultures makes for a highly inspiring job.
For three years I have been travelling to Sofia almost every week, but I have only cooked Fondue three times for my friends. I do not use my kitchen very often, because I have discovered many wonderful places to eat and drink at. I enjoy the variety of restaurants depending on their food and atmosphere, as well as on my mood, my time and my company.
As my office and apartment are in central Sofia, I often choose restaurants in the area. For a quick lunch, I like Pastorant (16 Tsar Asen St, phone: 981 44 82; www.pastorant.eu). There you don't feel like you are in a restaurant, but rather in a mother's kitchen. The menu is not huge, but they make sure everything is always fresh. Prices are middle of the road.
For Sushi, I go to Sushi Bar (18 Denkoglu St, phone: 981 8442; www.renecatering.com). They have a non-smoking section, which is very innovative, but you are mostly alone there. The menus start at 10 leva and go up to 35 leva.
A friend introduced me to Your Place (5 Stara Planina St, phone: 0878 175 343). I was surprised by the fresh food and the good taste the menu showed. Now I go there very often. Price and quality are absolutely perfect despite the location (in a passageway). Try the Brie Duville and the homemade Tiramisu or Crème Brulé. You will love it!
For business meetings, I often go to the classy Metropolitan Restaurant. It has a lot of space, a non-smoking area, and, most importantly, excellent food. They are innovative, too: different teams of chefs prepare various international menus.
In the evenings, I mostly go to some very informal Bulgarian place where people eat when they want, smoke during dinner and nobody cares whether the waiter serves from right or left. This is where you find happy Bulgarian faces, and I would not like to miss this experience.
Pod Lipite, or Under the Linden Trees (1 Elin Pelin St, phone: 866 5053; www.podlipitebg.com), is very popular, and you can find lots of foreign visitors there. I like the place because it stays authentic and the soft music programme complements the lovely atmosphere.
If you want to show your visiting friends an overview of Balkan music and Bulgarians eating in big groups around a table – sharing big portions on huge plates, that is – and if you'd like to show them a different world, I have a place for you. On the first night when friends of mine arrive I take them to Veselo selo, or Happy Village (in the Borisova Garden, phone 963 2311). Note that the music programme starts at 10:30 pm and you should forget any discussions you'd like tohave at this time, as it will be too loud. It may be a bit touristy, but I like it.
As a gourmet I also like the fine dining, for which I choose the Les Bouquet Restaurant at the Les Fleurs Boutique Hotel (21 Vitosha Blvd, phone: 810 0800; www.lesfleurshotel.com). Delicious food, excellent service and a very special ambience make this restaurant worth going to. The price-to-quality ratio is very good and it's the perfect place to discuss business or for a romantic meal
But my biggest surprise, and one of the best restaurants I've ever been to, is Chef's Restaurant (phone: 0896 723 222; www.chefs-bg.com). The two Bulgarian chefs have a great deal of international experience and have indeed found the way to blend the Mediterranean kitchen and the Bulgarian cooking style. The restaurant is located on the way to Borovets, 17 km outside Sofia. Delicious food and great atmosphere with a fire in the middle of the restaurant make it the best restaurant in Bulgaria. Make sure to book!
What I miss in Bulgaria is the knowledge of wine, and also the wine culture. The opening of a good bottle of wine is a procedure, and you should do it with a feeling. The guest should be able to taste the wine, and not only the first bottle. At many restaurants both staff and guests lack the education in the field. I hope this will change soon.
In Blagoevgrad I found a restaurant where the wine is an important selling point. The Varosha Restaurant (10 Bistritsa St, Blagoevgrad, phone: 0888 363 006; www.varosha.net) with an exclusive interior and a fantastic wine cellar is worth a visit. The tasty food and the explanations of a wine expert are a great experience. The hotel also offers first-rate rooms at affordable prices.
Another good address is the Odeon Hotel and Restaurant in Plovdiv (40 Otets Paisiy St, Plovdiv, phone: 032 622 065; www.hotelodeon.net) where the TV star/cook Ivan Zvezdev presents Bulgarian and European specialities. If you want to taste cooking on a high level, don't miss this venue.
After dinner I like the Sinatra Piano Bar in Lozenets (5 Arsenalski Blvd, phone 0886 101 078). If they don't know you, it's not so easy to get in (especially on weekends), but the programme is absolutely great.
There are more places to recommend, and I am sure that I will find many more in the future.
*André Gribi is CEO of Kohl & Partner Sofia EOOD, Tourism Consulting International (www.kohl.bg) and Swiss Tourism Management, Sofia (www.stm-bg.com).