by Alexandra Dimitrakopoulou-Brannigan*

To my surprise, I found Sofia overflowing with restaurants, bars and cafes, a perfect venue for every occasion

Alexandra Dimitrakopoulou-Brannigan

It's embarrassing now, but I, a Greek, confess that before coming here I enquired if Sofia had any “real” restaurants or “real” bars. Now, when visitors ask, I am appalled at their prejudice. But soon they realise there are plenty and all at good value for money.

Our first experience, I remember, was Background (14 Vitosha Boulevard, phone: 986 3529), replete with sophisticated dishes, minimal decoration, funky and shady customers and Bulgarian beauties. The second night was Motto (18 Aksakov St, phone: 987 2723) - exquisite decoration, beautiful space, excellent wine, “international” food and good-looking people.

We started to realise that Sofia was a well-kept secret. Two years later, I have been to Motto regularly, mainly for lunch with friends. It's always consistent with quality, service and atmosphere and handy because I live in the centre. And now there are so many more.When we have visitors, it's a hard choice between Pri Yafata, or At Yafa's, (28 Solunska St, phone: 980 1727) and Pod Lipite, or Under the Linden Trees, (1 Elin Pelin St, phone: 866 5053).

Pri Yafata's big advantage is the musicians who guarantee lots of dancing, glass clinking, rakiya - consuming and sing-alongs for customers of all nationalities with their vast repertoire! Long-forgotten Greek songs like “Giorgos Is a Mischievous Man” and “Lay Down Your Bed for Two” have made my parents very happy and Gypsy songs got us dancing on the chairs and on the tables at my birthday. Pod Lipite is more atmospheric and authentically decorated, although it tends to be overcrowded and food is of average quality. It's very handy, however, for an after-midnight visit to the Swingin' Hall (8 Dragan Tsankov Blvd, phone: 963 0696), a straightforward live-music venue. And if you're lucky and like the music, which stretches from jazz to rap to thrash metal, it can be lots of fun.

With local friends, we either go to places we know well and like, or to new venues to try the next fashion in town. The Indian Taj Mahal (11 August St, phone: 987 3632), the Armenian Egur-Egur (18 Sheynovo St, phone: 946 1765), and the Russian Gara za Dvama (18 Benkovski St, phone: 989 7675) still retain the charm of our fi rst visit, and one feels as if transported to a trans-Siberian wagon or a quiet neighbourhood of Yerevan.

Last May I went to Pastorant (16 Tsar Asen, phone: 981 4482) for a close friend's birthday. It became a favourite restaurant in Sofi a. Salads and pasta were simple, homey and very tasty. Top marks to the tiramisu. Decoration was feminine, cosy, romantic and gloriously mismatched. Staff were easygoing, friendly and efficient. And even the toilets made our visit worthwhile, decorated with books, candles and bead curtains.One problem in Sofi a, however, is consistency.

Many places offer great food and service on first opening and, one year later, a completely different story.Family life doesn't permit us many late nights out, but post-movie or post-dinner drinks are usually at By The Way (166 Rakovski St, phone: 980 3836), no special character but very unpretentious, full of lively, chatty Bulgarians and wonderful cocktails, especially mojitos, which seem abundant in Sofia. They are good and at a fantastic price, five to 10 leva, compared to 10 to 12 euros in other European cities. And, by the way, try lychee mojitos and mojito cake at Brasserie (3 Rayko Daskalov Sq, phone: 980 0398) where the food is also excellent.

On a nice sunny day, drive down to Pancharevo and have lunch at Lebed (83 Samokovsko Shose, phone: 992 3045), a huge restaurant reminiscent of wedding receptions in the 1980s on the inside, but with great views of the lake, nice fish dishes and a big level outdoor area with tables, a playground, a cage of real wild eagles and little adventure bridges leading to the lakeside.What I enjoy very much in Sofia is rambling around the city centre, supposedly to find kids' shoes, a present for a friend, an art object or a fish shop. On carefree days, lunch or coffee with friends is a treat and the best place to go is Dani's (18a Angel Kanchev St, phone: 987 4548), a very small, intimate café with sandwiches, salads, soups and lots of character. With larger groups we hang out at Comercial (27 Tsar Ivan Shishman St, phone: 84 5085), with nice homemade pâtés and seafood risottos, and a great spot near shoe shops, book shops and the fruit and vegetable market. And when I manage to be happily alone, my ideal break is a window seat at Onda Café (8a Tsar Osvoboditel St.) opposite the Russian church, with a book, a nice mocha cappuccino and a croissant.

Finally, Sofia with kids. For those here before 2006, we all wept when Sofia Land closed. But still, nearby there is swimming in the Greenville Hotel pool, never crowded, with friendly staff. Afterwards, a good idea is lunch at La Capannina (Nikola Vaptsarov Blvd, Maleevi Tennis Club, phone: 962 8683). La Capannina offers lovely Italian food (try tortellini with prawns, zucchini and cherry tomatoes), a big area for kids to run around, a playroom for smaller kids in the complex, a playground outside, tennis courts and a gym in case you need to feel active on a Sunday, as well as lots of parking space. Otherwise, an easy option is Flannagan's (next to the Radisson Hotel on Narodno Sabranie Sq, phone: 933 4740). On Sundays they have a childcare service while parents enjoy their brunch or something from the pub's menu, such as lamb chops glazed with honey or a Caesar salad for those on a diet. O! Shipka (11 Shipka St, phone: 944 9288) is a great place for pizza and kids in the summertime, with a leafy backyard, a swing and a sand pit for the kids. A great end to a nice Sunday lunch/brunch/dinner is a sladkarnitsa (confectioner's) and if you are in the centre, the all-time classic with grand aspirations, Café Bulgaria (4 Tsar Osvoboditel) is a must. Its comfortable seats, big windows and buzz of the big city in the old days remind me of Sunday outings with the family in Athens. The coffee aroma and the dessert selection are attractive to adults and children alike. Other lovely sladkarnitsi are Tea in Iztok (10 Frederic Joliot Curie St, phone: 872 2342) and the French Café in the Ruski Pametnik area (48 Macedonia Blvd, phone: 951 5085), owned by Lebanese people. The Nedelya Café chain is also very good. But the biggest question of all is how Bulgarian women stay so slim when I've witnessed them eating huge portions of chocolate and cream cakes accompanied by frothy cappuccinos!

Apart from all the above foreigner-friendly places, Sofia has hundreds more little neighbourhood restaurants, tavernas and cafés with usually a basic meal to order. I'm sure there are also places that only Bulgarian people know and I would love to explore and discover more. But now, I'm eager to try the new Greek restaurant, Kumbare (14 Suborna St, phone: 981 1794), near the Sheraton hotel. I hear it's lovely and with Greece being so close, we all expected a nice Greek addition into town. Apparently Opera (113 Rakovski St; phone: 988 2141) is under a new Spanish chef at the moment and reviews are raving, whereas friends living in Sofia for a long-long time recommend Vishnite (45 Hristo Smirnenski Blvd, phone: 963 4984) and Stenata (5 Bratya Miladinovi Street). Sofia may seem small, but it's a city where there's enough room for places to be quirky without being pretentious. It does not have everything yet but with its constant surprises, it has more than enough and that's good enough for me!

*Irish-married Greek Alexandra Dimitrakopoulou-Brannigan is a lawyer and freelance translator in Sofia


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