by Ani Ivanova

Vagabond`s winers and diners choose the best places in Sofia and beyond

Choosing a restaurant in a foreign country is not always an easy job, and personal experience is often the best way to go about it. However, if you would rather not experiment, but follow the recommended path of our group of diners, note the recurring places in their individual lists - they are definitely worth a visit.

The unequivocal winner is Pod Lipite, or Under the Linden Trees, (1 Elin Pelin St, phone: 866 5053). Five of VAGABOND's 14 diners had put it on their list of the best dining choices. One of the oldest restaurants in Sofi a, with traditional ambience and fare, it is the right place to take visitors, friends and family to experience authentic Bulgarian cuisine. Expect an excellent selection of tasty homemade dishes - kebabs, saches, and vegetable options, all complimented by attentive service and reasonable prices. Folk musicians and singers perform on weekend nights adding to the congenial atmosphere. Many people are aware of this wonderful restaurant, so book in advance to dine there.

Another favourite is L'Etranger Bistro Francais (78 Tsar Simeon St, phone: 983 1417), run by a Frenchman, the chef, and his Bulgarian wife, the manager. Invitingly intimate and with a true Parisian atmosphere, the restaurant is known to offer French cuisine at its best. Despite a thankfully small menu, written up on boards, visitors find it difficult to choose between the escargots and the equally good duck pate for hors d'oeuvres. Importantly, the delicious food and friendly service come at Bulgarian prices. Don't be too surprised if you see royalty and prime ministers having dinner there.

Described as a very well kept secret, Opera, in the basement of the Sofia Opera House (113 Rakovski St, phone: 988 2141) is a superb choice for a stylish experience. Equally suitable for drinks or dinner before or after an opera performance, you will find a glittering interior and trendy clientele. The Fusion menu lives up to its name, wine is on a par with cocktails, and the service is enthusiastic. Unless you go at lunch time, you may find the sound level too high, so don't plan to talk shop. DJs are a feature on weekend nights.

An all time favourite for Sofianites, The Russian Club Krim, or Crimea Club, (17 Slavyanska St, phone: 981 0666) has become a magnet for newcomers as well. Years ago, the pick of the artistic world gathered there. Now you will come across entrepreneurs, politicians and models, and some very modern decor, but the atmosphere is just as bohemian. Importantly, the menu still features Chicken Kiev, Moscow Cutlet, vodka and caviar, and the service is first rate. Krim is one of the best choices for both formal meetings and private dinners.

If expats in Sofia have a meeting place, it should be J.J. Murphy's (6 Karnigradska St, phone: 980 2870). This Irish pub matches the standard of any Irish pub in the world, both in terms of food and decor, except that Guinness is served as well as Murphy's, and the Irish ban on smoking in pubs does not apply. Imported Irish steaks, ribs and pints are served by convivial staff, and attract a mixed and lively crowd. Murphy's is especially good for sports viewing and there is live music on weekend nights.

Just because you're in Sofia doesn't mean you won't get a craving for a curry. The place to head for is the Taj Mahal (11, 11th August St, phone: 987 3632). In addition to the remarkable atmosphere and ambience in sumptuously decorated rooms, you get a wide variety of Indian dishes - meat as well as vegetarian - with varying levels of spiciness. It may be a three-storey house, but it is usually full, so book early. The best spot for romance is said to be the attic!

VAGABOND's diners would not limit themselves to the capital, so please check out their recurring countryside choices. If on your way back from Greece, or if in Bansko, don't bypass Ognyanovo. From there it is only a short drive to Leshten, the originator of rural tourism in Bulgaria and home of a very famous, if unnamed, tavern (phone: 0752 75 22, 0888 544 651). Located in the centre of the village it offers fantastic vistas of the Pirin Mountains and simple, but great home cooking. The food is fresh as everything the tavern offers - from rakiya and fruit juices to meat, vegetables and cheese - is produced on site, and the recipes have stood the test of time. Try the rissoles made of chopped rather than minced meat, and wash them down with the owners' wine before you take a walk around this rural retreat. For rooms, go back to the tavern to enquire.

For another trip to the countryside, choose Plovdiv. A tour in the old City should end, or why not begin with lunch or dinner there. A fi rst-class choice for both accommodation and food is Hebros (51a Konstantin Stoilov St, phone: 032 260 180). Occupying a restored Ottoman merchant's home, it offers formal dining with a touch of warmth and style - a fireplace, a grand piano and live music after 9pm. Try the homemade fig rakiya with your salad, salmon fillet and chocolate mousse. Efficient and friendly staff adds to the experience.

For a more mystic ambience, VAGABOND's diners recommend Puldin (3 Knyaz Tseretelev St, phone: 032 631 720). Also in the old City, this huge place occupies a 19th Century Mevlevihane, or a Sufi sm training school for dervishes. Expect violin or guitar soloists during dinner and excellent Bulgarian food at all times.

In Bulgaria, home entertainment is often an alluring alternative to dining out. Hence a reminder of a tested recipe for Bulgarian entertaining, courtesy of Katharine Hill: Take one Bulgarian housewife, a wooden table adorned with traditional red tablecloth, a plentiful green salad, rakiya on hand, and plenty of free time. Allow to mix for several hours, and enjoy. As you may have noticed already, although home made and delicious, once it is served, food in Bulgaria is no longer a focus, and conversation, recollections, musing, pontificating, singing, laughing and often dancing step in.

The latter is true not only of home entertaining, and it seems no one is complaining.

Who Chose? The Diners' List

Katharine Hill, British political scientist

Lucy Cooper and Ben Plummer, journalist and teacher

Bertil Roth, Swedish Ambassador

Mehmet Gücük, Turkish Ambassador

Geoffrey Keating, Irish Ambassador

Uri Resnick, Israeli Deputy Ambassador

Ivan Garelov, Journalist and TV anchor

Michael Geier, German Ambassador

Ann Steward, President of the Sofia IWC

James Springer, US Treasury Dept

Maxim Minchev, Chief of BTA agency

Simone Königer, Tour guide and teacher


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