I know Bucharest well as I used to study there before moving to Brussels. Now still, I often travel back and forth between the two every other month or so. Living abroad, I learned to appreciate a good Romanian restaurant, not only for surprising the occasional friend after a long sight-seeing day but also to indulge in some tasty cooking myself.
As with many Eastern European capitals the food scene is constantly evolving but there are a few places that have been now around for some time and I consider them to be a reference when looking for a good traditional meal. Spoiler alert, this post will make you hungry and maybe even make you reach for a credit card and book a flight to Bucharest.
So here it is:
- Zahana 33 (Odeon Palace) – http://palatulodeon.ro/restaurant-zahana-33/- a bit off the tourist track (meaning a short taxi ride from Unirii or Universitate square), this place offers not only traditional Romanian food but also some dishes cooked after seemly bourgeois recipes (think beginning of the 20th century), brought to life in a fresh and tasty fashion. To give an example, the “sarmale” (cited often as THE Romanian dish by excellence although after you travel a bit in Europe you can retrace its origins to Turkey, anyway… ) recipe is the one of the old Bucharest restaurant from the inter-war period, with the slowly cooked cabbage and minced meat rolls. They also cook great offal if you have a taste for it. Last time I visited I ordered the pike fish eggs (=icre de stiuca in Romanian), the ram pastrami (=pastrama de berbecut) and plum dumplings (=galuste cu prune), all delicious and as good as my mother makes them. My companion ordered the duck that was stuffed with generous and a bit sour filling and still pink in the middle. A delight! Although the website only has a Romanian version, I seem to remember there are English menus available. A reservation is in order at week-ends when they often have live music. It is a place mainly for locals with refreshingly few tourists heading this way. The secret is out now…
- Zexe – http://www.zexe.ro/Zahanauagastronomica/Galerie-Foto – not far from Romana square but, depending on your fitness level and accommodation location, you might want to grab a cab to reach the venue. After tasting their Romanian dishes, again inspired from the inter-war recipes, you will probably be more inclined to walk back. The dishes are delicious and elaborately presented (maybe a bit pretentious even but this does not take away from the delicious taste). They have a long menu (larger choice than Zahana 33) but this is standard for Romanian restaurants. If you are after a lighter version of the ‘sarmale’, here you will find a goose meat option rather than the ‘traditional’ pork ones. The minced meat rolls (=mici in Romania) are perfectly seasoned and with the just the right amount of garlic. For the ones with a sweet tooth, I found their deserts a bit more original than the Zahana ones – they have a reconstruction of a desert ordered by King Carol to celebrate the queen’s 50th birthday in 1893 that is alone worth the trip. I hope they keep up the good work and also the polite service which should not be taken for granted in Bucharest restaurants. Since my last visit, they have gained some great reviews on TripAdvisor but I still prefer the Zahana 33 in terms of food quality.
- Lacrimi si Sfinti – http://www.lacrimisisfinti.com/contact.html – food is good to very good with some great dishes like the Moldavian meatballs = (RO) parjoale moldovenesti and Noah’s stew. Wine selection is the best I have seen in a Romanian restaurant. The dish names are chosen with lots of humour as the owner is a famous Romanian poet. He apparently cooks from time to time in the restaurant. As it is located in the old city centre, it does get quite touristy at times but I can assure you that locals eat there as well when the opportunity presents itself. I liked the minimalist woody interior and the fact that there is a “fresh dish of the day”, not on the menu, that you can enquire about. As of 19h each day there are folk bands playing live. If you find yourself in the old city, you can rest assured you will get a good meal here, even if the service can be a bit brusque at times.
- Caru cu Bere – http://www.carucubere.ro/ – the food is good to very good with some staples like the sausage and beans dish (=iahnie de fasole) or the ram pastrami. The soup served in bread is a dish in itself. Even better is the beer. Fresh, local and brewed from a traditional recipe. Also they get top marks fort he atmosphere and the venue, a historical monument building in the old city centre. Service quality varies and at week-ends, when they are usually packed, you should expect a bit of a waiting time. For years this was THE place to take foreigners in search of a nice evening out with both entertainment (they have traditional dances on some week-end) and good food. If you are ok with the touristy scene and Caru cu Bere is full, you can try Crama Domneasca (http://cramadomneasca.net/) or Hanul lui Manuc (http://www.hanulluimanuc.ro/) both in the Old City area and having similar food standards in my book.
- Fish tavern La Zavat– http://taverna-lazavat.ro/ – now this is a bit of a hidden one but trust me on this, it is worth the trouble if you are after delicious and freshly prepared Romanian food, with fish as a star. The Danube circles almost half of the of Romanian territory and many rivers descend from the Carpathians so it is not a surprise to find even in Bucharest, good fish, sourced locally. They have meat as well with many grilled specialities like ram cutlets. Some Greek dishes are also sprinkled in the menu but I have not tried them out. The place does not look like much from the outside, or the inside for that matter, but food is fresh and many locals are religiously frequenting it for a finger-liking fishermen’s broth. There is limited choice in terms of sides or deserts. Fish is what this place is really about. Being born in a small city on the Danube river, I appreciate the no fuss attitude about food. Also, there is no English menu so be prepared with a little dictionary, particularly if you have specific dietary requirements.
I visited each of these places (together with a host of other international restaurants) over the last two years or so and intend the visit one (did not yet decide…) this week-end when we will be back in Bucharest for a family event. There are many more great Romanian restaurants outside Bucharest that I would also want to write about (particularly in the Brasov/Sibiu area) but this is for another post.
I did not yet develop the instinct of snapping photos every time a dish is presented to me. I just like to dig in and savour every bite. So, I will have to take a rain-check on providing photos of everything me or my friends have ordered. You will find a few snapshots in the photo galleries of each of the restaurants above.
What is your favourite Bucharest restaurant? Anything new I should try?