David Whitley expects meaty stodge in , but finds that the Serbian capital offers arguably the best value dining in Europe.
If it wasn’t for the notably youthful, moneyed-up crowd, Restauran Talas would be utterly traditional. The band whirls out soulful Balkan folk tunes that everyone seems to know, extending as necessary to build up the clapping and dancing. Dodging past the guitarist, the waiter removes the enormous dish of meat and cheese and replaces it with a gigantic seafood feast. It’s far too much, but adhering to the request for something light, it’s apparently only two thirds the size of the usual platter.
This absurd festival of binge eating costs just 3,000 dinar (US$36) between two. It confirms something that becomes quickly apparent in Belgrade; there’s probably no other major city in Europe where it’s possible to eat so consistently well for so little.
Or perhaps that’s should be eat so much. Stroll down Skadarska, the cobbled restaurant strip that milks the traditional old kafana* vibe for all it can, and the formula is largely the same: meat piled high. It’s usually beautifully cooked – especially the rissole-like ćevapčići, which is a ubiquitous contender for the title of National Dish. But sophisticated it is not.
This is something that is beginning to change, however. A new breed of restaurants is trying to do things differently in Belgrade. They don’t want to look like something grandma would recognise.
Supermarket is the most immediately obvious of these. In an all or nothing city where a joint that was the place to be six months ago can stand empty next to a thriving new rival, Supermarket has managed to hang on to its kudos since opening in November 2008.
ENJOYED THIS POST? HELP FUND THE SITEMy first book - Hardly Paradise: Anti-Postcards From A Grumpy Traveller - features 70 of my favourite travel stories from around the globe. It is out now on Kindle for just £2.99.
If you've enjoyed what you've read on this site, then buying the book would be the best way of saying thank you and helping to keep it going.
If you've not got a Kindle or just aren't interested in the book, that's OK. But if you click through on the link below, then buy anything else from Amazon (travel gear, guide books etc), I'll earn a tiny commission. And that would be nice too.
It’s an odd place, essentially a department store that focuses on independent designers and young Serbian artists. It’s the place to come if you want to buy “terrorist teapots” with balaclava-shaped cosies or umbrellas that are pulled out of sword holsters.
The restaurant merges into the shop, a seemingly logical next step from the shelves of books and wines. It feels knowingly relaxed; an attempt to create a fashionable community hub. The menu has an Asian influence – sushi and Thai dishes are heavily promoted. But where the European meaty dishes are done, they’re done differently. The beef fillet, for example, comes with caramelised shallots, tempura celery and balsamic sauce. It’s exceptionally good, and at 1,210 dinars ($14.50), scarcely believable value.
But it’s not a mountain of beef. Sem Velditeer, Supermarket’s ‘food consultant’, says this is deliberate. “We’ve cut servings of meat down from 400 grams to 220 grams – which is still large by international standards,” he explains.
“It’s about changing the way people look at eating. Some Serbian restaurants will serve up a kilogram of meat, and the body just can’t digest that.”
Velditeer reckons that Belgrade’s restaurant scene is on the verge of explosion. “Being a chef is seen as being cool,” he says. “There is high unemployment in Serbia, and cooking is seen as a great way to become rich.”
This is certainly the case in leafy Vračar. Formerly a purely residential suburb, it got a boost when Đorđe opened in a former ambassador’s villa in 2008. Đorđe has long been one of Belgrade’s finest restaurants, but new owners decided to move it across town and steer away from tried and tested dishes.
Co-owner Aleksandar Stefanovic says that they’re trying to marry old-fashioned continental European cuisine with fine dining. “We’re presenting traditional Serbian dishes in different ways; going for quality rather than quantity.”
A clear emphasis is put on presentation, and standards are high. But they have to be – there is plenty of competition around. Stefanovic tells how Vračar is changing. “Three of four restaurants opened nearby in the last year. From nothing four or five years ago, there are now seven or eight very good restaurants in the area.”
Đorđe is the stuffy old uncle in comparison. A couple of blocks away, Maska effortlessly blurs the lines between bar, restaurant and club, whilst Zaplet 2.0 feels like an exhibition space as well as somewhere to eat. A giant red ball hangs down from the ceiling, contemporary art is plastered over the walls and the background music sounds like something to sashay through a fashion shoot to.
The key thing is that Maska and Zaplet 2.0 are no longer unusual. The Herculean meaty feasts are still available for those who wish to loosen the belt, but the new wave of distinctive dining establishments is prepared to ditch the bloat factor and try something different. The high quality doesn’t have the high price tag, however – Belgrade is quietly becoming Europe’s culinary bargain.
*A kafana is a Serbian take on a taverna.
This article was originally written for BBC Travel.