Nepal's favourite dish, daal bhaat isn’t just a meal. This hearty combination of rice, lentil soup and vegetables is the fuel of the Himalaya. Trekkers can walk for weeks across the highest mountain range on earth, powered solely by this carb-packed treat. However, what you don’t get while trekking is a huge amount of, shall we say, variety...
Sure, there are moments where the menu varies, such as when leaving vegetarian Sherpa lands for the meat-eating hills of the Limbu and Rai tribes, but for the most part, meals are prepared from a limited palette of rice, lentils and greens. By the time they return to Kathmandu, many trekkers are openly salivating at the very thought of such delicacies as burgers, chips and pizza.
For some, the repetitive diet of rice and lentils can inspire extreme measures. An on-the-spot examination of trekking packs will uncover hidden bottles of ketchup and Tabasco sauce, zip-lock plastic bags of seasonings and secreted salamis, saucisson and beef jerky. On the other hand, anticipating the culinary delights that await on your return to Kathmandu can be an almost transcendental pleasure.
Nepal has been calling out to the world’s adventurers for decades and restaurants have sprung up in the backstreets of Kathmandu serving every imaginable cuisine. You want pizzas? You got ‘em. You want Thai curries? The lemongrass is already being pounded. You want Korean barbecues? The grill is sizzling. Despite its rugged location and patchy transport links, Kathmandu serves up the world in a menu, and we guarantee your first meal back in the city after trekking will feel like a feast. Here is our pick of Kathmandu’s culinary highlights.
After weeks of lentils in the hills, the flavour sensation of tomatoes, pepperoni and mozzarella can feel like a religious experience. Nobody in Kathmandu does it better than Fire & Ice, an upscale favourite in a smart setting in an arcade on Tridevi Marg. For one thing, the ingredients are authentic, which means anchovies, salami and olives flown in fresh from Italy, hand-made mozzarella and hard-to-find options such as pizzas made with wholewheat dough.
It's nearest rival, Roadhouse Cafe, also serves a convincing 12-inch pizza, along with such trimmings as proper salads, tasty bar snacks and brownies and ice cream – all things you'll be craving after weeks of 'braised lentils served lovingly on a bed of rice' in the hills.
New Orleans Cafe isn’t just a restaurant, it’s a Thamel institution. This courtyard café in the shop-crammed alleyways of Kathmandu's traveller quarter has been serving up globe-trotting cuisine to generations of travellers, with everything from Creole jambalaya to barbecued beef and jacket potatoes on the menu. There’s live music twice weekly and travellers have been known to join the on-stage musicians for impromptu jams – not a bad way to shake off the traildust after a knee-knocking circuit around the Annapurnas.
Plenty of other Kathmandu restaurants offer global menus, plucking traveller-pleasing treats from Asia, Europe and the Americas. At the Chhetrapati end of Thamel, Mitho Restuarant tries harder than most, with everything from Indian curries to steaks and tagines, and some interesting fusion dishes that march across borders.
A monument to momos
Delicious parcels of meat, cheese or vegetables wrapped in wheat-flour shells, the momo is the dish that binds Tibet, Nepal and India together – transported across the mountains by the wandering monks who introduced Tibetan Buddhism to the Himalaya. These magnificent morsels come steamed or fried, with a side dollop of spicy chilli sauce; both locals and tourists agree that the tastiest in town are served at the low-key Yangling Tibetan Restaurant, prepared by hand to a family recipe passed down through the generations.
Running with the Tibetan theme, you'll find a whole range of Tibetan specialities at Utse Restaurant, a Thamel stalwart that has been serving momos, thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) and gyakok (Tibetan hotpot, heated in a brass tureen) to hikers, and their children, and their childrens' children, since 1971. Wash it all down with a pitcher of tongba, the traditional beer of the eastern Himalaya, a fermented millet mash, steeped in water and served hot, with a slotted straw to keep out the bits.
With the Japanese embassy just down the road, Lazimpat’s Kotetsu has the market cornered for Japanese food in Kathmandu. Despite being 650km from the nearest ocean, the seafood here is so fresh you can almost hear the breaking waves (in the absence of direct Nepal-Japan flights, it comes in daily by jet from Thailand). As you’d expect, the house sashimi is expertly sliced, the Kobe steaks are delicately marbled and the teppanyaki fillets are deliciously moist and tender.
Over on Durbar Marg, Koto Restaurant is another long-standing Japanese favourite, with two adjacent branches competing with each other for the custom of passing trekkers and expats. The sushi and nigiri rolls are best, regulars say, in the southernmost of the two branches.
Rather surprisingly, Indian food is somewhat under-represented in Kathmandu. Many dishes that claim to be Indian are actually Nepali interpretations – tasty enough, but rarely packed with the complex flavours of the Indian kitchen. For the real deal, head to the elegant surroundings of Third Eye, where higher prices secure you rich, spicy masalas and succulent skewers from the tandoori oven. One caveat though – chilli levels can be toned down, so ask your waiter to add a little garam (heat) to your plate.
There are a handful of other reliable India options to help keep your spice-habit sated. Ghar-e-Kebab in the Hotel de L'Annapurna serves satisfying North Indian staples (including good tandoori dishes) and ups the atmosphere several nights a week with live performances of Indian classical music and ghazal (poetic songs). Jump across the subcontinent at Dudh Sagar for fast breakfasts of dosas (savoury rice and lentil-flour pancakes) and idly (steamed rice cakes with curry sauce), and anytime treats such as barfi (Indian milk fudge) and gulab jamun (milk-curd dumplings with sweet syrup).
Beef up your life
A post-trek steak is a traveller tradition, and K-Too – partner restaurant of the long-established Kilroy’s – serves them fat as doorstops and as rare as you care to ask for. The dining room is packed out nightly with trekkers toasting the end of another expedition, and with chunky chips and fried apple momos for afters, plan a lazy itinerary for the next day while you digest.
If your tastes run to a rare steak au poivre, look no further than Chez Caroline, probably Kathmandu's most faithful-to-the-source-material French restaurant, set in a courtyard at the historic Baber Mahal Revisited complex, an restored Rana-era palace in the backstreets south of the centre. The menu also runs to superior salads, quiches and tartes, including a better-than-average selection for vegetarians, should steak not be what you were craving on the Thorung La.
A teensy taste of old Europe
The Austrian government provided the funding for the glorious restoration of the Kaiser Mahal gardens – now known as the Garden of Dreams – and in the process, they created a tiny Austrian culinary enclave in the form of the Kaiser Cafe. Here, amidst statuary, pergolas and fountains, you can dine in peace on sachertorte and schnitzel, while the cacophony of Kathmandu is kept at bay behind the garden walls. Come at sunset and the atmosphere is genuinely romantic – not something easy to find in frenetic Kathmandu.
For another slice of Rana-era romance, head to the rather grandly-named 1905 Suites, set in the historic home of a highly esteemed court musician. The Europe-trotting menu is served beneath a modernist glass canopy, overlooking a handsome walled garden; bring a date and sip a chilled chardonnay while dusk settles over Kathmandu.
Thamel’s top Thai
As well as being loved by round-the-world backpackers, Thai Airways’ daily flights from Bangkok to Nepal carry a precious cargo of lime leaves, lemongrass and Thai basil, ensuring that Kathmandu’s curry pastes are every bit as blistering as those served in Bangkok, Ko Pha-Ngan and Chiang Mai. Several restaurants compete for the title of top Thamel Thai but for our money Yin Yang has the most authentic flavours, plus a terrace dotted with cast-iron chairs that offers a classy retreat from the chaos at street level.
Travellers on less lavish budgets can enjoy authentic Thai tastes in a less swanky setting at Baan Thai, an old-faithful on Durbar Marg. Service sometimes comes in for criticism, but the tom yum (hot and sour) and tom kha (coconut and herb) soups are great for reviving the tastebuds after a long stint in the hills.
Hummus in the hills
If you’re feeling cleansed by the veg diet in the hills, you could always continue the habit with a wholesome meal of hummus, falafel and labane (Levantine sour cheese). Or2k has been tempting vegetarians and meat-avoiders for years with a true-to-the-book menu of Israeli and middle-eastern dishes. It’s down-to-earth and informal, with a no-shoes policy and seating on soft cushions on the floor. The same owners run Thamel's Friends Restaurant, with more faithfully-reproduced Middle-Eastern treats, served in swisher surroundings.
More good Mediterranean eating is on offer at Mezze, a hip rooftop restaurant and bar that lifts diners up above the cacophony of Durbar Marg. Good salads, panini and mezze platters fly out of the open kitchen, but if this is your first stop after trekking, swap the sweat-marked tee for a button-up shirt to fit in.
For some, it's not the flavours that disappoint in the hills, it's the lack of crisp, fresh ingredients. Well don't worry, Kathmandu has you catered for too. Forest & Plate elevates organic salads to an art, with all the kale, quinoa and beets you were hoping for, plus tasty vegetarian pasta dishes and a few meat plates to keep carnivores amused.
Another popular choice for healthy salads – washed in purified water, so no tummy bugs to worry about here – is Gaia Restaurant, set in a peaceful Kathmandu courtyard. It's also a great breakfast stop, with a wide selection of breakfast plates (muesli, porridge, pancakes, croissants, eggs Benedict) and full-flavoured organic coffee to wash it down.
It would be remiss to leave Nepal basing your opinion of Nepali food entirely on trekking menus. While not quite as flamboyant as Indian food, Nepali cuisine features a broad range of South Asian herbs and spices, with some unique local ingredients such as chura (flattened rice) and sukuti (fire-dried meat with salt and chilli). Several upscale Nepali restaurants target first-time visitors with live Nepali dance and music shows and traditional dining at low tables and chairs. Bhojan Griha, housed in the former household of Nepal's royal priests, is probably the pick of the crop, with a menu full of hearty Nepali dishes, and a commendable no-plastic policy (mineral water comes by the glass, not the bottle).
An altogether more sophisticated affair is Krishnarpan Restaurant, at the elegant Dwarika's Hotel – worth a visit just to see the traditional Nepali craftsmanship and materials used in the hotel's construction. Traditional Nepali meals are served as lavish set menus ranging from six to 22 courses and the kitchen uses organic ingredients.
Korean travellers are almost as intrepid as the Japanese when it comes to climbing the Himalaya, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to find Korean barbecues sizzling in the backstreets of Thamel. Hankook Sarang offers the full package – bulgogi (pear juice-marinated beef) barbecued at your table and flavoursome bibimbap (Korean pot rice), mixed on the spot in a heated stone bowl so the egg and chilli sauce flavours every grain.
And if your Italian tastes run beyond hard-to-get-wrong pizza, you'll find the full Italian bistro experience at Thamel's La Dolce Vita, down to the gingham tablecloths and just-like-your-mama-used-to-make gnocchi and ravioli. To finish, the deliciously rich chocolate torta could be just the treat you were pining for on those frozen mountain slopes.