Eating local with style: the rise of the neo-bistro in Ljubljana

With vegetables growing literally on the city’s doorstep, and orchards and vineyards an easy morning’s ride away, Ljubljana’s restaurants have always had access to the freshest of ingredients.  But while the resulting cuisine has always been wholesome, solid and, well, earthy, it often lacked a certain sophistication. With the arrival of the neo-bistro in Slovenia’s pint-sized but big-hearted capital, however, all that is changing.

A simple, ravishing plate from a neo bistro
The neo-bistro has brought new life to the food scene in Ljubljana © Monstera Bistro

A bevy of talented young chefs who have cut their teeth at some of Slovenia’s top restaurants like Restaurant Strelec in Ljubljana Castle or abroad have opened personality-stamped eateries that emphasise a new, even experimental, approach to cooking, relaxed service and, of course, that abiding focus on freshness. Slovenia has now been awarded the official title European Region of Gastronomy 2021, which will place Ljubljana even more firmly on the continent’s food map. 

Gostilna Jakob Franc

The self-taught talent Jakob Franc of Gostilna Jakob Franc, an intimate bistro in Trnovo, has taken it upon himself to re-introduce Slovenia to the Krškopolje pig, Slovenia's only indigenous (and free-range) breed. He serves a cold-cuts platter of smoked salami, pršut (Slovenia’s answer to Italian prosciutto) air-dried for three and a half years, liver paté and zaseka (a kind of bacon-based relish) and his winning smoked pork neck on buckwheat porridge with mushrooms. Enjoy set lunch on the comfortable terrace with a bottle of Klen’Art Modri Pinot, a pinot noir from Slovenian Istria. And don’t miss the superb house-baked bread with crackling.

A plate of dumplings with kohlrabi and juniper
Try creative tapas like dumplings with kohlrabi and juniper at TaBar © TaBar

Tapas a la Slovenia

Award-winning chef Jakob Pintar at TaBar has taken the concept of often forgettable tapas and turned them into his very own, looking into his backyard as well as to neighbouring Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia for inspiration. Choose four or five plates from such ever-changing delicacies as beef tomato with avocado cream, rolled melon and lavender or tuna encased in razor-thin cucumber slices with squid ink. TaBar boasts what is arguably the best wine list in Ljubljana; it’s noted especially for its orange and natural wines. Splurge on an Atimo Chardonnay from Dobrovo. Banquette seating amid sleek surrounds in an atmospheric Old Town house. Five-star service. The bread is from Pekarna Osem, Ljubljana’s best bakery.

New kid on the block

Newly opened Landerik on Stari trg in the heart of the Old Town serves breakfast (Ljubljana’s favourite new meal), set lunch and multi-course dinners.  The beef tartare served in a Teran wine reduction with hazelnut cream on a brioche is inspired, but the winning dish is barley risotto with two types of cheese and pickled vegetables. Service under the watchful eye of manager David Smukovič is seamless. Ask him to recommend a wine or follow our lead and order a bottle of the Fedora Goli Breg red cuvée or Chardonnay, with their fabulous hand-drawn labels of scenes from folk tales.  Desserts are based on Austrian-style chopped sweet pancakes known as Kaiserschmarren and served with jam.

Inside Monstera bistro: a shelf of wineglasses lining the wall
Monstera uses only local, seasonal ingredients and strives to be zero-waste © Janez Marolt / Monstera Bistro

Monster mash

Star TV chef Bine Volčič put his money where his mouth was in 2016 when he opened Monstera Bistro using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients and employing zero-waste food-prep concepts; everything from fish skin to apple stems get used, and Volčič himself forages for wild herbs in the forest. More unusual cuts like pork snout with pumpkin-seed oil and his signature slow-cooked beef cheeks dominate the three-course lunch – which changes every 10 days – and the seasonal seven-course surprise dinner. You won’t find Coca-Cola or iced tea here, but rather homemade juices and three dozen carefully selected wines.

Oh, and the name: it’s from Monstera deliciosa, a split-leaf philodendron that was the indoor plant of choice in socialist Yugoslavia.

A table of beautifully presented desserts at Atelje
Beautifully presented desserts at Atelje © Steve Fallon / Lonely Planet

At home in the workshop

Probably the most sophisticated of our quintet, erstwhile Strelec sous chef Jorg Zupan’s Restavracija Atelje at the Grand Hotel Union remains simple in ingredients but very refined when the 'Workshop' team gets creative. Both lunch and dinner are multi-course affairs (up to nine for the latter) that might include the likes of scallops in a tomato essence with ajda (buckwheat) and red currants, or an umami-explosive octopus with coconut, tamarind and house-made XO sauce.

Dessert could be chocolate and sour-cherry clafoutis with smashed plum pits, which have a unique almond-cherry flavour. The wine list is extensive and well-chosen. Try the excellent Puklavec Sivi Pinot, a pinot grigio from Jeruzalem in the Ormož region. For years the home of the high-end expense-account restaurant Smrekarjev Hram, Atelje occupies a lofty, very upbeat space with artwork that changes monthly.

A check cooking in an open-air food market with people eating at umbrella-shaded picnic tables
Don't miss Odprta Kuhna, the open-air food fair on Fridays during the summer © Jaka Birsa / Ljubljana Tourism Office

Small bites and sips

For an easy intro into Ljubljana’s food offering and Slovenia cuisine, join a food walking tour offered by LjubljanaNjam. If you're in town on a Friday during the summer, visit Odprta Kuhna (Open Kitchen), an amazing food fair offering local and international specialities cooked on-site from many of restaurants around the town.

If you have neither the time nor the inclination for set meals or tasting menus, the following places will serve you simple dishes much loved and widely consumed by Ljublančani (people from Ljubljana): 

Moji Štruklji Slovenije Come here for štruklji, a traditional dish composed of dough and various types of filling that can be sweet or savoury: apple, walnut, poppy seed, cottage cheese, tarragon.

Klobasarna This eatery specialises in that most Slovenian of dishes, Kranjska klobasa, the EU-protected 'Carniolan sausage'.

Hot Horse This kiosk in the city’s biggest park supplies a local treat: horse meat. Choose from a menu of horse burgers, hot dogs, steaks and wraps.

A decadent layered pastry with a flaky crust
Try gibanica (layered pastry) and štruklji at Moji Štruklji Slovenije © Steve Fallon / Lonely Planet

 Altroke This is one of the few places in town serving Istrski brodet, Istrian-style fish stew.

Güjžina Come here for Prekmurska gibanica, a rich concoction from Slovenia’s easternmost province of pastry filled with poppyseeds, walnuts, apples and cottage cheese and topped with cream. 

Gelateria Romantika This spot is said to have the city’s (and maybe even the country’s) best ice cream.

Wine Bar Šuklje and Dvorni Bar The two best places to Ljubljana to taste Slovenia vintages. 

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