Bucharest is an increasingly popular travel destination in Eastern Europe, with a definite hipster vibe for its bohemian outdoor drinking gardens. The city may be better known for its hearty Balkan fare and vigorous gut-reviving ţuica (Romanian plum brandy), but the traditional tastes have changed. Now, one can find everything from speciality coffee and craft beer to raw vegan food and Scandinavian delights, all while tapping into burger frenzy and interpreted Romanian cuisine.

Redefining coffee

The Steam Coffee Shop has two Bucharest locations © Monica Suma / Lonely Planet

You might not think of Bucharest as a coffee destination. After all, Romania is no Finland or Norway in terms of coffee consumption and has no long-standing culture like fika in Sweden. However, the city is seeing many specialty coffee stores open, with local pioneers redefining the coffee culture once adopted from the Italians.

The first in town to set the bar high – coffee by day, concept cocktails by night – is Origo. It excels not only at its single-origin coffee, influencing the wider movement as a coffee roaster, but it’s also a social hub where communities are formed amidst Hario V60 coffee drippers repurposed as lamps and doorknobs. Plan ahead as tables fill up quickly, rain or shine.

With two Bucharest locations, its younger brother, Steam Coffee Shop (facebook.com/SteamCoffeeShop), caters more to coffee-to-go orders due to its small yet sleek interior. The friendly in-the-know baristas can make a suggestion or two. Across town in the swanky Dorobanți neighbourhood is Frudisiac (facebook.com/frudisiac), where the only hint that you’re in Bucharest, Romania, is your Google Maps location pin. Discreet but stylish, the Scandinavian barn structure exudes Nordic vibes in every corner. Pair your Drop Coffee directly from Sweden with a mean avocado toast, a cold-pressed juice and a copy of Monocle.

Vegan is the new cool

Barca's menu includes a diverse range of raw vegan food © Monica Suma / Lonely Planet

With traditionally meat-based cuisine, heavy on the stomach as in most of Eastern Europe, Bucharest has turned to vegan food seeking healthier nutrition. Abiding by the creed of ‘we are what we eat’, Barca (restaurantbarca.ro) restaurant offers the most diverse raw vegan menu in town.

Marked with one, two or three stars – depending on the time it takes to make a dish – each order is prepared on the spot for utmost freshness. A former self-declared carnivore, owner and chef Ciprian Panait credits Barca for improving his life. Almond sushi is a plentiful raw vegan starter, along with a side of artichoke pesto. The cooked dishes, however, cleverly fool and tingle your taste buds. The usually hearty ciorba de burtă (tripe soup) is an honest replica of the original, only mushrooms replace the tripe and cashew cream replaces dairy cream. Similarly, the ‘steak with French fries’ is a brilliant vegan alternative with grilled oyster mushrooms doubling as steak, and celery sticks as fries.

Recently opened Arome (aromesisunete.ro) – named after the Romanian word for ‘flavours’ – comes as a hip alternative in the heart of Bucharest. A bright and cozy design of yellow hues goes in tandem with the fresh ingredients served in this urban cafe. Go for a colourful soup if only for the delight of being served from a teapot.

Craft beer revolution

The Old Town's URBN Supply Co has a good selection of craft beer © Monica Suma / Lonely Planet

Romania’s capital is one of Europe’s top 10 cheapest cities to have a beer, according to the 2016 GoEuro Beer Price Index (goeuro.com/travel/beer-price-index-2016). Bucharesters love their beer, usually accompanying a meal of mici (literally ‘small ones’), grilled ground-meat rolls served with mustard in outdoor markets. With more than a dozen beer houses in town, the devotion to beer goes back to Caru’ cu Bere, Bucharest’s oldest brewery operating since 1897.

But with the rise of several microbreweries and the first Bucharest Craft Beer Festival (craftbeerfestival.ro) held in September 2016, craft beer is now setting the tone. Zaganu, Sikaru, Nemteana and Hophead are some of the most popular, but Ground Zero – around since 2015 – has both the unique taste and clever marketing down. The first double IPA in Romania, the Imperial Fuck with 9% alcohol is a must-try (for a ‘lighter’ taste with 6% alcohol, try the Morning Glory instead).

For the biggest selection head to Piua Book Bar, a cozy book bar and social playground on two floors in an architecturally rich area of Bucharest, or URBN Supply Co (urbnsupply.co) in the Old Town, a contemporary lifestyle boutique and venue for countercultural art events.

Burger frenzy

Vivo Fusion Food Bar puts burgers on the foodie map © Monica Suma / Lonely Planet

Following the burger craze in Europe in recent years, homemade burgers of the highest quality have replaced the uncontested popularity of pizzas. So much so that a festival dedicated solely to burgers, Burger Fest (burgerfest.mixtopia.ro), reunited some of the best chefs in one place in 2016, already at its the second edition.

Vivo Fusion Food Bar (vivofoodbar.com) was one of the first places to put burgers on Bucharest’s foodie map. After an instant success in its hometown of Iași, the Bucharest venue proved a challenge to visit ever since its opening, with its tables constantly full. If you do get in (call ahead to make a reservation), go for the Game of Dijons burger sprinkled with Parmesan and truffle oil (aside from the obvious Dijon mustard). Order a bucket of garlic fries to go with it, and diet tomorrow.

The guys at Burger Van (burgervan.ro), the first food truck in Bucharest, swear by their never-frozen, ‘true to the American’ burger. Inspired by London’s Meat Wagon and New York’s Shake Shack, the Honest Burger sells like hot cakes, but go bold with PBJ Time for a taste of peanut butter and jelly. Also worth a try is Modelier, a cocktail bistro located in an interwar house off the tourist trail (party terrace included). Linger on with friends for dinner and sample one burger from each kind: beef, chicken, lamb or vegetarian, with buns that come from German artisan bakery Brot Manufactur (brotmanufactur.ro).

Interpreted Romanian cuisine

The bohemian Mahala Restaurant serves contemporary Romanian cuisine © Monica Suma / Lonely Planet

Thanks to a rich confluence of cultures, Romania’s cuisine counts on Slavic, Turkish and Greek influences. But above all, home-cooked peasant food is the norm. A sour soup, ciorbă, usually acts as the starter, while mămăligă (polenta) with sarmale (cabbage rolls filled with rice and meat) is the trademark main course.

But eateries such as Mahala Restaurant (restaurant-mahala.ro), brilliantly located across from the megalomaniac Palace of Parliament, come as an upscale alternative serving contemporary Romanian cuisine. A creative ode to the past’s mahala (a loanword from sporadic Ottoman rule that describes glum, rowdy neighbourhoods inhabited by ethnic groups), the locale stunningly represents the bohemian Bucharest and its many layers and tastes.

Amidst a naive-art decor displaying local folklore motifs, next to seemingly decaying walls, bites of slanina (a type of bacon) are finely served on the house with mustard, usually popular in rural areas. Go for the beef soup, a consommé of sorts – the boiled beef for the soup is brought as second course and served with horseradish and greens, as well as the bone marrow, brought in as delicacy in a separate cup. Alternatively, try the superb lamb dish, so tender that it melts in the mouth.

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