Bulgaria’s capital usually brings to mind associations with hearty Balkan cuisine that is best washed down with an invigorating glass of rakia (local fruit brandy). But Sofia’s food scene has undergone bold transformations in recent years. Blending imagination, tradition and laid-back spirit, the taste of Sofia is ever-evolving and waiting to be rediscovered.
Black Label Coffee House and Bakery has a selection of over 20 types of arabica © Victoria Stoyanova / PhotoWonders
Evolving coffee culture
When you think of speciality coffee, Bulgaria rarely comes to mind. But local tastes are changing: a number of hip coffee shops have sprung up to redefine local coffee culture. The daily cup of joe is no longer a mundane and bland-tasting necessity, it’s an experience – a passion for the perfect brew, sipped slowly to satisfy the senses and add to a relaxed conversation with a friend.
For a next-gen coffee paired with reimagined local classics like mekitsi (deep-fried dough usually eaten with cheese and jam), head to one of the two locations of Fabrika Daga. The place is a popular social hub for local millennials, so you might need to plan in advance; Saturdays are especially busy, as brunches are considered by some to be the best in town. The menu is written on a chalkboard and the vibe is bohemian.
Black Label Coffee House and Bakery is another small but sleek-looking place. With a speciality selection of over 20 types of arabica, imaginative cold brew options and exotic tea types, the coffee shop caters for the pickiest coffee lovers. Not to mention the alluring smell of beans freshly roasted in front of visitors’ eyes. Baristas are friendly and knowledgeable, ready to help you choose a single-origin coffee suiting your taste. If you think speciality coffee is best combined with exquisite Italian gelato and homemade chocolates, Gelato & Latte is definitely worth a visit. Take the metro as you’ll have to leave the city centre – but the quality of flavour compensates for the extra effort in getting there.
Polenta with Brunza cheese, porcini mushrooms, tomato confit, cheese espuma and milk skin at Cosmos restaurant © Cosmos Gourmet
Reinvented Bulgarian cuisine
Bulgarian food is hearty and diverse, inspired by rural traditions and Balkan influences. Grilled meat, bread, yoghurt and cheese are found in most dishes. Don’t miss local favourites like banitsa (flaky cheese pastry), shopska salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers and onions with crumbly cheese), katyk (fermented milk product, usually from sheep’s milk and added cheese) and lutenitsa (conserved vegetable chutney, including tomatoes, paprika, carrots and garlic).
Contemporary upscale restaurants like Cosmos successfully reinterpret local flavours with sophisticated techniques and passion. From meatballs made of horse meat paired with exquisite grilled peppers puree and farmers’ katyk to roasted garlic with a mixture of edible flowers, the food is layered and original. Finish the evening with a Bulgarian rose dessert: vanilla sponge cake with yoghurt ice cream, pink pepper, strawberry-and-rose sorbet and rose meringue. Complemented by friendly service, the atmosphere is fresh and inviting.
For a more budget-friendly but flavourful experience, go to Crazy Diamond. The menu offers choices like homemade dips with marinated eggplants and tomatoes, Provençal soups, and colourful meat and vegetarian stews. Made in Blue is another trendy alternative in the heart of Sofia. Go for a roasted cauliflower steak with mushrooms or a bowl of fish soup with saffron; alternatively, try ‘grandma’s meatballs’ which are served straight from the pan. The cosy design contributes to the overall home-like feeling.
Vegetarian tortilla with basmati rice served at Sun & Moon restaurant © Yoana Hristova / Lonely Planet
Creative vegan options
The traditional Bulgarian diet is predominantly meat-based, but these days there’s no shortage of inventive vegetarian and vegan dishes being cooked up by Sofia’s hip eateries.
The team at Soul Kitchen swears by their fresh and unrefined ingredients with pure origin – options are either raw or with minimum thermal treatment. Start with the exquisite pink hummus with roasted red beets, sesame tahini and kim, or try the replica of the traditional tarator (chilled cucumber and yoghurt) with cashew yoghurt, cucumbers, walnuts, dill and garlic. For the main course, the broccoli and shiitake pizza covered in cashew garlic sauce and spicy chilli flakes definitely tingles the tastebuds.
With its two restaurant locations, Sun & Moon is a good choice for a nutritious vegetarian lunch or dinner. The menu includes filling stews and soups, prepared with fresh, seasonal ingredients and warm oriental spices; more than 15 types of organic wholegrain bread are baked on the premises every day. Order their healthy and imaginative variations of banitsa (the authentic one with cheese or imaginative spin-offs with lentils and imperial rice). Speciality coffee and Indian-spiced tea lattes are also available.
Bulgarian craft beer, Divo Pivo, at Halbite beer house in Sofia © Yoana Hristova / Lonely Planet
Chilled-out beer hangouts
Bulgaria’s capital will surprise you with its outrageously cheap beer, starting from about €1.50 for a pint. This explains why after-work beer hangouts are so deeply ingrained in local culture. More than a dozen beer houses in Sofia are powering this tradition by serving a wide selection of beers, accompanied by snacks like French fries and spicy sausages.
Head to Halbite for a wide selection of local and imported beers. Opt for Bulgarian craft varieties like Glarus pale ale, Mursalski red ale, Recipe #7 from Ah! Brewery, or the praised white stout, White Stork. Reach bliss point by ordering ‘the cannibal’, a massive mixed grill containing pork ribs, chicken wings and wurst sausages.
If a beer tab on your table sounds fun, pay Ale House a due visit. Their unfiltered ‘live beer’ has an excellent flavour – pour it yourself and refill as many times as you want. Alternatively, order any of the imported beer varieties complemented with homemade chips and local lutenitsa. Other pubs famous for their beer choice and laid-back vibes include Luciano and The Egg Bar.