The dog is in the car whining with a lusty craze at every cat and dog she sees. It’s shedding season and tufts of her hair puff off at every lurch and bounce in the back seat, the window smeared with her nose art.
We park at the top of the street and walk down to school to pick up her six-year-old master, who grumbles that she’s hungry, starving even, and asks if we can go to “that bar.” The fridge is empty at home and “that bar” – the Black Dog – stands between us and the car. It is an excellent suggestion.
The Tbilisi bar scene is a recent phenomenon in the scope of what is by tradition an intense dining culture. The first bar, we were told, arrived in the 1990s on Perovskaya Street. Other Irish-themed pubs soon followed. These rowdy places, where vodka was served by the bottle and not by the shot, featured live rock and roll and were embraced by people hungry for a taste of the west and expats who found solace in a familiar “party hearty” barroom atmosphere.
Today we are no longer limited to the Pervoskaya (now Akhvlediani St.) experience, and, as in any Western metropolis, we can get beers and cocktails all over the city. What we lack, however, are laid back neighborhood joints where we can grab a pint after work, relax and socialize with the bartender and our peers.
Located in Tbilisi’s old Sololaki district, the Black Dog Bar opened five months ago and is noteworthy for being one of Tbilisi’s few smoke-free watering holes, dishing up good bar grub and pouring craft beer. Equally significant is that it is the first self-declared pet-friendly bar.
On this visit, our mutt Ramses is in luck, for there’s a Russian spaniel at the bar. They sniff and measure each other up and soon it is all play, the tip-taps of clicking dog nails on the floor competing with the Northern Soul on the net radio.
Meanwhile, we discuss the menu board with the owner. There’s no Georgian food on the menu because “you can get that everywhere,” says proprietor Zura Chitaya, a Moscow bar owner who returned to his native Tbilisi a year ago. The burritos, stuffed with a myriad of ingredients – including pickles – are Mexican only in name but still make for appetizing fodder to soak up the booze. We order the chicken fingers, stuffed pepper poppers and a cheeseburger and apple juice and a Black Dog Ale beer to wash it down.
Here in the “cradle of wine,” beer is a second-rate beverage, paired with hangovers and khinkali. Toasts, an integral part of Georgian drinking culture, are made with only wine and spirits, while beer toasts were reserved for mothers-in-law, the president and other distasteful people. Attitudes, however, are changing. In 2007, the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church gave his blessing to beer toasts, as it is the ceremonial drink of Georgia’s proud highlanders. While nobody really toasts with beer, we no longer hoist our mugs to the man with the tattoo of an eagle on his chest who is still afraid of his mother.
From a choice between two brands of lager and caramel-like darks 15 years ago, there are now 50 types of beers from several local brewers to choose from. Nevertheless, many Tbilisi bars reject local brands and only serve imported beer, a policy that turns your pocketbook into a sieve.
The Black Dog’s idea of exclusive is to serve drinks you can only find in Georgia. This is especially true of the beer, which is made solely for the bar by a small local beer meister. Craft beer is years from becoming fashionable in Tbilisi, yet there are a few bars serving decent micro suds. The Black Dog pours a surprising porter, a reasonable lager and an ale that’s so good it demands to be refilled. Also on tap is a Belgian witbier with a bitter ale, stout and Irish red in the works at their own brewery, which Chitaya hopes to get up and running in a few months.
The master, a brutal food critic, digs into the chicken fingers with fierce relish, but becomes discouraged by the heavy curry spicing. The poppers, stuffed with sulguni cheese, are a definite novelty but too spicy for her. The tender and juicy burger is a hit, and rightly so. For 11 lari (about US$4,50), it’s also a great deal.
Anton the bartender rings the bell, announcing game time. Challenge him to a roll of dice and you might win a free shot, or you might not and have to pay three lari for a titillating shot of homemade chacha or a plum, apple or apricot brandy. There are no losers at the Black Dog Bar, a friendly neighborhood joint where not only does “everybody know your name,” but they know your dog’s name too.