Editor’s note: Tbilisi was a new addition to Culinary Backstreets this year, and as we look back on all the great eating we did in 2015, we can’t help but notice that so much of it took place in the city’s Sololaki area.
There’s a typecast in Georgia that when somebody wants to go into business, they open up a khinkali restaurant. There is a logic to that. About a million people live in Tbilisi, a city built impetuously along the hilly banks of the Mtkvari River. And the adoration every single one of these people has for this boiled dumpling is so reverent, it is as if they see Jesus and his disciples feasting on a steaming platter of kalakuri khinkali for the Last Supper as they bite a hole into the dumpling and slurp its tasty broth.
The drawback to this blind devotion to the delicious khinkali and its orthodox kin – kababi, khachapuri and mtsvadi – is that variations of these dishes are often considered heretic. Georgians have obdurate taste buds, which pose a challenge to progressive cooks. Restaurants are often compelled to include traditional Georgian fare on their international menus to keep customers. When Chinese restaurants first popped up in Tbilisi a dozen years ago, they were obliged to serve a basket of bread on each table because for Georgians, the concept of a meal without bread is simply demented.
Old habits die hard, but they are not invincible, thanks to the unsavory ambassador of American gastronomy, Ronald McDonald. Mickey D’s opening in Tbilisi in 1999 was a defining moment in Georgian food culture, not because of the introduction of fast food, which was already here, but because it offered the first authentic and relatively affordable alternative to Georgian food. Chinese, Italian, French and Indian restaurants soon emerged, changing the culinary landscape of the city.
Meanwhile, Georgians who had left the country in the tumultuous 1990s had started to return, inspired by Western concepts of democracy, business and food. While Tbilisi’s Old Town has been renovated to offer the growing number of tourists what they expect from Georgia, a neighboring district has been slowly regenerating culinary life in the dormant quarter with a new approach to Georgian cooking and changing the way Georgians appreciate food. Welcome to Sololaki, Tbilisi’s up-and-coming restaurant district.
It is said that the name Sololaki comes from sululakh, Arabic for “canal,” which the Arabs had built long ago to water some nearby gardens, but the neighborhood we know was built in the 19th and early 20th centuries by Georgian and European architects. Communism, earthquakes and economic turmoil following independence in 1991 have all taken a toll on old bourgeois Sololaki, which had been slowly decaying. However, the growing presence of new kinds of restaurants and cafés is turning the humble district into an epicure’s paradise.
Although technically in Tbilisi’s Old Town but located in a 19th-century building on the über-charming Gudiashvili Square, Pur Pur was the first restaurant in the area to offer European-style dishes in a homey atmosphere. Its cool, urbane interior design has become a template for hipster cafés and restaurants throughout the city.
On the opposite side of the square is renowned local chef Tekuna Gachechiladze’s laboratory and restaurant, Culinarium, known for serving a mean Asian Sunday brunch and mixing the best Bloody Mary in the Caucasus. Several blocks away, she has been blowing minds and palates at her Cafe Littera, located in the old mansion once owned by David Sarajishvili, the man who brought European-style brandy to Georgia.
On the other end of Sololaki, at the bottom of the road that takes you up Mtatsminda Mountain, is Shavi Lomi (Black Lion), also designed by Pur Pur’s creator, Guga Kotetishvili. Its hearty original takes on regional cuisine have made it one of Tbilisi’s most popular restaurants.
Like any good wine bar, Vino Underground, located in the liver of Sololaki, is a place of learning. That’s because everybody connected to the bar is passionate about wine, naturally made kvevri vintages in particular. Seven winemaker owners offer around 100 family-produced wines and delicious appetizers to go with them. Vino Underground is not a restaurant, unless you’re hungry for wine.
A three-minute walk from the liver is a typical neighborhood courtyard that is the heart of the district. This is Ezo, an exceedingly child-friendly place that is dedicated to making “honest food,” just like Mom’s. Here, children are encouraged to go bonkers with a box of toys designated just for them, while parents indulge in juicy brick-sized pork chops, fried potatoes that were dug out of the side of a Svanetian mountain and delicious organic homemade wine from a Kakheti vineyard. At Ezo, you sometimes you forget you’re at a restaurant.
Sololaki is not just becoming the spot for culinary innovation, it is also becoming a place of international flavors, with everything from Italian to Korean and even Scandinavian eateries popping up in the district.
Tbilisi is no longer a one-menu town reliant on Quarter Pounders for diversion. And today you would be hard-pressed to find a basket of bread at a Chinese restaurant. Still, with a growing number of dining possibilities available, we have not forgotten how fortunate we are to live somewhere where we can sit down at a clunky wooden table, bite into a piping-hot kalakuri khinkali, suck down the spicy broth and gobble the dumpling down as juice drips down our wrists. Georgia has always been a country for food lovers and in Sololaki, the food keeps getting better and better.