Back in the days when we spent more time living without electricity than with, when the police had the sole function of extorting money from citizens, and we were never sure whether the Borjomi mineral water we were buying had been mixed in a bathtub, there weren’t many options for diners desiring a break from the generic Georgian menu of those times. Of course, there were the Turkish steam table restaurants in Plekhanov, but our spoiled western palates periodically demanded more.
There was Santa Fe, a Tex-Mex inspired restaurant we can credit for introducing “Caesar Salad” (with mayonnaise!) and “Mexican Potatoes,” spud chunks fried with a generous dusting of paprika, which have somehow become staples on virtually every Georgian menu in the city. Then we discovered a place with flavors our taste buds were no strangers to.
“Hey, you guys want to eat the best goulash in town?” our friend Tega offered. For our first six months in Tbilisi, he had taken it upon himself to guide us through the best the city had to offer in food and drink.
He led us to a tiny Vera courtyard with a half-dozen wooden picnic benches under a healthy canopy of grape vines. We could hear German, English and Georgian being spoken among the patrons and a charming waitress handed us a preposterous menu nearly as thick as The Joy of Cooking. Inside were a continental bemusement of standbys that included pizzas, pastas, moussaka, Alsatian tarte flambées, quiches, German sausages, sauerkraut and much, much more. And Tega was right, the goulash soup was black peppery dynamite.
We would come to learn that the man behind this culinary gallimaufry was Rainer Kaufmann, a German journalist who first came to Tbilisi during the waning days of communism. Bitten by the Georgian bug like so many of us expats, even in the dark wild, wild east years, he opened one of the city’s first guest houses in 1995, and a beer garden and pizzeria – a Tbilisi first – shortly after. His restaurant, however, is no mere pizza joint. It is a gastronomic European Union island in a sea of khinkali, khachapuri, mtsvadi and kabobi.
The beauty of Rainer’s is its reliability and simplicity, thanks to a staff that has been here since the doors opened.
Over the years, other pizzerias have come along, but we are fans of these German-Georgian concoctions, which have maintained a consistently crispy (and tasty) thin crust, even if some of the eclectic toppings are just plain wrong (yes, we mean pineapple). Not to worry, though – there are over twenty other varieties to choose from. For over a decade and a half, we have gone with the “Diavolo,” a pie that includes spicy green pepper, salami, onion and enough garlic to keep an army of vampires away for a week.
While there is a lot to be said about a menu that quite literally has something for everyone, too much choice has a way of short circuiting the decision making process. For over a dozen years we’ve been saying, “One of these days we ought to try the mixed grill with bockwurst, meatloaf, pork steak and potato salad.” But we inevitably order a Diavolo and “Diet Plate,” which is a baked chicken breast, grilled tomato wedges and green bell pepper, and a scoop of plain white rice that until recently was served with a tablespoon of butter on it.
The beauty of Rainer’s is its reliability and simplicity, thanks to a staff that has been here since the doors opened. Anybody familiar with American family restaurants will relate to the salads, like the “Nicoise,” a plate of Romaine, onion, boiled egg, tomato and canned tuna, although you won’t find Ranch or Thousand Island dressing here; instead there is only Balsamic and olive oil on the side.
In keeping up with the trend of innovating local cuisine, Rainer again keeps it frank and unpretentious. While some of the dishes like the eggplant walnut pesto on spaghetti are a bit curious, he nails it with his “International Khachapuri.” Although there are many regional varieties of this stuffed bread, Rainer was the first to take it further with winning combinations.
Our favorite is the “French Khachapuri,” stuffed with hot, gooey Roquefort, spinach, onion and garlic. The “Greek” is another vegetarian goodie, stuffed with olives, feta cheese, garlic and oregano, while the Turkish is packed with ground beef, hot and sweet peppers, onion and feta.
We haven’t tried the Dutch, German or Italian khachapuris yet because we are drawn to what we know we like. But we promise that one of these days we will try the “Ruud van Heels Dutch Outsnider Tiller” when we’re hankering for a protein overkill of pork steak, beef filet, grilled sausage, bacon, fried potatoes, fried egg and of course, sauerkraut.