In 2001, new to Tbilisi, we asked our friend Anna where the hip went to sip. Surely, there has to be a bar or cafe where the local Bohemians go to pose. “No,” she replied. “Our artists have no money for bars. They just hang out in each other’s homes.”
One day we stumbled into a bar, Apollo Cafe, across the street from the opera house. It was an airy single room with white walls decorated in a relaxed collage of photographs by Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston and other known and anonymous photographers.
There was a large table made from a huge buzzsaw blade, covered in Russian and Western photo magazines. A greasy boombox played jazz, blues and classic rock cassettes. Behind the high wooden counter was a somber, dark-haired young woman who served semi-cold Argo beer for 3 lari a bottle and a simple lunch for a few lari more. We had found our watering hole – even better than having Anna point one out.
Apollo had been designed by local artist Guga Kotetishvili, a name we wouldn’t know until 2004, when he helped two young Apollo regulars auspiciously launch an entrepreneurial gastro-dominion with the opening of Cafe Kala on Erekle II Street, a narrow, 100-meter lane in Old Town. Back then, there was nothing else on the street.
The interior of Kala was stripped down to bare brick and warmed with a motif of Georgian rugs and kilims and Guga’s trademark use of found objects and antiques. Rounded off with an international and Georgian menu and a solid jazz house band, there was no cooler place in Tbilisi.
The cafe fertilized the vacant neighborhood with refreshing alternatives to the city’s limited restaurant scene. In a few years, Kala’s owners would add the KGB bar and Pastorali restaurant, both designed by Guga, to their Erekle II domain.
“Harmony and coziness will never go out of fashion.”
One day in 2005, a friend invited us to a kind of pre-opening restaurant party in a spacious 19th-century second-floor apartment on Gudiashvili Square, where Old Town becomes Sololaki. The next time we visited, Guga, who was one of the owners, had totally transformed it into a quirky, yet totally welcoming art installation that happened to serve delicious French fare. They called it Pur Pur.
Vintage wallpaper, mismatched furniture, linen tablecloths from some attic trunk, antique silver lamps with shades fashioned from old dresses, the paintings you never managed to find at the thrift shop, all made you feel like you were somewhere between Europe and Georgia. Hell, the toilet was so welcoming you could eat dinner in there, too.
Pur Pur became the new black. You would walk into a new cafe somewhere and see how it blatantly tried to be Guga. We talked about that recently in his Mtatsminda sitting room over a cup of coffee. Everything that hadn’t been used in one of his restaurants and cafes was hanging from the ceiling and walls – a junk collector’s paradise. But despite the clutter, nothing here has been haphazardly placed.
“They think if you put old dresses and old lamps in the toilet, it’s Pur Pur and cool,” he said exhaling a thick plume of cigarette smoke. “But for me that’s no vision. What color is the lamp? What color is the background? Designing is like painting. I design like I paint a picture.”
In the spring of 2011, Guga and his friends Levan Koguashvili, Tazo Kipshidze and chef Meriko Gubeladze opened Shavi Lomi in an old Sololaki cellar. It was one of the first restaurants to experiment with the playful possibilities of Georgian cuisine. Guga turned the basement into a cozy 19th-century dukani, or tavern, again with mismatched antique furniture, and lots of kilims and handmade rugs.
When Shavi Lomi moved to a house across the river a few years ago, Guga went too, maintaining the homey retro-Tbilisi atmosphere on a bigger scale. He also designed Meriko’s chic vegetarian restaurant, Cafe Leila, and has a stake in three local tea houses bearing his touch of comely, comfy and dope.
“I create visual harmony. This harmony makes people feel cozy,” Guga explains.
It is pretty safe to say that before Guga Kotetishvili, there was no contemporary design in Georgia. During communism, there were no privately-owned restaurants. The state-commissioned designers were from Soviet art associations, who had strict parameters and were paid by size and the number of figures.
The post-Communist years were dominated by restaurants in basically two generic styles: the cheesy, nouveau-riche banquet room and the faux-rustic look. The thought of hiring someone to tell you how to decorate was ludicrous, but that mentality is starting to change.
Georgia is in vogue, from its cuisine now appreciated as a culinary art form, to its fashion – which is applauded in New York – and its filmmakers, who are winning awards in Europe. There isn’t a travel story about the country that doesn’t mention Rooms Hotel, whose talented designers Nata Janberidze and Keti Toloraia have noted Guga as an inspiration.
By using restaurants and cafes as his canvas, Guga has dialed into the universal comfort zone by simply taking old material and improvising. “My work will never be out of style,” he says picking up his cup of coffee. “Harmony and coziness will never go out of fashion.”