We met Tega at a friend’s dinner table shortly after moving to Tbilisi in 2002. Tall, debonair, with dark puppy eyes and an ever-present Colgate smile, Tega made it a point from that first meeting to take us under his wing and introduce us to the best Tbilisi had to offer. That was how we first ended up at Salobie, near the ancient capital of Mtskheta.
“This place is famous for its beans,” he said. “And its name is Beans!” he chortled (lobio means “beans” in Georgian, and salobie is “house of beans”).
The restaurant felt like something between a museum and a summer mountain resort. We were in the original dining room, built next to a giant 300-year-old wooden house from Racha. Steps led out to patios that could seat scores of diners. We sat down on Lilliputian-sized wooden stools worn smooth by decades of butts. Tega loaded the low table with a selection of baked mchadi (a traditional cornbread), an assortment of cheeses, pickled garlic, cucumber, jonjoli (bladdernut) and a soupy portion of pinto-like beans spiced with black pepper, sumac and coriander served in a little ceramic pot.
Over the years we would return with the local motorcycle club, Camelot, for the weekly khinkali ride or with guests during a trip to the nearby Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. But as the parking lot expanded to accommodate the increasing number of tour buses, we would drive by and explore other tasty places, leaving Salobie to the out-of-towners. But with tourism currently on ice in Georgia, we thought it might be nice to revisit one of the oldest restaurants in the area, a place where, as our friend reminded us, you can see a politician sitting next to a truck driver eating kebabs.
In 1967, there were very few restaurants in Tbilisi. Vasil Mzhavanadze, First Secretary of Georgia, green-lighted the establishment of a café at a legendary site where they say Russian poet Alexander Pushkin stopped for a drink of water. He called on a young Dmitri Alavidze who was running Marani, the only restaurant in Mtskheta, to be in charge.
“Back then it was called Sachashnike. There wasn’t too much food: khachapuri, gvezeli, that’s about it. And lots of wine – but no getting drunk.” Dmitri describes straight-faced.
The dish he refers to, mtskheturi gvezeli, is a local pastry stuffed with ground meat or potatoes and deep-fried (you’re meant to eat them piping hot). After a few months he added beans to the menu, and the restaurant became known as Salobie.
“Everyone in Tbilisi started to come. They loved it,” Dimitri affirms.
In 1968, Jemal Togonidze, also a young hospitality professional, joined Dimitri to co-run the operation and soon it wasn’t just Tbiliseli that became smitten. The pair expanded the restaurant to welcome the growing number of Soviet tourists who also “loved it.” They continued to work through the collapse of the USSR, becoming Salobie’s owners, and continued through the dark decade that followed. Jemal’s son Luarsab said that during the civil war in the early 90s, his father and Dimitri fed people whether they had money or not.
After a few months he added beans to the menu, and the restaurant became known as Salobie.
“We have been open everyday for 53 years,” Dmitri says from the sofa in his neat and cozy office, decorated with grandpa knickknacks, like a coughing ashtray and a wooden cudgel on his coffee table. Framed certificates hang on the wall, one a gift from the former president of Georgia awarding him with the most authentic restaurant in the country. “But the virus closed us for two and a half months. Only time we’ve been closed,” he adds, brushing his proud mustache with a finger.
When he learned he would have to shut down for quarantine, Dmitri portioned out all the restaurant’s meat and perishables to his staff, rather than freeze it. Salobie prides itself on using fresh ingredients from personal distributors.
Before Covid-19, Salobie had a daily turnover of around 2,000 people and a staff of 150. Twenty-four women worked full time making only khinkali. Today there are about a half dozen filling khinkali from enormous bowls filled with seasoned and unseasoned ground pork and beef. Their hands move in a blur pleating the perfect dumplings. Two women work the pair of stainless steel cauldrons capable of boiling 500 khinkali each.
In the back of this particular kitchen (there are several more), Levan Dzikuri is mixing khinkali dough, a job he has been doing here for 25 years. Chef Giorgi Mgeliashvili arrived five years after him, a young man who started with a mop and worked his way up. He went off to another restaurant for a short spell but returned.
“The khinkali got better when he came back,” Dmitri says.
The main outdoor seating area has been renovated since we came here with the Tbilisi bikers. It is an ideal spot for pandemic public dining. In fact, you would hardly know there is a pandemic happening at all. Only the staff had masks. Everyone was coming, going, slurping khinkali, gnawing on mtsvadi, wiping up lobio with chunks of mchadi, nibbling on raw green onions…
“From the first day they let everyone out [from quarantine], there were a lot of hungry people,” Dmitri says. “Business is okay, but we miss our tourists.” We are sitting outside, more than several meters away from the closest table. Dmitri’s grandson and namesake fills our glasses with the house kindzmarauli and grandpa makes a toast.
“To Pushkin!” We glance at the poet’s memorial fountain nearby, supposedly the spot he sat and quenched his thirst some 200 years ago. “If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be sitting here!”