With 2021 drawing to a close, we have much to be thankful for. Though Tbilisi, like all of Georgia, still faces struggles with the continuing pandemic, the harrowing days of 2020 – with its curfews and restrictions on gatherings (especially painful for Georgians, who are in the habit of meeting in large groups of friends and family) – are long gone. Restaurants, bars and cafes have been open again since February 2021, with indoor seating available since May, though opening hours would fluctuate based on spikes in Covid-19 transmission.
When eateries fully reopened and the final curfew was lifted, we remember walking through Dedaena Park with friends late one night, not so long after regulations had largely relaxed; people were everywhere, some picnicking on the grass, a great many milling about, just glad to be out again amongst people. Many were running back and forth through the fountain square, not caring when the water would come on and drench them. The city was elated.
Of course, things weren’t the same; some places were gone for good, some had changed more or less significantly. But going back to old haunts, and being able to discover some new ones, seemed to represent a return to regular life more generally. So some of our most memorable meals of 2021 were noteworthy not only for the taste of the food, but also for the taste of everyday life returning.
Dadi Bar and Cafe
We discovered Dadi Bar and Cafe on a morning stroll in Sololaki in 2020. We’ve written about its prowess as a local wine bar, but another facet of this cafe worth noting is the fact that it opens early for breakfast, something of a rarity here. Sitting at one of the sidewalk tables for an Americano and omelet with salad (or potatoes and bacon) soon became an indispensable part of most mornings, only to return for the marvelous lunch and dinner menus and the very carefully chosen selection of natural Georgian wines – until restaurants and cafes closed for dining.
When the regulations were lifted, one of the very first things we did was head straight for a sidewalk table at Dadi. It would be our first sit-down coffee after the reopenings. It was a slightly breezy late morning, and the Dadiani sidewalk was bustling. We grabbed a chair, ordered an omelet plate and Americano, and it was as if we had been there just the day before. Coffee outdoors in a ceramic cup, not the paper of takeaway, seemed to taste of normal life finally resuming. The omelet and side salad were simple, but very finely made, like everything Dina Ramazanova and her crew do.
Many businesses were of course hit hard during the pandemic, and those in the hospitality industry especially struggled. Quite a few places didn’t survive the closures. But many did, and some were reincarnated. Poliphonia on Amaghleba St. in Sololaki was a favorite of ours before the closures. They adapted deftly, offering a simple but very tasty takeaway street food menu. But during the dark times of closure, co-founder and creative director John Wurdeman and managing partner Gvantsa Kotetishvili were inspired by a new vision. So Poliphonia packed up from its Amaghleba storefront, and reopened in Vake at 5 Paliashvili, in the bright Vake Bazaar space, which it now shares with Vake Bistro and a little pizzeria connected to both.
It’s a very successful reimagining, though quite different in many ways from the old Poliphonia. Their menu is simpler and less formal, though still responsibly sourced, carefully artful and just as delicious as before. The old Georgian brick cellar and Caucasian carpets of its Sololaki days have been traded for a more modern air.
Among the many lovely features of the new Poliphonia’s changing menu, one stands out for us in particular: John’s tacos. They are made with corn tortillas he nixtamalizes himself, accompanied by a richly flavorful, hot but not uncomfortably hot chili sauce made of New Mexican chilis, lime, cilantro and just a hint of ginger. We had these not long after Poliphonia reopened at its new location, and they were a very rare taste of the American Southwest in Tbilisi, and a very delightful one.
We also recently attended a multi-course Poliphonia pop up held at Vino Underground and delighted in everything from the perfectly spiced deviled eggs to the river trout ceviche, cured in lime and fresh red chili and accompanied by cucumber sauce – a delicate and perfect balance of flavors – with wines paired to each dish. Aside from the pleasures of the table, it was a joy seeing gVino Underground, which was alive and sometimes even roaring with conviviality before the lockdowns, festive once again.
Beletage, at the elegant address of 6 Vashlovani in Vera, was a very happy discovery of 2021. We were introduced to the restaurant by a friend who was already an ardently loyal regular. We met there for lunch on a sunny day in their lovely back courtyard with striking Art Nouveau detailing on the wood of the shushabandi – a balcony or hall enclosed in glass, typical of 19th and early-20th century Tbilisi construction – especially on the oriel window at its inner corner.
The kindness and care of the family who own and run Beletage was immediately impressive. We shared their cheese plate first, and then each of us had their Megrelian kupati served with baked quince and pomegranate sauce. The kupati was savory and smoky, with the internal variegation of flavors and textures typical of that sausage. The quince was allowed to be itself, its pearish taste brought out mostly through baking and not oversugared, and the pomegranate sauce was neither too sweet nor too tangy, just enough to balance the rich, fatty kupati. We were converted with one bite to being as loyal a regular as our friend.
Shavi Coffee Roasters
Shavi Coffee Roasters on Zandukeli in Vera arrived very late in 2021, but we are very glad it did – and this seems to be a pretty universal sentiment around here. Tbilisi isn’t famous for its coffee. Only a couple of places so far have been generally regarded as very good. Shavi, however, is extremely good. Ryan and Laurie McCarrel of Magnolia Film Lab and Fotografia gallery saw the need for finer coffee in Tbilisi and, with the support of their business partner Thibault Flament of Metis restaurant, they made it happen. Slovak roaster Jakub Sevcik works with Ryan to create light to medium roast; their lighter one is nearly Nordic. We had their batch brew the day they opened, and it was perfect: juicy, just the right inflection of acidity, complex. We knew we’d be back. They also have some tasty eats, sourced from bakers and producers in their own neighborhood of Vera: the bagels, for instance, are from Bagelin, and the quiche from Au Ble D’Or. It’s encouraging to see a successful new venture after such difficult times, and we hope it is a sign of better days to come.