For us, the neighborhood of Mtatsminda has long been associated with the sour smell of tear gas. When riots broke out over a stolen election in 2007, we found ourselves on a Mtatsminda side street, between a line of riot police below and protesters armed with bricks above – a very dumb place to be. A cop aimed his tear-gas gun at us and shot. We ducked behind a car and the canister broke its windshield, setting off the alarm and filling the sedan with a cloud of gas.
Yet in recent years, Mtatsminda’s streets have been filling up with a different scent: the wafts of outstanding cooking. Or at least they were until Covid-19 came to town.
Named after the peak it is built upon, Mtatsminda (Holy Mountain) was a village several hundred years ago and grew to be the cultural and political center of Georgia by the end of the 19th century. Rustaveli Avenue, Mtatsminda’s (and Tbilisi’s) main drag, is host to a famed opera house, the Rustaveli Theater, state museums and the old Parliament. The boulevard has also been the stage of the country’s most prominent historical events of the past century: the declaration of independence (1918), the Soviet massacre of 1989, civil war and the Rose Revolution.
This winter, City Hall continued its annual tradition of hanging a gazillion holiday lights along the boulevard – an irony not lost on a single citizen, as we have been under a 9 p.m. Covid-curfew for two months. When city workers took the lights down, we saw a Rustaveli that hasn’t been this doleful in decades.
Before the pandemic, Giorgi Iosava, the chef and owner of Salobie Bia, was negotiating a deal to reopen Kimerioni: Located under the Rustaveli Theater, the café was a renowned hangout for the pre-Communist avant-garde. One problem, however, was that the original paintings by the likes of Kirill Zdanevich, Lado Gudiashvili and David Kakabadze no longer hung there. “It would have been an imitation. I can’t open an imitation,” Giorgi asserts. It was in the midst of these negotiations that the coronavirus first arrived.
Giorgi’s two restaurants, Salobie Bia and Burger House, were too cozy to accommodate new social distancing regulations. He felt he would have a better chance of survival to move the pair to the new location, ultimately putting Burger House in an airy storefront next to the theater and Salobie Bia in the 360-square-meter space that used to house Kimerioni downstairs. Even as most diners restricted themselves to outdoor seating during the pandemic lull, Salobie Bia was filling its tables.
“We can’t afford to sit at home and do nothing, we could lose everything. The rules have changed and we need to learn how to adjust ourselves to the new reality.”
Then the second lockdown came and wiped out businesses that had just come up for air after the first wave. In Mtatsminda, places like the cool khinkali joint, Klike’s, tried delivery for a short time before giving up and pulling down the shades. The lights are off, and no one will be home for the foreseeable future.
Giorgi would have rather put a bullet in his head than pack his menu in styrofoam and deliver it. “When I see how these delivery drivers treat the meals and ride their scooters over potholes, it makes me cringe,” he says.
But he had invested too much of his life into his restaurants to become another Covid-19 victim. Instead of putting the bullet in his head, Giorgi bit it and started delivering.
“We can’t afford to sit at home and do nothing, we could lose everything. The rules have changed and we need to learn how to adjust ourselves to the new reality,” he says.
We were delighted, to say the least. It has been seasons since we last sopped up a ketsi of Salobie Bia’s ojakhuri: a peasant-perfect marriage of onion, potato and the tenderest, most succulent pork in the city. We made the call even if it meant the earthenware dish is replaced with a plastic container. We also included the tomato salad, which on the one hand is silly, since anyone can slice up a tomato, sprinkle on some jonjoli and drizzle it with Kakhetian oil, but somehow Salobie Bia has a wizardry that makes the most simple plates extraordinary.
Our deliveryman was Giorgi himself, although we didn’t recognize him bundled up and masked under his helmet. Who would expect a restaurant owner to be its delivery person, too? There are two major delivery services in Tbilisi and both exact a surcharge of over 25 percent, which is also greater than the profit margin of most restaurants. Giorgi was adamant about keeping his restaurant team together (he has only laid off his dishwashers because there are no longer dirty dishes), and as he was the only staff member who rides a motor scooter, he took it upon himself to deliver while someone else cooked. Recently, however, he has enlisted Elvis, a new independent delivery service, to pick up the slack.
“Our strength is having two restaurants. I don’t know if we would survive with just one,” Giorgi admits.
According to his research, hamburgers are the most popular delivery item in Tbilisi, followed by shawarma, sushi and pizza. Georgian food, he says, is on the bottom of the list since everyone knows how to make it. However, his takeaways and deliveries are split around 50-50 between the two, a circumstance he attributes to a loyal client base.
“We don’t own our spot, our safety net comes from our clients,” Giorgi notes before telling us a story about a pregnant woman who called every day during the first lockdown, pleading for a burger to quench her craving.
“This is larger than we could have imagined. At first we thought we’d be closed for two months, now one year, maybe more, who knows?” he says at a table in his new, empty restaurant. “Our mode of thinking is that this is the worst. But what makes me happy in this nightmare is that we can continue to serve.”
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