Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, once served as a commercial hub along the trade routes connecting the eastern and western worlds and its dual identity is still palpable today. The city’s medieval town center is a dense tangle of crooked homes, cobbled streets, and similarly vine-covered balconies piled onto a steep hillside. This section of town gives way to the majestic neoclassical facades of Rustaveli Avenue and a typical post-Soviet checkerboard of quiet dilapidation and hypercapitalist glam.
Though taverns and cafes abounded in 19th century Tiflis (as the city was officially known until 1936), private enterprises like these were shut down during the Soviet period. The food at state-owned canteens and banquet halls was, with a few notable exceptions, uninspiring and of poor quality. The best meals were served in the home, where families continued to devote disproportionate amounts of money and effort to procuring the ingredients for and preparing lavish feasts that urbanites in other parts of the Soviet Union could only dream of.
When perestroika permitted the first cooperatively owned restaurants in the late 1980s, they proliferated more rapidly in Georgia than anywhere else in the USSR. Privately owned restaurants appeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but widespread poverty and civil disorder kept them from doing much business until Georgia’s current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, came to power in the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003. A westernizing reformer with a soft spot for Ronald Reagan (he recently unveiled a bronze statue of the former U.S. president in one of Tbilisi’s central squares), Saakashvili’s pro-business policies and no tolerance-attitude toward corruption have made the city an attractive prospect for foreign and domestic investors alike.
The emergence of a middle class (at least in the capital) who can afford to eat lunches or dinners out, increasing investment in tourism, and rising influence of café cultures from Europe and Turkey have allowed new dining options to spring up rapidly. Quirky grottoes full of young artists, high-end establishments catering to foreign businesspeople and the local nouveaux riche, and kitschy family-style restaurants now rub shoulders along the city’s lopsided streets and alleys.
Left, the interior of PurPur, a popular Tbilisi restaurant. Courtesy: PurPur
“There is a stereotype that the only business guaranteed to work in Georgia is a food business, because Georgians will always spend money on food,” says Eka Tsotsoria, a Tbilisi native and a graduate student at Shota Rustaveli Theater and Film State University.
As the country’s leadership strives to paint Georgia as part of the European family, a debate rages over what joining “the West” means. Tsotsoria is part of an informal group advocating to prevent the leveling of crumbling historic buildings in Gudiashvili Square, where some of Tbilisi’s most whimsical cafes and bars are located, to make way for flashy new retail spaces. This winter, they “occupied” the square every other weekend for more than a month, organizing a street market, art exhibitions, live music, and sales of wine, hot chocolate, and snacks to alert the public to their cause. The group met with art historians, architects, and developers to create an alternative plan for restoring the buildings without depriving them of their charm. City authorities took note: they released a statement promising transparency of the reconstruction process, posting of candidate designs on the municipal website for public comment, and strict rules governing preservation of the historic facades.
The Square during one of the Occupy events, via #OccupyGudiashvili Facebook
Like most Georgian students, Tsotsoria lives with her parents and doesn’t eat out much because her budget won’t allow it (“and it would offend my mother,” she adds). Nevertheless, she finds herself increasingly drawn to hangouts like Café Gallery, a small restaurant and exhibition space that morphs into a club with live electronic music on weekend evenings, and Salve, a homey bar located in the basement of an apartment building near the city center.
Russians, Ukrainians, and others in the region long ago adopted Georgian dishes as their own, but the cuisine has yet to catch on widely in the West. The national tourism agency aims to capitalize on the country’s culinary heritage to attract foreign visitors (as many as 8 million annually by 2015 if president Mikheil Saakashvili gets his wish). They are well-positioned to do so: archaeological evidence suggests that some of the first wine on Earth was drunk in what is now Georgia as early as 7000 BC, and the National Intellectual Property Center recently granted trademark status to recipes for several national specialties, such as the hot, cheese-filled khachapuri pie. The country cancelled visa requirements for citizens of the U.S., EU, and several other nations in 2005.
While quiet European-style restaurants are on the uptick, some of the most popular spots among locals are those that seem designed to appeal to a mainstream tourist clientele. Waiters don traditional costumes, cooks serve up platters of homestyle Georgian fare like eggplants wrapped around a creamy walnut paste and soupy meat-filled dumplings. Folk singers and dancers provide deafening mealtime entertainment, complete with flying knives, whirling drums, and chest-thumping acrobatic feats.
“Restaurants have become the museums of Georgian culture,” Tsotsoria explains. “People go out to eat and be entertained at the same time.” Hours-long meals function not only as sources of gastronomic pleasure and spectacle: they are also—even primarily—opportunities to solidify business connections, meet potential love interests, and showcase the generosity and prosperity of the host (as well as his ability to maintain a veneer of sobriety while consuming inordinate amounts of alcohol).
Anyone who spends more than a week in Tbilisi will notice the same items popping up on menus again and again, without much variation in presentation or ingredients. The market has become saturated with restaurants serving similar takes on Georgian standards. Now it’s time for innovators to inject new life into these dishes and expand into less familiar culinary territory.
Chef Tekuna Gachechiladze is one to watch. Young, well-traveled, and a powerhouse in the kitchen, she’s opened three of Tbilisi’s most buzzed about restaurants in the last five years. Her latest, Mandari, combines Georgian flavors with elements from Asian and French traditions: grilled shrimp in tarragon-sour plum sauce, barberry-crusted salmon with a cornelian cherry reduction. While the “fusion food” moment may have passed in the West, it is a revolution in Georgia, where old molds die hard.