Once, eating out in Zagreb meant choosing from a slew of local restaurants with menus featuring meat, pastry, and more meat. But the capital's recent gastro-revolution has changed that. A wave of recently-opened bistros are making lunch a more exciting prospect in the capital, and most of them are the projects of passionate entrepeneurs - which means that these independent little places offer top-quality food and hand-selected decor. Like a traditional French bistro, those in Zagreb master breezy, intimate atmosphere, but their menus - often based around global 'street food' - are a welcome update. Here's our batch of the best bistros in Zagreb.
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Mutating from a wine bar that did smart lunches to one of the city’s leading gastro-bistros, Pod Zidom marched straight into the 2019 edition of the Michelin Guide and is now pretty much a must-visit when it comes to contemporary Croatian cooking. A lot of the credit goes to head chef Jurica Jantolek and his desire to investigate the creative possibilities of traditional food, retaining the local ingredients but throwing out any formulaic attitudes to their preparation. The menu certainly has an old-school local look about it at first glance, with oxtail, black sausages, duck breast and buncek (pork hock) vying for attention alongside modish bistro-u-like regulars like beef cheeks and white fish. Old recipes are dusted off and given a new look – their cream of parsnip soup (42Kn) is a farmhouse favourite transformed into silky, luxuriant perfection - comfort food, but not quite as you know it. The meat from the oxtail (75Kn) is shredded then placed in okra pods, garnished with tangy al-dente brussels sprouts. Pod Zidom’s take on traditional Central-European dessert šnenokle (whipped egg whites flavoured with vanilla; 42Kn) is an absolute revelation, an eloquent reminder that creative desserts are just as important as everything else on the menu. Best way to sample Pod Zidom’s culinary approach is to opt for the three or four-course daily lunches (165-190), composed according to what they picked up that morning at Dolac. The bistro-wine bar informality of the place is well-mai
This culinary offshoot of Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships is entered via a different doorway – and is often missed by visitors who drift out of the exhibition without knowing that good food is just around the corner. You might be relieved to know that neither the menu nor the decor is themed around the subject of the museum. With low ceilings, maroon walls and rough-looking wood tables, the interior is certainly moody, but is actually quite sensual with it. The menu goes for a typically bistro-esque mixture of Central European staples and globe-trotting experimentation. In many cases there’s a choice between small or big portions so you can mix and share your mains or treat them like tapas: fish stew, orzotto with beans and pork, and squid rissoles being among the choices (and with small/big portion prices ranging from about 55kn to 90kn or over). Duck with chestnuts (145kn) or roast lamb shanks (160kn) are the delectable standouts among the more substantial mains, although portions are small and you’ll need a starter or dessert in order to feel well fed. The excellent cream soups (featuring pumpkin, cauliflower or other vegetables depending on season) are a great way to kick things off; the accompanying home-baked bread is a knockout.
One of Zagreb’s most talked-about new openings of 2018, Haustor Haus serves up a creative mix of modern Croatian and global fusion cuisine, with a shrewd choice of meat, fish and vegetable mains and a daily special or two chalked up on the board. An intimate 8-table affair in a courtyard setting, it’s a mellow and relaxing place to spend an hour or two, the feel-good factor accentuated by prompt and exceedingly attentive service. Mains (75-130Kn) range from white fish to rump steak, and frequently involve imaginative pairings of local ingredients and global spice. Pretty much everything that comes out of the kitchen is imaginative and well crafted. The smooth and tangy tomato soup (25Kn) is worth popping in for on its own account; our risotto (70Kn) was so smooth and creamy that it had us scratching our heads wondering how they did it. The style is minimal-casual, with grey floor offsetting pale wood tables. Check the big central blackboard for an exhaustive list of wines from home and abroad.
Set in a previously moribund-looking yard in one of the city's central neighbourhoods, everything about the new Bestija screams fresh. The décor is modern and unpretentiously shabby, managing to avoid many of the industrial tropes that have come to define ‘The Bistro’ – there are no hanging naked lightbulbs or exposed brickwork, instead, Bestija is spelt out in a scribble of neon light. The soundtrack is woozily ambient, a hipster-friendly playlist that oscillates between Brian Wilson, Cymande and The Grateful Dead. And the menu? Reassuringly small, it changes daily, but you can expect a cast of Adriatic favourites (grilled fish, Pag lamb) prepared with flavourful, fruity embellishments. Duck breast with homemade pasta arrives in a mushroom and cherry sauce. The grilled seabream is perfectly crisp-skinned and soft-fleshed, served with lemony chickpeas for acidity. As if to purposefully flaunt the freshness of their ingredients, a just-delivered box of veg sat briefly on the chef's counter before being hoisted into the kitchen to prepare for the next batch of customers. The drinks menu matches the light quality of the food - Istrian whites are well-represented, alongside Garden craft beers and a few cocktails. Mains are priced between 80-100kn – what you might pay for an average fish supper elsewhere, well worth the outlay for food this fantastically fresh.
Thank to a gaggle of designer stores the narrow, arcade-like Dežmanova is fast becoming one of Zagreb’s coolest addresses, an impression only bolstered by the opening of this chic new café-bar. The interior is as modernist as they come but soothing with it. Matt-black walls jostle with warm woody tones, and geometric light fittings convey an arty bent. As far as the drinks are concerned the accent is very much on quality at a decent price – coffee is supplied by local direct-trade roasting outfit Cogito, beers include the locally brewed Zmajsko Pale Ale, long drinks a refreshing Bellini (25kn), and there’s a good wine list with plenty of sparkling options. The cakes are hard to turn down, and there’s an evening menu of pršut and cheese platters.
If there is such a thing as contemporary Croatian cuisine then one of the best places to find it is NAV, the new venture of owner-chef Tvrtko Šakota. Previously seen brandishing the spoons at much-talked-about Mundoaka and Xató, Šakota has built an impressive reputation, not only for being an outstandingly creative chef, but also as a leading devotee of locally reared, high-quality produce. A nine-table upstairs room with no interior-design fripperies and no outdoor terrace, NAV is an intimate and welcoming space in which to focus on some of the capital’s most glorious food. The gravelly murmour of Bruce Springsteen, who seems to be on permanent rotation in the background, is the only sensory distraction. There’s a semi-open kitchen behind glass walls which, with four or more people busying themselves inside, is a constant source of interest. Šakota occasionally pops out of his glass box to greet new arrivals – the restaurant has only been open since January 2019 but already has a devoted body of regulars. Pretty much everything we saw on the (seasonally changing) menu displayed a high degree of imagination and a high level of intricacy in preparation, kicking off with the cream-cheese profiterole that came as an (unbilled) amuse-bouche. The appetizer tells you straight away that NAV is all about attention to detail – not just from the people preparing the food, but from those sitting down to eat it too. Aptly illustrating NAV’s dedication to the reinvention of tradition wa
Having spent several years building a solid culinary reputation in Zagreb's northern suburbs, the Bistro Apetit team have opened a branch in the centre. Bustling, busy but also moderately smart, Apetit City is intended for lunching city folk as well as more romantically inclined evening diners. The menu charts a course between modern European and traditional Croatian cuisine, including much that looks deceptively simple or old-fashioned – the fried calf livers with gorgonzola (85kn) are superb. Steaks and fillets of fish also feature on a list of mains that hover in the 90kn-145kn range.
At its simplest, the Croatian word obrok means “meal”, although it also comes with the connotation of something rather basic or straightforward, like army rations or school dinners. It’s a neatly ironic introduction to what this small and intimate restaurant actually does, serving up quality food that suits the quick-luncher as well as those with time for several courses. The aim is to give Croatian cuisine a bit of contemporary style, but without losing sight of what’s traditional about it. Four or five specials (65-90Kn) are chalked up on a board each day - old-school recipes like lung stew might feature alongside something a bit closer to the comfort zone, such as pork chop with mushrooms or lamb with peas. Mains are often accompanied with down-at-home extras that other restaurants no longer serve – such as žličnjaci, oddly shapen gnocchi-like things that soak up a good sauce. Baked štrukli, the central-Croatian dish comprising pockets of dough filled with cottage cheese, is something of a house speciality. White walls, pale wood and jazzy background music help to ensure a smooth, soothing experience.
Bistro Apetit offers superb standards of food, wine and service – standards imposed by Croatian chef and owner Marin Rendić. One key to its success is the location, hidden in a hedged garden on a tranquil residential street, just a short walk north of the city’s Gradec old quarter. The cooking mixes the best of Croatian/Adriatic cuisine with the contemporary European main-stream. Bistro Apetit is by no means beyond the average pocket, and there are always some truly outstanding dishes on the seasonally-changing menu. And the desserts are truly heavenly.
Given the over-wordy title it might seem like they’re trying to press too many trendy buttons at once, but don’t let that put you off. This is an excellent addition to the Zagreb bistro-lunch scene, and the fact that it’s in Savica – a modern suburb with large housing blocks and a famously grassy park – gives it an extra dose of authenticity. The cuisine follows the current tendency to cultivate Croatian culinary tradition while adding a dash of global inspiration: our lean and juicy lungić (a traditional cut of pork loin) came with a garnish of roast Sweet Potato, inducing one of those “why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?” moments that had us experimenting in the kitchen when we got home. The lungić in question was one of the hard-to-resist weekday specials (55-60Kn) that keep the place busy with the babble of lunchers. The full-bodied tomato soup (22Kn) is a signature staple that goes down well at any time of day. Mains in the 70-90Kn range stick to familiar meat, poultry and fish choices. Service is businesslike and breezy and it’s a very pleasant place to sit, too, consisting of a small white-cube room and a larger glass-box atrium with leafy indoor plants perched beside pale wood tables.
If you enjoy high-quality food served briskly in informal surroundings, then Lari i Penati (named after a pair of Roman household gods) will be the kind of place you'll find it difficult to stay away from. The only problem is its small size, with 12 high stools pressed against small tables and a street-facing window ledge. Succeed in grabbing a place and you'll be treated to a delectable and dizzyingly cheap range of sandwiches, soups-of-the-day (20kn), light main courses (a tasty fillet of fish will set you back as little as 45kn), and in-house cakes and muffins. What's on offer depends on the season and what the chefs feel like cooking that day – the menus are changed daily.
Hidden behind Kota, this smart bright bistro serves up dedicated vegan fare, with the accent on wok, noodle and pasta-based recipes. Ingredients are sourced from a local organic farm. There’s a reasonable choice of desserts and the courtyard setting provides something of a calming oasis in this busy downtown neighbourhood.
Mali Bar serves up exquisite lunches and inventive nibble food in an informal, five-table dining room. Main courses change daily. Everything else comes in the form of tapas – like small portions – grilled octopus, spring rolls, own recipe mini burgers and various salads. Superb desserts, too. Presiding over the kitchen is Ana Ugarković, prolific cookbook author and TV chef.
Chandeliers, retro furnishings and fancy upholstery mark out this recent addition to the Tkalčićeva scene as one of the more refined additions to Zagreb’s main nightlife strip. The stylish interior is pleasantly offset by informal, friendly service, which often includes a smile from the kitchen staff (who may well bring the food out themselves). The discreet presence of a gentle white dog reinforces the impression that this is a family restaurant and the warmth is palpable. The menu is Dalmatian-Mediterranean with a pronounced emphasis on flavoursome, sensual seafood and home-made pasta. Prices edge towards the fine-dining end of the scale but there are some good inexpensive options (lamb chops, pork steaks) if you order shrewdly. House specialities include a range of seafood ravioli (140-200Kn) that are more refined and interesting than the usual pasta-food choices in town, and a seafood risotto (110Kn) that achieves just the right balance between al-dente rice and a bottom-of-the-bowl swish of flavoursome juices. The musical background is mostly smooth and sultry blues and jazz – which goes rather well with the food.