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.
Bistro Apetit offers superb standards of food, wine and service – standards imposed by Austrian chef and owner Christian Cabalier, previously of Vienna’s Cantinetta Antinori. 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. At 70kn-90kn for a starter and 120kn-160kn for a main, 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.
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.
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.
Occupying a premium spot on Zagreb's bustling thoroughfare Tkalčićeva, Otto & Frank is a bistro with an emphasis on breakfast, booze and bar snacks. Finding a flawless full English in Zagreb isn't easy — breakfast here is a typically light affair, constituting pastries, cheese and cured meats, but there's a growing rooster of restaurants you can go to for a good fry-up, and Otto & Frank lay on a killer all day breakfast. A stellar cast of craft beers from local breweries provide speedy replenishment for your hangover, and a daily selection of soups, salads and sandwiches are decent for the lunchtime munchies.
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.
Opened in June 2014, Pod Zidom has effortlessly elbowed its way to the top of the wine-bar league, offering an affordable-to-expensive mixture of great Croatian wines, a range of Mediterranean-style lunches and tapas dishes, regular live music, and a wonderful outdoor terrace overlooking a street that’s very central but also slightly hidden from the hubbub of the main square. Done out in a mixture of greys and pale wood tones, it manages to look smart but laid back at the same time. The weekday ‘set lunches from Dolac market’ are a steal at 40kn-55kn.
Further proof of Zagreb’s ongoing outbreak of bistro fever is provided by Mundoaka, a cramped but highly enjoyable spot just round the corner from the main square. It advertises itself as a ‘street food’ establishment but offers sit-down fare of the highest order, with an imaginative and globe-spanning menu that takes in ribs, deluxe pulled-pork sandwiches, raw tuna with ginger and a host of other lip-smacking ideas. Soups, bruschettas and cheese platters will more than satisfy the snackers; the prospect of freshly made cakes and muffins may well keep you rooted to your table for one more course. The choice of wines and craft beers admirably complements the food. It’s a busy place and you may end up perching on a stool or sharing a table; there is outdoor seating at the pedestrianised end of Petrinjska in spring and summer.
A leading light in Zagreb’s ongoing bistro revolution, Bistroteka strikes the right balance between snack-nibbling informality and slap-up sit-down dining. The menu displays a playful interest in an anything from Croatia to the wider Mediterranean and the Far East, ranges from thoughtfully compiled ciabatta sandwiches to major meat-and-two-veg meals, all of which is prepared and served with aplomb. The menu changes according to what’s fresh and seasonal; daily specials are chalked up on a board. The in-the-know wine list offers a good mixture of boutique and main- stream production from all over Croatia. The place itself is a pleasant place to sit and contemplate the good things in life, with white-painted brick ceiling, kooky light fittings and unobtrusive background pop.
Another of Zagreb’s burgeoning range of daytime-only dining options, Pithos is a simple concept: home-made food served in a home-like atmosphere. Of sufficient quality to warrant a master chef, Taiba Redžepagić, and sous chef, Lejla Kopić, its cuisine centres on finely crafted Mediterranean mains served to an in-the-know, urban clientele. There are also cakes, pies and pastries should you be after a tasty start to the day or mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
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.
Actors, creatives and thirtysomethings come here for home-made food with an imaginative, Adriatic-Asian take on culinary fusion. The interior aims for chic modernity without going totally lounge-bar, while the background music is cool, jazzy but sufficiently unobtrusive to allow for earnest conversation. The menu changes with the season. Pauza's wok-fried dishes mix Mediterranean seafood with Asian flavourings; although there are plenty of more traditional Croatian treatments of meat and fish for those who want something a bit more straightforward. Dishes of the day, chalked up on the inside wall, are excellent value at 45kn-70kn. Wines by the glass and the draught beer are equally affordable.