© Konoba Cigale

How to survive a restaurant in Croatia

Almost every restaurant you will visit while on holiday in Croatia will do their best to help you smoothly enjoy the experience, but there are a few tips they might forget to tell you

Written by
Marc Rowlands
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Well used to the annual summer influx of international visitors, almost every restaurant you will visit while on holiday in Croatia will do their best to help you smoothly enjoy the experience. Most waiters will speak English at a decent level or better and restaurant menus too will be in English, possibly also German and Italian. But Google Translate is not always wholly accurate. You do often see funny Croatian menu listings on social media, their innocent homemade direct translation attempts creating hilarious results. Pâté described as 'suffering from liver', shrimps described as 'smallpox' and a multitude of dishes described as being 'angry' rather than 'spicy' are just some of the classic examples.
Less easy to navigate are some of the cultural differences you may encounter. Lucky then, dear reader, that you have Time Out Croatia at hand to guide you through the experience.

How to survive a restaurant in Croatia

For starters
© Konoba Cigale

For starters

Understandably, everybody wants to go with the flow when they're on holiday. But, if you're going to spend a couple of hours relaxing, savouring the moment and view, it's maybe worth the while to do a little planning.

Check out your restaurant on Time Out Croatia the day before you go. Can you see yourself sitting here having a good time? Yes? Then, idemo (let's go)!

Book in advance. You won't be the only person drawn to one of Time Out Croatia's top-rated restaurants. If you want to go somewhere fancy, unreplaceable or edging-on expensive, ensure your place by booking in advance. 

Fallen in love with the sea view your restaurant promises online? That's probably not the only kind of seating available. There might be tables, out back, with no view at all, save that of a semi-naked neighbour dozing in a hammock and the next generation of lean feral cats. Be specific about where you want to sit.

The main course
© CSP

The main course

If you want to try out some very special menu options, book 24 hours in advance. There are some Croatian specialities which, because of preparation and cooking time, require you to do so. Peka (pictured) is one such option, a traditional tagine-style dish where meat and vegetables are cooked together atop a fire and under a metal bell, with the lid covered in burning ashes.

Pašticada, a unique Dalmatian offering is another, requiring not less than 24 hours preparation. In its traditional form, beef is pierced with herbs, spices, vegetables and bacon, then salted and marinated overnight in a vinegar base. The dish is then roasted with ingredients often including bacon, onions, parsley root, tomato, water and wine for anything up to five hours, with fruits such as prunes, plums or sometimes grapes added later, with these ingredients often blended into a sauce which accompanies the beef upon serving. It's notoriously difficult to find a brilliant, authentic version of the dish, but well worth trying to do so.

 

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Something looks fishy?
© hheellggaa

Something looks fishy?

It'll be no surprise to read that one of the best things to eat by the coast is seafood. And, coastal Croatians are generally adamant that simplicity is the key to cooking it well. You'll rarely find fish flavoured with anything more than garlic, parsley, olive oil, salt and lemon, with shellfish treated similarly, perhaps with the addition of chilli, wine and/or cream in the sauce. When dealing with fish so fresh, their methods are not only tried and tested, but true. The most common sea fish (and arguably the best) you'll see on the menu are orada, which is Sea Bream and brancin, which is Sea Bass. Both of these fish are farmed in enclosures within the Croatian Adriatic waters and taste fantastic. Line or spear-caught wild examples are usually bigger, fuller-flavoured (because of their more varied diet).... and much more expensive!

The usual accompaniment to whole cooked fish is blitva. In English, this is sometimes known as mangold or the tongue-twisting mangelwurzel. Can we all agree to just simply call it chard, please? Well, actually, it's not so simple. Thriving even in dry, barren soils, blitva is grown up and down Croatia's coast. But, there's an almost ubiquitous method of preparing it, which involves combining the wilted leaves with cooked potato, olive oil, salt, pepper and possibly lemon juice. This green mush may appear underwhelming upon first introduction but, trust us, by the end of your holiday, it will be the meal's element you'll crave the most, even more so when you return home and have no idea how to make it.

A little bit on the side
© Krista

A little bit on the side

If you really don't like the look of blitva, your alternate option will probably be once-frozen French fries. Meh! But, look out for croquettes, known locally as kroketi. If they're freshly made rather than pre-bought, there's a good chance they'll be awesome.

 

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Pig and cabbage
© Peter Griffin

Pig and cabbage

Like all Slavic countries, the inhabitants of Croatia could quite happily survive on a diet of pig meat and cabbage. Despite them concocting several thousand different ways in which to prepare and serve them, this can sometimes get a bit boring for visitors.

Not only that, it can be a little troublesome for those with special dietary requirements; small seaside restaurants and taverns rarely have separate grills, so any vegetarian or vegan ordering grilled vegetables should be aware that their dish is especially tasty because it has meat residue on it. Sourcing halal and kosher foods will sometimes require significant research and possibly some travelling.

As far as the cabbage goes, it's common in its fermented form, kiseli kupus aka sauerkraut, especially in one of the most beloved national dishes, sarma (in which the leaves are filled with mixed meat and a little rice, served in a spicy tomato sauce). A very similar dish is punjene paprike, in which the sauce is removed and the cabbage substituted for peppers. However, the love of cabbage is so great that it can be found raw, shredded and in most mixed/green salads. In this form, it's also very commonly served as the lone side dish, dressed simply with vinegar and salt (this will be a close second to blitva on your most-missed list once back home).

It's all Greek to me!
© Christo Anestev

It's all Greek to me!

As well as the raw shredded cabbage, another salad you should definitely try is šopska (pronounced shopska). This salad reputedly has Bulgarian roots but is commonplace across the Balkans. The nearest thing comparable is Greek salad, although the cheese used is softer, less sharp and often served shredded atop rather within the mix of vegetables, which usually include cucumber, peppers, tomato, onion and sometimes parsley and olives. Another common Greek comparison you'll find on the Croatian menu is moussaka. Beware; while Greek moussaka is a laboriously constructed affair, its rich, spicy, lamb or lamb/veal filling, strips of pre-cooked aubergine, cheese and egg-rich topping sometimes requiring 24 hours prep time, it usually takes less than an hour to knock up the much more simplified Croatian version. They are incomparable dishes.

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Just desserts
© Nadezhda Prokudina

Just desserts

Fancy something sweet after your meal? Be forewarned that desserts are the Achilles heel of many standard Croatian restaurants and taverns. Almost everything with cream as an ingredient will use the highly-processed UHT variety rather than fresh cream, cakes can be pretty, but underwhelming in taste and very, very sweet (like store-bought chocolate in Croatia). And the ubiquitous palačinke (pancakes) are more often than not just served with Nutella maybe with the option of grated nuts. The dessert Croatians are really, really good at is ice cream or gelato. The best Croatia versions are easily the equal of anything found in Italy.

Tipping
© Petr Kratochvil

Tipping

Tip what you want or not at all. Croatia is not America. Tipping is not compulsory and you won't be chased out of town by shotgun-carrying men in white hoods if you don't tip (this will only happen if you ask for your blitva to be served without potato). 10 per cent of the bill is good, 20 per cent extravagantly so. Please be aware that your waiter probably works more hours in one day than you do in two back home and will probably be earning minimum wage, which in Croatia allows you to buy around one packet of bacon and a cabbage to survive on for a week. Even if paying for your meal with a credit card, please make the effort to leave the tip in cash. Your actual server is much more likely to receive the tip, and receive it quicker, if you do this.

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Manners maketh man
© BBC

Manners maketh man

If your waiter does not say please and thank you at every moment you might expect him to, please be aware that he is not being rude. Balkan people are much more direct in their language. That does not mean they are more simple. It means they are more honest. Don't evaluate this aspect of their language negatively, instead re-evaluate your own!

English-speaking people say please, thank you and other niceties so frequently that it sounds insincere and almost meaningless, like a convention of language, rather than genuine gratitude or respect. You'll know if your waiter is being rude because he will be surly and serve you as though you are an inconvenience.

Do not feel compelled to leave a tip if you experience bad service like this. Locals frequently consider such service to come from a small, select section of the native Dalmatian folk and that the extremely hard working, happy and polite waiter you get (whose English is maybe slightly retarded) is probably a seasonal worker from Slavonia in eastern Croatia or even from Serbia. This is, perhaps, a gross generalisation.

A good way to check if your waiter is from Slavonia is to say 'kontash?' (do you get it?') after a specific menu instruction e.g. 'I would like no garlic with my fish, kontash?' If your waiter replies 'eh?', 'ah?' or 'shta?' he's either Dalmatian or Bosnian. If he replies 'cha?' he's definitely Dalmatian. If he says 'ky' he's from Zagreb or north thereof. If he replies 'kontam!' with a smile, he's from Slavonia or Bosnia and you should double the tip you were planning to leave for him.

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