A Tour and Two Bulgarian Restaurants

It’s not often that we go to a restaurant in the evening as Yambol night life isn't really our scene. Don’t think for one moment it is because we don’t enjoy dining out, on the contrary, we love it. In fact it is a quite rare occasion that we venture out to eat, drink and dance. There are numerous reasons behind this, firstly, and probably the most obvious reason in the eye of our prudent Galia, is the cost. Relatively speaking it is peanuts to pay, even if sometimes some menu items are actually cheaper eating there than making your own. You still feel that you have to order additional accompaniments with most individual menu items and that’s where the economy is blown out of the window. In recent times we haven’t had peanuts to give and if we did we’d probably eat the peanuts! It actually leads to us not really enjoying the restaurant moments being very conscience of money being pay out for a luxury we can ill afford.

It is quite a common factor that when looking at the menu the food is not being looked at but the price. Whenever I see Galia looking at the list of what’s on offer her finger runs down the price on the right not the description of the choice of food. Invariably it is not always the cheapest that is chosen but the best value for money – there is a big difference.

The other reason for not eating out is quite often the hassle factor and after a long day of work the preparations for going out is not easy, especially for a Bulgarian woman who has a dress and a look for every occasion. Not only that her advice given to her Englishman invariably takes just as long as I change into an outfit only to be told another one should be worn.

This particular evening we had decided to go out to eat. We had just been paid and probably for the first time since living in Bulgaria we had a sense optimism of our financial future. This was enough to make a decision to go out tonight, even though we were both very tired after a long working week.

As mentioned, it is very rare that we go out and even rarer that just the two of us go alone. This evening, yet again this wasn’t to be as we were expected Galia’s son Anton and his partner Koyna to join us later.

Prepared and off we go treading the cobblestone streets of Yambol in this slightly overcast evening complimented by a breeze that had a feel of rain about it. Not deterred we cantered on with the original venue to be visited the Chinese Restaurant in the town centre. Not our number one place by any means, for a start it wasn’t Bulgarian but the food to cost ratio put it high in the rankings as a good valued venue.

As we walked on we spotted another restaurant we hadn’t been to before called ‘The Bulgaria Restaurant’. Never having really noticing it before Galia suggested we try it. She hadn’t been there for at least 5 years so we entered and took a seat in the gardened section, even thought rain threatened.

It was 8:00 when the Rakia and shopska salad arrived on the table alongside a barbequed Serbian styled kyufte (herbed mincemeat) and sauté potatoes that have been subjected to a profusion of Bulgarian herbs. The food was gorgeous in a restaurant that had other eaters alongside with children playing amongst themselves without any need for adult supervision.

The trouble with excellent food is that you want to eat it, not only that, you want to eat it all now. The temptation to do that was getting the better of me but Galia was Bulgarian and had a lifetime of experience to nibble rather than eat.

An hour had gone and so had all the food and drink. Anton and Koyna still nowhere to be seen what were the options? Well in this society you are free to do what you want without being criticised or singled out so there was only one real option in view of what as wanted. ‘Another Rakia and shopska salad please!’ was the request to the waitress who single-handedly was dealing with every aspect of the restaurant, including the cooking! I don’t know how she manages but I do know she will be on minimum wages! Not a case of not being able to get the staff nowadays – what a refreshing turn of phrase that is.

10:00 arrived and the last remnants of the second shopska salad being tickled with my fork, still now Anton and Koyna! Suggestion was made that we ring them and tell them we’re going home to bed; we were falling asleep at the table at this point. Not only that, the wind had a chill to it as the darkness fell upon Yambol, still with rain in the air and we were, full, frustrated and freezing!

It was decided that when they did turn up we’d go somewhere else, the food was brilliant but we’d had enough and the place lacked Bulgarian atmosphere with the Michael Jackson, Abba, Elton John, Queen and Co. music now being repeated for the third time as it had accompanied us all evening. We missed the Bulgarian music and actually put a dampener on the evening. The crowds had dispersed either to their homes or further into town where the nightclub scene was about to start.

Almost 10:30 and the guys finally arrived but this is Bulgaria and normal for people to turn up over two hours late. Trying to find the waitress took a full 10 minutes, as she was busy preparing an excellently presented dessert. We paid the bill with her holding the plate of dessert in one hand and till operation in the other.

What were we to do now? We were stuffed stupid with food and Anton and Koyna hadn’t eaten since lunchtime. Do we go to another restaurant or find a bar or nightclub that serves food, or more to the point salad? What was about to happen was a bit of bad luck and good fortune at the same time!

Banks, God I loathe them as they spread their total necessity in Bulgaria at this present time, but that’s another story which unfolded this evening as we toured the town for a suitable venue fort he remainder of the night.

Now Anton, Galia’s son, is very mindful with a typical Bulgarian male streak right through him. He is a major knowledge on many things. If you have a problem or want advice he is there with the answer without hesitation but in true Bulgarian style, very convincing but not always the best advice as I recall when we suggested a place to go fishing one day and spent half the day trying to find it and ended up somewhere else instead! Was this evening to be the same?

Town Centre and the Chinese Restaurant looked at but it was too food orientated being a full blow, deep fried eating-house, the thought just made us feel sick so we walked on by to a neighbouring night club with bouncers galore.
It was almost 11:00 and as we approached these guys funny but I always think of the Guy the Gorilla that used to be in London’s Regent Park Zoo when looking at security workers. They all, five guys in total, had flashing neon name labels on their pristine black shirts as the leader of the pack was spoken to by Anton.

It was quite intimidating from a distance but as you speak to these guys in my experience they are as nice as pie, bored shitless and welcome any activity other than just standing there getting bored with each other. In this instance they also had some marketing to do with us. Anton and I were invited to go into the club and check it out for the girls before we register into the place.

There is a corridor, which was laid with a red carpet leading us some 20 metres up to a big black arched door. The impressive door had gold plated fitting polished so they shone in the chandeliered lighting it felt like we were entering a Royal Palace. What is it about Bulgarian doors? There is such a big variety in this country!

I was invited to turn twist the levered handle to reveal what was behind the door. The sight before us as the door slowly edged open was a room of glitter. The essentially ice blue light theme was from the home of the Ice Princess. Everywhere you looked was seductively lit with the big circular room having a semi circular bar. Around half the perimeter of the ‘ballroom’ type room, was another continuous bar with periodically positioned bar stools silhouetted against the blue fluorescent lit bar wall.

The music was loud but unobtrusive, conversations could take place here, but doubts about whether the sound levels would remain at 50 decibels later this evening. The other strangest thing about this place was it was empty! This is not unusual, as a trail of young and old pumpkins don’t arrive until after midnight and stay until breakfast is served in the neighbouring banitsa 24-hour bakery across the road.

Anton and I looked at each other and a nod of the head was exchanged between us. Yes, we both agreed, this most definitely wasn’t the place for us! Why? When asking whether they served salad the answer was, ‘No!’ How can you drink Rakia without salad? Don’t they know anything about Bulgarian tradition here? We trod back up the red carpet entertaining the bouncers with our reasons for not all going back in. I stress again, they really are the nicest people these Bulgarian bouncers, you do have to look beyond their exterior to find out though and not many do.

Nest stop was a past favourite last visited nearly two years ago called The Apollo with its big arched clear varnished door enticing us to enter. It was locked, with no sign of life; why is this place shut as we mentioned being shut on Saturday night isn’t good for business?

We continued the trek in the quest for a place home in on. The first was in the basement room under the Tundzha Hotel, live music and dance but it was full; we moved on to the next site within a stone throw across the main road.

Another basement restaurant with live music, dance with enough atmosphere Bulgarian style to die for. But alas, as cut our way into the party scene it became quite apparent that there were no tables for us. Unlike on other occasion where they would bring another table in for you, there was absolutely no space to put it. We reluctantly moved back outside into the lit streets of Yambol and the antiphonal sound of the relentless Bulgarian traditional music in various other locations around us.

Across the road and past the street with the Dublin Bar a place really don’t like so many reasons. The Piano Bar, far too up market for our simple Bulgarian family group, the cost in mind again of course – habits of a lifetime die-hard. Another 100 metres and another restaurant peered in, full up and no music another one goes by the board.

Yet one more basement bar/restaurant, a loud actively dancing crowd greeted us on opening the double glazed, frosted windowed double doors. This was more like a dance club than anything else, the music was noticeable more than anything else Bulgarian chalga, pop-folk and traditional folk music rule here but yet again we couldn’t agree whether this was the place for us. It looked good here I must admit but there was another choice waiting for us a block on.

Now you may think that all this touring failing to find a suitable place was bad luck but think again. We had been walking for nearly an hour and the signs of hunger were beginning to creep in after many calories had now been burnt. As each place was rejected it was more of a relief for Galia and I as yet another walk was a fine solution to our previous gut-busting predicament.

So we venture out again to try Anton’s new idea with a short walk away we arrive at yet another door with a difference. This door was unusual in so much as it didn’t have any character at all! The lead up or should I say lead down to it was a flight of concrete stairs which then turned back on itself into another row with the same number, stopping abruptly facing the ‘unusual’ door.

This had to be the place for us after so much dilly-dallying in the streets of Yambol. Another set of double door opened in front of us and the ingredients were all there to savour. Solely Bulgarians, music, dancing, Bulgarian food and the restaurant/bar was filled with Bulgarian traditional décor – all original, non of this pastiche or spoofed thematic rubbish you find, I won’t mention he Dublin Bar!

There was a table for four in the distance begging us to take it and we did. The service was immediate by the typical young glamorous female waitresses floating around like busy bees to various honey pot tables. This now was the third salad of the evening, not a shopska but a cabbage salad served in a large bowl, which should last the duration here. Another Rakia and beers all round and we were now settled for the night.

There was interest all round here, not least the Bulgarian artefacts surrounding us. There was a dead stuffed owl right next to us watching. These are top three favourite items, dead birds, all usually perched in Bulgarian eating and drinking houses. Beautiful as most of these creatures are, they are most are shot not for food but ironically as decoration watching people eating one of their relatives, chicken!
The people around us are the most interesting, from all levels form young to old, intelligent to the dumb-minded. No matter what level of Bulgarian we have a sample within.

In the corner another bouncer his insurance is his looks. You would not entertain trouble with this guy as he makes his presence felt with his physic. I swear the muscles bound biceps his arms hold have a bigger girth than my thighs and I’m a fat git! It’s kind of reassuring though.

The dancing took on all sorts, who says you need to be able to dance to dance as I saw the stumbling going on, luckily the Bulgarian traditional dance has a fail safe method (designed for non-dancers) where every participant hold each others’ hands. This way if you stumble you have support by dancers either side holding you up. The steps don’t really matter to some it’s the taking part that counts. The dancing around the tables carried on all night.

There was a Bulgarian DJ and what a character he was. He had a refilling bottle of beer by his side at all times alongside a vodka bottle tapped into every so often. He loves his job as he dances behind his workplace as well as singing and commentating throughout the musical evening. The longer the evening went on the more agitated and extrovert he became – a showman to the last.

The music was varied and 90% Bulgarian coming from the DJ’s choice and requests made to him. By the side of the dance floor there was some live percussion being banged out a drummer. The Bulgarian music mainly consists of one type of beat and the whole evening this drummer, a man of small stature and growing by stature by the drink as each song went on. His enthusiasm and quest for getting totally ‘into the groove’ with the atmosphere led him to gradually shuffle his drum kit into the dancing floor to take a more central role in the party. There was a spotlight in the centre of the floor as he made a beeline to become centre stage and highlighted. He did this a couple of times a before being ushered back by the restaurant manager. He was hogging the dance floor, he reminded me of the over keen Band Master on parade in the film, The Dirty Dozen.

An evening of socialising with Bulgarians happened again but tonight the distraction of looking around at all these characters and taking in the atmosphere made my part in discussions minimal. This was not from a point of language but total fascination and the realisation that I live here with these people, this being normal life here. On this relatively rare occasion of a ‘night out’ the scenes and experiences had just bring home what happens out of hours in Yambol.