Slovak cuisine may not be as immediately recognisable and easy to define as, for example, Italian, French or Indian, but the country nevertheless has a rich culinary history that is sure to delight visiting foodies. In the capital, Bratislava, the restaurant scene is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, after years of catering primarily to tourists with little emphasis on quality or diversity.
We caught up with Peter Horváth, who runs Bratislava food blog Bratilicious with his partner Simona Arbesová, to find out more about Slovak cuisine, Bratislava's restaurant scene, and where visitors should dine while staying the city….
Traditional Slovak dishes to try
Traditional Slovak cuisine centres on hearty food that features local, seasonal ingredients, reflecting the country's strong rural roots. Most dishes revolve around meat, with pork by far the most popular, although beef, chicken and fish are also common. Potatoes, bread, dumplings and noodles are staples, as are vegetables such as cabbage (particularly in the form of sauerkraut), onions and garlic. Dairy products are popular, especially butter and cheese made from cows' or sheep's milk, and desserts tend to feature local fruits and jams.
Probably the most famous local dish is bryndzové halušky – potato dumplings (similar to gnocchi) served with sheep's milk cheese. Other common dishes include lokše – baked potato pancakes – and kapustnica – a soup made with sausage and sauerkraut. Other dishes show influences from Austrian, Hungarian or Czech cuisine, such as Segedin goulash – a Hungarian-style pork stew with dumplings and sauerkraut – or rezeň – a breaded schnitzel.
While there are lots of delicious Slovak dishes that visitors should definitely try, Peter points out that care should be taken in choosing a restaurant. "Two years ago, Bratislava was chock full with tourist traps that are unfortunately still around. So, our first advice for anyone visiting here would be not to visit anything that has 'Slovak' in its name, offers 'traditional Slovak cuisine' or has a picture of a pig, schnitzel or bryndzové halušky outside on the street.
"We noticed that foreign visitors often taste something 'traditional', like the aforementioned bryndzové halušky which is made in poor quality, with bad ingredients, and they then chalk up the 'interesting' taste to the character of Slovak food – which is not the case."
Dining out in Bratislava
For tips on finding the establishments turning out really good-quality meals, Bratilicious is a goldmine of reviews, photos and other info. "Bratilicious is a one-of-a-kind blog in Slovakia, due to the fact we don't blog about recipes or other standard foodie stuff much, and we sometimes don't care much for political correctness," Peter says. "Rather, we visit restaurants, bars and other places with our own money to spend, and if we like the place, we write about them in a matter-of-fact style and hopefully this will attract customers. It often does!"
Bratilicious was born out of a desire to help local independent restaurants and cafés that were trying to deliver really innovative, good-quality food, but lacked the marketing budget to attract customers and far too often ended up going bankrupt. As Peter explains, "We were frustrated about the whole gastro situation here in Bratislava… and started to think that maybe if we started writing about the good restaurants and provided that much-needed marketing, it could change the situation over time... and it actually did!"
So what changed? "People stopped being willing to pay big money for bad meals, and that began to change the whole culture," Peter says. "Right now the biggest restaurant trends in Bratislava are bistros, high-quality fast food, urban cafés and non-traditional restaurants.
"We'd say that Bratislava has a nice mix of everything right now. We've got very good Thai restaurants, Vietnamese bistros, Slovak and Hungarian restaurants, urban cafés, Italian bistros... so if you evade the tourist traps, you can actually enjoy a nice meal in Bratislava."
Peter's top five restaurants in Bratislava
"There are very nice restaurants providing Slovak food which is very tasty and made with love," Peter observes. Here are his top five:
- "Green Buddha, a Thai-fusion restaurant. The level of service, atmosphere and food quality are always top-notch and the owner is obsessive about his guests having the best experience possible. Their head chef spent six years cooking in Thailand and you can feel the experience in his food."
- "Phong Nam, a Vietnamese bistro on Mileticova market. It's a traditional Vietnamese hut, made from some kind of plastic, wood and whatever they use, so if you're picky about where you eat, it's not for you. But boy, can they cook! Their Pho-Bo is awesome, and you must try Bun Bo Nam Bo or anything from their Vietnamese menu. Don't order anything from the Chinese menu though – that's the cheapest pick, for workers that eat there for lunch."
- "Lemontree and Sky Bar – it looks like a Thai restaurant, but they actually offer a very tasty Mediterranean menu. Lemontree is also famous for its barmen, drinks and alcohol assortment – they produce the best barmen in Slovakia! Sky Bar is part of their project and it's a vodka bar with an oh-my-God view of the city. The service is probably the best in Bratislava, too. You can't go wrong with Lemontree and Sky Bar, but it's not the cheapest pick. Not overly expensive either, just thought we should mention it."
- "A draw between Zylinder and Modra Hviezda. Both offer similar cuisine, based on traditional Slovak recipes, but Zylinder is more Austro-Hungarian oriented (tafelspitz, schnitzels) and Modra Hviezda is more Slovak-style (venison steaks, wild game). Modra Hviezda also has a sister restaurant, Hradna Hviezda, which offers the same menu but is based in Bratislava Castle."
- "Richtar Jakub, for beer enthusiasts. This little pub, which is almost always packed, offers a wide array of craft beers, from Slovakia or imported. The food there isn't something to write home about, but the beer they sell is the best you can get in Bratislava."
For more information on restaurants and dining in Bratislava, visit Peter and Simona's blog Bratilicious, or speak to the concierge at the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel, Bratislava, who will be happy to help with reservations and directions.