When I tell friends I'm going to Zagreb in Croatia, they automatically conjure up images of Dubrovnik, Rovinj, Split, Zadar or some other pretty town on the Adriatic that tourists and locals alike are known to flock Croatia for. For good reason, of course: these towns seem postcard perfect — even my friends in Zagreb love these places. I have never been to those towns and, in contrast, Zagreb is probably very drab and dreary, certainly so in the cooler months. That said, I have taken a liking to this city, since my first visit in 2014, and feel more comfortable with each annual visit I’ve made since then.
That first visit to Zagreb didn't start off very well. The first few hours in a new city are always uncomfortable, but this was something else. The cold Eastern European autumn air, the harsh language, surrounded by a landscape of beauty and grim brutalist communist remnants, and cold stares from people made me feel very unwelcome. It reminded me a little of Berlin, but wholly unfamiliar. This was the day I landed, and I was to spend a week here.
I decided that next time someone stared at me, I would just talk to them. This strategy more than paid off. The stoic stares, as it turned out, were simply manifestations of extreme curiosity. I ended up having engaging conversations with people ever since.
Walking to the farmers’ market in Britanski trg (British Square), surrounded by colorful fresh fruits and produce from all over the small country, you are reminded of the geographical diversity of Croatia. You begin to sense humanity, stop making assumptions and generalizations, and are rewarded with the the affirmation that people everywhere are many-hued. I bought some Dalmatian oranges with a greeting of dobar dan to the fruit vendor, which was to become my morning routine for the rest of my visit.
Now when I go back, Zagreb feels familiar and comfortable — I have my regular coffee and food spots I make the rounds of, and friends I visit. Change in Zagreb appears to unfold very slowly; it's a double-edged sword — to me, the familiarity is refreshing, but to others, like Nik Oroši, of Eli's caffe, it's suffocating.
Zagreb has a very rich café culture — you will find one pretty much anywhere you look — but specialty coffee is still a novelty. The cafés listed here make my regular rotations during my visits.
Nik Oroši opened Eli's Caffe over ten years ago, making it Zagreb (and Croatia's) first specialty coffee café and roastery. The original location on Ilica is quite a scene, with locals chatting away inside for hours while Nik is either serenading people with stories or cursing, depending on the day and hour, and smokers sitting out front, as the seemingly anachronistic sleek blue trams of Zagreb whizz by the old town.
Now there's another location, much more spacious, a few meters from the original location, that also serves wine and alcohol.
Espresso-based drinks are served at both locations, and depending on who's around, you could score a chemex too — Nik takes his coffee very seriously and he does everything he can to make sure all drinks are prepared with utmost care. That said, his perfectionism can sometimes drive him (and others!) crazy.
Eli's Caffe Elysium (or Eli's Caffe 2) is through the courtyard (dvorište) at Ilica 65, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia
Located on Petrinjska, not far from Ban Jelačić Square (Trg bana Josipa Jelačića), Express Bar serves a consistently good cup. I always have fun conversations with Ivan Leko, the affable owner and Saša, one of the baristas.
Because it's located on a pedestrian-only slice of the street, there is plenty of outdoor seating, including heat lamps and blankets for the cooler months.
Repeat Croatian barista champion, Matija Hrkač, and roaster Matija Powlison Belković started Cogito Coffee in 2014.
Located in a quiet courtyard off Varšavska in the city center, Cogito makes for a wonderful respite from the busyness outside. Inside, the minimal, light-filled space makes for a great way to start your day. On a nice day, you can sit out on the chairs strewn around and under the arches of the entrance to the courtyard.
Bistro Apetit has gone through a few changes in chefs since I first visited, but it has remained the same beautiful tranquil space, up on the hills of Zagreb, a short drive from the city center. I met my friend Gregorio Mannucci first at Bistro Apetit where he was a chef, through Nik Oroši of Eli's Caffe. Presently Bistro Apetit's kitchen is run by chef-patron Tom Gretić, a well-regarded and renowned Croatian chef and sous-chef Stjepan Marić.
During Gregorio's time, the tiny kitchen dished out exceptional rustic food, with an Italian bent. The focus on quality ingredients remains, but now the (still tiny) kitchen brings out re-imagined Croatian food that retains the same simplicity.
A recent degustation included an excellent venison tartare, fleur de sel butter, poached quail egg yolk, chives. This was followed by Foie gras torchon, Croatian red wine reduction, pear, and brioche.
A Consommé with cognac, chicken liver dumplings, and micro salad provided an interlude before the main course of a re-imagined country dinner of Turkey confit, Croatian style flatbread, green apple, chive, white wine, and horseradish sauce.
Dubravkin put is located in the tranquil surroundings of the lush park of the same name, the restaurant's namesake, in the Tuškanac forest. The restaurant has been a fine-dining mainstay since 2010. Until not long ago, the restaurant's menu tended to be more classic, with items including tuna tartare, steak tartare, whole fishes, and steaks. It's only recently, in the past couple years, since Priska Thuring took over, that the restaurant's menu went through a complete transformation, resulting in food that is contemporary, but has at its heart cooking that simply brings out the flavors of the ingredients.
I got to know Priska through Gregorio, and now I unfailingly pay her a visit — it's always a swell time.
A recent lunch degustation included Fresh cheese, artichokes, young spinach, spring onion, sour cream, and filo dough. Inspired by the Mediterranean, Cuttlefish, fennel, chickpeas, red lentils, rocket leaf, spiked with chili followed.
A dish of braised beef with ash-covered cheese and egg was a cozy fall dish, appropriate for the day.
Priska cooks with precision and technique, and a ton of ingenuity, but a veneer of simplicity pervades all of her dishes. The scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms was one such excellent interlude in a multi-course tasting lunch in the fall.
Right next to Express Bar on Petrinjska, the tiny space serves lunch and dinner, offering a daily-changing menu of high quality food inspired from around the world, at reasonable prices.
Founded by American entrepreneur Tom Novak, Mundoaka is now opening locations in other parts of Croatia, including Čakovec in the north and Umag in Istria. They carry beers from Balate, a craft brewery from Spain, and also carry their own line of craft beers, Mundoaka Ales.
The portions tend to be big, so it makes for a great place for a group meal. Mundoaka is very popular with the locals and can get very busy, so be sure to make reservations or be prepared to wait. There is outdoor seating on the pedestrian street and, as is normal around here, they have outdoor heat lamps and also provide blankets.
Goran Kočiš, formerly a chef at Bistro Apetit, and Ivan Jug, formerly a sommelier at Bistro Apetit, opened Noel late last year. It's only fitting that Noel occupies the space of Peta Četvrtina, a formerly well-regarded fine-dining restaurant that introduced Zagreb to multi-course modernist Croatian tasting menus.
Peta Četvrtina wasn’t financially viable and had to close its doors. While it’s complicated knowing what all may have gone wrong, what is true is that it was probably ahead of its time, but it forged the path forward for a place like Noel to come into being.
Unlike Peta Četvrtina’s unyielding tasting-menu only highfalutin approach to food, Goran seems to have struck the right chord — he wants to create modern food, he wants to encourage you to try the tasting menu and leave yourself in his hands — but he does this by letting you be in control: the lunch menu includes takes on bistro dishes that Croatians are more familiar with and more apt to order.
Both lunch and dinner include safe options like “Tuna steak, Hummus, Bell pepper coulis and Chickpea” interspersed among more creative dishes like “Pork belly, Shrimps, Parsley and Passion fruit”.
The decor went through a major transformation as well: Noel feels contemporary and plush, exudes warmth, but isn’t over the top; the lack of table linens dresses everything down pleasantly.
Beef Shop positions itself as a meat-obsessed boutique (a poster of a semi-naked woman, one of the owners’ partner, holding a T-bone steak adorns one of the walls), offering pre-portioned cuts of meats from cattle around Europe and America, and also Japanese wagyu.
I learned about Beef Shop only because Gregorio was cooking a meal here as part of regular pop-ups they host. This is a pretty good opportunity to enjoy a multi-course meal from any of Croatia’s well-regarded chefs.
In addition to beef, they also carry a selection of pantry essentials, including olive oils, vinegars, and salts (including one that had gold in it). They also carry some incredible Croatian wines (including Bibich).