There is no better sign of (approaching) middle age than reminiscing about the restaurants, bars and clubs which are no longer around, but which left a mark on one’s memories, taste and, in many ways, life.
My path towards becoming a kafana connoisseur started in Vidin kapija, across the road from my primary school.
I was taken there in 1996 by my mom and grandma to celebrate the start my dazzling academic career, that is getting through my first grade with straight As (or 5s, rather). I still remember the oily taste of Karađorđeva schnitzel (my go-to order back in the day) and the used up, drab crockery and table cloth. We were sitting in the garden that was arranged on the narrow platform that hugged the grey modernist apartment building. The crumbling kafana was enlivened by the bustling streets that surrounded it that you can watch from the shade of plane trees. Although it was pleasant being there it was pretty much like all other kafanas of the day: the food was always the same, the interiors were dark from moke and the 90s isolation and economic collapse also made the staff looking additionally depressed.
As I was stepping into my teenage years, however, things started to change.
Kafanas in my neighbourhood, a lot of which were little more than refuges for the neighbours who enjoyed tipples from 6am until late at night – Morava, Boka and Božur, – started closing and newly economically liberalised Belgrade, still thirsty for “Western style” started getting cool new cafes and restaurants.
The fact that this coincided with my first outings with friends, made everything more exciting. In a lot of ways, I probably the reason why I am so into visiting and reviewing restaurants and cafes is because in a lot of ways they were a symbol of prosperity and hope, something that at the time we thought was connecting us to “the World” (meaning: US and European rich metropolitan areas), of which I mostly saw glimpses from TV shows and films,.
As they were slowly opening, one by one, every quarter, going there, investigating them, thinking about them, appreciating them, made me think I was closer to the world and was learning something valuable, a feeling that still weirdly did not leave me. They were fantastic backgrounds for my growing up, and allowed me to somewhat histrionically dream that I was as well living the life that I saw on TV or in the still crumbling Beogradfilm cinemas.
The greatest concentration of hot new places was in Strahinjića Bana – which became famous as “Silicone valley” – for all the surgically enhanced chancers hunting after controversial businessmen, many of whom were transition winners, who were making money by bankrupting property-rich state owned enterprises, like those that owned chains of old kafanas.
Strahinjića Bana first got Soho (which opened in 1998, and then closed around the NATO boming) and then Insomnia and Dorian Gray, whose neo-Art Nouveau décor, designed by and cool menu (carpaccio, fancy) made me think I was in one of European grand cafés that I was reading about. Equally classy was Sinatra (opened in 2004 at the place of former Smederevo kafana, now occupied by Endorfin), which was opened by Ivan Stanković, a former Saatch and Saatchi executive in Serbia and Croatian actor and singer Frano Lasić. In a great interview, Ivan Stanković cites Ally McBeal tv series as an inspiration for this neo art deco place which prided itself on jazz jams.
Slightly more affordable and teen friendly places were Downtown in Čika Ljubina Mart in Kneza Milosa, Tema in Makedonska, Movie Bar inside DKC which brought the turn of millennium modernism to town. Then there was Moloko, a completely crazy, colourful place above Knez Mihailova that was inspired by Clockwork Orange. It was it the latter that the cool gang from my high school hung out, and for me it had an almost magical connotation. Similarly nice and colourful, but still exiting, were Kandahar and Gaudi.
Clubs like Freestyler (which weirdly still exists), and Stefan Braun (which does not but is the stuff of legends) were where the cool kids were getting their first taste of proper going out, while more indie souls were going to places like Ana4Pištolja, which was in a cave by Brankov bridge.
On the restaurant front, Zaplet, brought fusion cuisine to Belgrade in mid ‘00s. Located inside an old post office in Crveni Krst it had quirky but non-offensive design to accompany to its quirky but good food. When it closed in 2010s, it was succeeded by much bolder Dijagonala 2.0 in Skerlićeva, which sadly also did not manage to stay around (but reincarnated into the less exciting Cveće Zla).
However, it was in the time between 2006 and 2010, when the country still coasted on the initial benefits of loberalisation, but before the economic crisis finally hit Serbia, that there were the most ambitious projects.
The most imaginative of them was Majik – a fancy cool new restaurant designed by Karim Rashid, Egyptian designer par excellence to replace my old familiar and drab Vidin kapija. The futuristic candy coloured look of the place was amazing. Even my parents, who were at bemoaning the death of their favourite kafanas like Orač, liked its silvery façade. I remember taking a friend there for one of my first nice “adult” dinners, and being impressed by the surroundings, but feeling very let down by the overpriced food (made, allegedly by a chef who came from Mandarin Oriental in London). Still, it was something to be proud of and marvel at, although the whole project turned out to be a white elephant and closed down after a few years. It later reopened with a few alternations (out of place photos of old Belgrade, which made it less cool) but it did not survive for long in that iteration either.
Despite the fact that it did not work out, Rashid’s trailblazing work, seemingly emboldened a generation of Belgrade’s architects and interior designers to be creative and create truly fantastic places, many of which are no longer with us.
One of them Đorđe Gec (who tragically passed away at the age of 39 in 2014) whose iconic designs for a swathe of bars and nightclubs in Savamala: Mladost, Ludost and Brankow made that part of Belgrade become one of the coolest places in Europe. His most impressive project (on which he worked with Daniela Stanković who later launched Koozmetik natural cosmetics brand) was for Tube nightclub in Dorćol, which still remains legendary for its classiness, as well as fantastic lights that were dotted around its concrete walls. Gec was also the first to make plans for redevelopment of Belgade’s markets into public squares, which is slowly being implemented in Kalenić and Bajloni market.
In 2010, Maja Lalić designed Supermarket brought industrial cool back to Belgrade. The concept store and restaurant, located above Strahinjića Bana, were sort of both an antithesis of Strahinjića Bana “silicone” style but also a natural next step, as nouveau riche Belgraders, flush with cash from new banks, marketing and advertising agencies, needed to show their sophistication by eating exotic foods and buying quirky concept-store gimmicks inside this hyper-cool space. Despite being a truly trailblazing, fantastic space, it did not manage to survive and not there is a gym occupying the same space.
In 2009 continuing with the industrial theme, Belgrade got Beton hala, thanks to the architect Aleksandar Rodić and Goran Jevtić, a hospitality veteran, who learned his craft in Melbourne, only to return to Belgrade and launch Iguana, a truly innovative , minimalist bistor Iguana in Vračar. Jevtić opened two fantastic restaurants in this coverted industrial space: a larger more ambitious Iguana (designed by Aleksandar Mijatović, another prolific designer of that time) and Comunale (which is still around). Sadly Jevtić passed away in 2018, and Iguana at Beton Hala closed around the same time, but left a deep trace on Belgrade’s hospitality scene. Indeed, Beton hala was the first step towards gentrification and development of Belgrade’s right bank, which at one point included a very intrusive “cloud”, designed by Sou Fujimoto, that would have connected it to the fortress.
In a lot of ways, those exuberant years paved way for their own demise, as they opened up Belgrade to the constant game of creative destruction from which it was shielded by managed socialist economy and then sanctions.
While I could not but feel sad to see Rashid’s Majik being turned into an eyesore that is the new pizzeria that opened at its place, I also realise that my anger stems mostly from the thing that I miss the most: that feeling of being young and enthused by going to a beautiful restaurant or a cool club for the first time.
Indeed, I remember being happy to be out even when I sat that day in Vidin kapija. That kafana, which I back then thought of as historic, displaced an even older and quirkier kafana called “Sedam švaba” (Seven Schwabians/Germans), which was named after its German patrons who hung out there in mid 19th century while building Belgrade’s first modern hospital across the road. That fantastic place, apparently had a mural painted by Đura Jakšić, a famous painter to pay out his debts. I am sure that somebody lamented over when it was torn down in mid 20th century to make way for the socialist block that still stands there.
Although, comings and goings of restaurants are normal, it would be sad to lose memory of them and even not protect truly striking interiors that managed to survice. Imagine losing the interior of Dva Jelena, Oračac, Zlatno burence, Proleće or Srpska Kafana, or tearing down kafana Ušće (now Nacionalna klasa), which was designed by Stojan Marković the architect of Sava Centar as the first modernist leisure facility in Belgrade (I still remember its interior, designed by Mario Maskareli which featured a lot of op-arty circles that reminded me of stacked toilet paper rolls). It is important to try and keep and celebrate what is beautiful and historic alive, of course allowing it to change with time, but still ideally maintain some stories of what it initially was.
As Donna Tartt wrote in the Goldfinch: “And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”
You might be shocked that this was about a guy who protected an old masters’ painting, not a blogger who likes nice restaurants and interiors, but I guess it still holds.
I made a podcast episode about dining in Serbia in 2000s (in Serbian)