There are two main routes to Mestia/Upper Svaneti. One goes through Lower Svaneti – if you were coming from Tbilisi, you’d hang a right at Kutaisi and head straight north, through Lentekhi. This was our initial plan because it looks like it makes more sense if you plot it on a map.
However, we were advised to take the second route, which goes through Zugdidi, because even though Zugdidi is over an hour in the wrong direction, the road up there is supposed to be better-maintained. That turned out to be a good call for several reasons, but the reason I’ll focus on in this post is that visiting Zugdidi was a great (if brief) experience.
Now, I should stipulate that we were only there long enough to locate a restaurant, have lunch, and leave, but that alone was enough to make me want to come back. As you may recall I lived with a Megrelian host family in Tbilisi, and perhaps that is why I’ve always loved Megrelian food (it’s certainly the only plausible explanation I can imagine for why I love ghomi so much). But also, Megrelian food has a spice profile that is much closer to my ideal than regular Georgian food.
In fact, I had suggested stopping in Zugdidi for lunch for this very reason. I traveled with one old friend and two new friends, and the new friends are from Korea and have only been in Georgia for about four months, and were missing the spicy and varied dishes of their homeland, much as I had done in my first few months in Georgia, before I really learned about how to navigate Georgian food. I thought perhaps a good Megruli kharcho would show them that there’s more to the cuisine here than the four things Georgians always brag about.
We decided to ask someone for a restaurant recommendation (not having done our research beforehand, foolishly) and so we parked in what looked like the city center and stopped some young people, two girls and a guy, to ask about restaurants. One thing that was notable is that we did the entire exchange in Georgian – they didn’t even try speaking English to us, as most people who know some English do when they hear our accents – and I wonder if that’s a thing about Samegrelo, or Zugdidi, or just these three people. They also didn’t try Russian. The guy recommended one restaurant – Diaroni – prompting one of the girls to laugh as if the idea of going to Diaroni was hilariously bad. Then he recommended Mendzeli, and when we asked them which was better if we wanted our food very spicy, the guy said Mendzeli, and told us we could ask for the food extra spicy (which turned out not to be true – the restaurant did not do extra spicy – but it turned out to be just fine anyway).
So off we went to Mendzeli (which was actually just called Mendzel – interesting that there is no nominative ending on it, wonder if that’s a Megrelian thing) where the waiter also did not attempt to speak to us in a language other than Georgian. The waiter did a good job of putting up with our odd requests and general air of n00bishnes and steering us towards the correct culinary decision, which in this case was Megruli kharcho with veal. One of our party attempted to order a chicken dish – first kharcho, but the waiter explained that chicken kharcho was not in season and anyway veal was better, and then some other chicken thing that would have had to have been made from scratch and taken forty minutes, and so he caved and got the veal kharcho. The waiter also suggested elarji, to which I enthusiastically agreed, and I asked for one, and he explained that you could only order elarji in portions of two, and no one else wanted it but I prevailed upon them to agree to try it and when it came it turned out that everyone loved it so much that actually we should have ordered four.
In the past I have been put off somewhat by Georgian service, but upon this event I began to feel that I was finally not just used to it, but starting to appreciate it. I mean, it can be hard to explain to foreigners that a particular dish is the house/regional specialty, or has to be eaten a certain way, or is out of season, and having been a waiter I can say that is is often a little frustrating to try to explain things to customers who lack the proper context to understand the establishment that you work for. I think often Georgian waiters will simply freeze up or say nothing when they don’t really know how to approach an explanation. It would be cool if there were some kind of guide to getting the most out of a Georgian restaurant… I wonder who could write something like that? I wish I had the time. In any case, our waiter did a great job and we tipped well.
The other interesting thing is that we ordered beers, and the waiter asked us if we wanted the beers before the meal. I’d never been asked that before, and I realized that Georgians and Americans(/Canadians/Brits) are working on not only different service customs, but also different drinking customs, and therefore we were both making different sets of assumptions about when drinks should come. This waiter was the first person to explicitly address the issue, and it made me realize that not serving drinks right away is not some weird quirk of Georgian service – it’s actually perfectly attuned to the Georgian habit of not drinking without food. Of course Georgians don’t start drinking without some food on the table, and so of course the waiters don’t bring the beers until the food is out or almost out. The beers would just get warm.
On the other hand, we’re so used to drinking while we wait for our meals that it seems not just strange, but rude and/or incompetent, that waiters make us sit and wait with nothing on the table until our food is out. How many complaints about Georgian service could be avoided if expats knew that all they had to do is ask explicitly for their drinks to come out right away, and they would? In any case, again, it’s super cool that this waiter was hip to that cultural difference and knew to ask us if we’d like our beers before our meal.
Oh, and of course, the food: the kharcho was great – the veal was not too fatty and there were no bone shards; the spice was on the mild end of what we like but still noticeable, and the overall flavor was fantastic. My friends also shared a kuchmachi, and said it was very good as well. The prices were reasonable for everything, including the beer. And, the decor of the restaurant was beautiful – art and decorative plates were hung on the walls and there were cool stained-glass windows depicting Georgian cultural scenes, like dancing.
Aside from the great restaurant experience, I also noticed that Zugdidi and the surrounding region was more colorful than the rest of the country. It seemed like many of the houses were decorated and care had been taken to make the outside look attractive and maintained – this is a sharp contrast to what I have come to expect, which is dilapidated exteriors that belie their beautifully-renovated insides. There were also a few houses that were colored in pastels! What!
Not just the houses, though – the clothes were so colorful that they were almost garish at times. One couple who came into the restaurant would not have looked out of place among the cast of Saved by the Bell. It’s an incorrect stereotype that all Tbilisians wear all black all the time, but Tbilisi does tend mostly towards darker and more muted colors (although bright red pants on women seem to be in now) and the difference in Zugdidi was notable.
Stray observation: Zugdidi had several stores named “boom” – there was a coffee boom and a techno boom, and another one, if I remember correctly. I don’t know why they like the word “boom” in Zugdidi, but that was interesting.
Finally, in Samegrelo we saw a sight none of us had ever before seen in Georgia: a person was rollerblading. Just rollerblading down the street, like you do, except in Georgia. Yeah, Zugdidi is awesome.
In conclusion, if you’re in the neighborhood, I recommend getting lunch in Zugdidi.