As I mentioned in one of the first blogs on this site, Jake and I are committed to eating in local places that serve food from the cuisine of the country we’re in. There is very little more annoying from a travel perspective than eating a overpriced crappy pizza instead of delicious local food because you didn’t start looking for a restaurant until you and your travel companions were already murderously hungry.
(Obviously I am joking. There are many more serious travel problems you might encounter. But within the context of extremely minor problems, spending 3x as much on a meh Margarita instead of a lovely local plate is unfortunate. Though ravenous travel partners turned potentially homicidal do pose a real threat – trust me, Jake would know.)
To avoid this problem, we tend to research restaurants in advance. I mean, I say ‘we.’ In practice, ‘we’ means Jake – and occasionally me. But mostly Jake.
In Bansko, this diligent pre-research led us to the Pitsinna Tavern, hidden away in a dark back street amongst a number of other small restaurants. The main streets of this tourist hotspot are full of neon signs, burgers joints and loud, tinny tunes. I mean, we did find a superior pancake cart there too and plenty of well-stocked supermarkets, but small cozy taverns were not in great supply.
We arrived at the Pitsinna Tavern and were guided to a small corner of the restaurant, where the benches were lined with cushions and the table had a sweet red candle. Menus were handed to us by a wonderful woman, who we later found out was the chef, and who preceded to order for us within five minutes of us sitting down (sadly I didn’t get her name but she was brilliant and her food was amazing).
No less than five minutes after we’d entered the restaurant, a whole meal had been planned for us without us choosing a single item. It was awesome! She knew the menu better than we did and it was clearly the kind of experience that tourists lap up.
“I made moussaka today. You like moussaka?”
I nodded. She smiled. “You have moussaka.”
Jake enquired about the lamb stew special. “Yes, the lamb is very good. You have that.” She looked at us. “Maybe a salad? It has cheese, tomato, hummus, tzatziki. It is very good. And garlic bread! Yes, garlic bread.”
We were thrilled. The food was sort of Bulgarian/Greek/Cypriot fusion, clearly due to the nationalities of the owner and chef rather than an attempt to do something hip.
Our starter arrived and it was enormous. We are people who regularly split a whole bag of pasta for dinner, with no leftovers, and we struggled with this starter, especially knowing that mains were still on their way. The garlic bread never materialised but in its place were super soft brioche type rolls that were so delicious with the red pepper hummus and tzatziki that shared the plate with the cheese and tomatoes in our starter.
Then came the moussaka and the lamb stew, which were both incredible. We were then brought a shot of Rekia, a grape brandy liqueur that is common in Bulgaria. I haven’t done a shot in a long time, especially at 8pm in a tiny rustic restaurant, and it did burn, though no more or less so than any of the other shots I’ve done (which is not a lot, but do tend to be clustered many at a time. Don’t judge me.)
I was stuffed after the mains (honestly I was so full I actually thought I might actually puke on the way home. That’s probably TMI but we don’t shy away from the gross realities of life on this blog) but suddenly another Rekia shot and some homemade apple baklava appeared in front of us. “It’s on the house,” said the owner, a man whose nametag said George but who introduced himself as Diamond. The baklava and the booze then both appeared on the bill, so I think Diamond was woefully misinformed as to what that phrase means (or trying to scam us in a minor way but they were all so kind and the food was delicious and it was so affordable anyway that we were more than happy to pay for it).
As we were eating, a group of around fourteen students arrived and took over a large table. They were friendly but loud, though we were leaving just as they were getting started with their meal. As we got up to leave, Diamond came over. “You come back tomorrow? It is a very romantic night, you need a special meal. We’ll save this booth for you.”
The following day was Valentine’s Day and our plans as they stood were to make pasta with tomato sauce in our little apartment, massage the skiing cramps out of each other’s calves and go to bed early to be up to beat the gondola queue – romance is not dead, people! However, there was clearly wiggle room in this spicy plan so we agreed to come back tomorrow. Diamond beamed at us.
We hadn’t intended to eat at the same place twice in a row but the food was amazing and whole staff were so funny and charming, it was impossible to refuse.
We turned up the next evening and Diamond offered us the menu again. As we started looking through it, he suddenly looked panicked and jumped across the restaurant. He returned with a candle. “It’s a romantic evening.”
We tried to order a few items but Diamond shook his head. “No, no, we don’t have that.” We asked about something else. “No, not that.”
As far as we can tell, the menus are totally superfluous to the food ordering process. Once it became clear that this was an inefficient ordering method, Diamond took over. “What did you have last night?”
We told him. He nodded. “No moussaka, then. You like cheese? You have cheese. You like meat? Chicken, pork, mix? Did you have mushrooms? Mushrooms are very good. I will bring you mushrooms.”
Given how much better the staff know the menu than we do, this was a perfect ordering system, though we were never sure what we were going to end up with.
Diamond asked about wine. “Red or white?”
We both chose red. He looked uncertain. “White – white is good also. I’ll bring.” He then came back with both red and white wine, yet again rendering the usual ordering process useless.
He then told us all about his time working in a winery in Cyprus, showing us not only his impressive command of English but especially his command of the word fucking, which he used with hilarious frequency. He then turned to Jake. “Did you get her a present for this special evening?”
We both tried to explain. “Well, we don’t really do that…”
Diamond looked at me. “Present. True or false?”
“Um… false. He didn’t get me a present.”
Diamond shook his head at Jake. “Fucking hell.” Then he grinned.
As we started on our first courses, which were amazing halloumi with sweet berry sauce and stuffed mushrooms (and the famous garlic bread), Diamond came back to our table. “You were here last night – you saw that big group? They were partying until two thirty in the morning!”
We figured this was a bad thing. “Oh dear. That must have been very loud.”
He shook his head. “It was amazing! I was dancing on the table all night!” This man was full of joy.
Diamond served us our mains, which were a plate of lamb chops and a huge plate of grilled meat. We tucked in. “This is delicious.”
Diamond then disappeared for many minutes, only to sidle up to the table later and slip something to Jake. That something turned out to be some fresh snowdrops in a shot glass, which he popped outside to pick. What an absolute sweetheart! “It’s not from me! It’s from him! A present on a special day.”
We were then brought another plate of baklava, a glass of Baileys and some whiskey – all “on the house,” of course, which still meant on the bill. We had avoided food for literally seven hours prior to dinner in order to have space for this meal, and while we fared better than the evening before, we still struggled. This place gives you a lot of food. Be prepared.
We had two amazing evenings at the Pitsinna Tavern. I don’t review a lot of restaurants on here, but sometimes a particular place is so special that you really want to share. If by some odd coincidence or strange twist of fate you find yourself in Bansko, looking for a good meal – go to this restaurant. You won’t get to order, you’ll have to pay for anything that is given to you ‘on the house’ and you will be plied with alcohol, but the food is wonderful and you will smile the whole time. Not bad for two evenings in the Bulgarian mountains.