The champions of old-style Belgrade cuisine
Dining Out : Cubura, Daco, Prolece and Vuk will give you that home from home feeling, along with giant-sized portions of meat.
Foreigners, newcomers and travellers alike tend to enjoy the old Belgrade restaurants; those boasting local regulars who have been eating there for decades, be it for good food, low prices or simply out of habit.
Once you learn to avoid the touristy Skadarlija Street, you will find less choice of traditional Serbian cuisine than you might think.
It is virtually impossible to order the same dish in Belgrade restaurants and find it to be of the same taste and quality twice in a row. Knowing that quality and haute cuisine are not their primary weapon, Belgrade restaurant owners focus more on creating a relaxed atmosphere and dishing up grandma’s favourites.
Somewhere along the line, Belgrade chefs decided to add the adjective domace, meaning domestic, to every dish made between the 1800s and the end of the 20th century. Then a fancier word – tradicionalno or traditional – came into vogue on the local restaurant scene.
Before fancy words, home deliveries and internet menus, there was Prolece. A restaurant tailored to the needs of the working class, it still has an unmistakable socialist tavern look. It has dark brown tables with thin round legs, red and white checked tablecloths and walls which look like they have fake parquet on them. Waiters are used to serving people from nearby houses and firms, as well as the few foreigners who are tipped-off about the place.
Prolece offers an incredibly long menu of daily fresh food, which is a combination of barbecue dishes and food “for the spoon”. The food is served on plain-looking white plates with a blue ribbon on the inner edge – also a relic of socialist times.
The dishes look simple, but taste good. In the winter time, they let you experiment with sauerkraut. You can combine it with any type of meat cooked in any kind of fashion. They call it podvarak and you should not miss ordering it. Most of all, however, Prolece is known for its low prices, which seem to be firmly anchored in socialist times, and its resistance to fancy-looking dishes and fancily-dressed people.
Prolece is located on the corner of Vuka Karadzica and Cara Lazara. Go casual and don’t bother reserving. The place can be packed, but they always manage to make space for hungry Belgraders.
Just a few steps away is an upmarket version of Prolece called Vuk. Belgraders who live abroad like to dine here during visits home. The reason is the spectacular barbecued meat of a quality that can rarely be found outside some of the street grill stands in the city or some of southern Serbia’s rural restaurants.
My favourite is Leskovacki cevap on kajmak (milk curd). Large meat rolls are delicately spiced and barbecued in a way that prevents the juices from simply evaporating. Once those juices are mixed with quality kajmak, you surprise yourself by eating a portion that could easily feed a couple of hungry people.
Vuk also offers stewed food. Their stewed veal with haricot beans is delicious. Different to Prolece, Vuk is pricier with some dishes costing on average a third more than across the street. While 1,000 dinars will easily feed one person in Prolece, expect to pay around 1,500 dinars for the same menu in Vuk.
The restaurant is located at Vuka Karadzica 12. It has well-divided smoking and non-smoking sections and all major credit cards are accepted. Make sure you book ahead on weekends (011 2629761).
Cubura is a beautifully worn-down place. The décor gently deteriorates with style and this is something its customers like. It is constantly full. Best known for portions lacking a sufficiently big adjective, Cubura has brisk service and fresh food.
Their ajvar is a star of the starters list, while everything meaty is more or less your only option for mains. I have to warn you in advance that the amount of food on the plate will be an instant put-off. You will be full enough if you share one portion between three adults.
You can’t spot the restaurant from the street, as it is hidden among ten or so wooden barracks. Just follow the barbecue-flavoured smoke and you’ll be fine.
The bill cares not for the local tavern atmosphere. They give you big portions, but they also charge for them. Reservations are a must (011 2440756).
Of all the restaurants in Belgrade that serve traditional food, Daco is perhaps best-known among foreigners. It is a place of contrasts. The well-decorated upmarket restaurant is hidden in a tiny cottage, half of which is underground. Another peculiarity is that it is located in the heart of the Karaburma district, which has not got the best reputation when it comes to all sorts of crime.
If that makes you uncomfortable, go there by day. This will give you the chance to admire the unique architecture of Patrisa Lumumbe Street, which looks like it crawled out of one of Dali’s nightmares.
You will also be able to see the entire grounds of the restaurant which, once you have forgotten where you are, look like a peaceful farm where everything is in its place.
Pieces of traditional furniture set around wooden benches, along with wooden water buckets, carefully woven tablecloths and a duck walking in the background make you feel like you have entered a mellow fairytale. Were it not for discreet music coming from the outdoor speakers, you could also think you were in an ethnography museum.
Nothing is left to chance inside either. From plentiful and meticulous ceiling decorations to a toothbrush in the toilet, Daco staff want you to literally feel at home.
Here you can eat many traditional dishes that are cooked in milk, which is tasty, rare and must be good for your cholesterol. If you are a more cautious sort, try the daily menu. It features stewed food and an interesting selection of meat and home-made pastry.
I recently ate an excellent lamb soup there which is offered widely around town, but only a few places get it right. They also served a chicken liver goulash with rice and barbecued oyster mushrooms, both of which were very tasty.
The goulash in particular was interesting, with the nuanced sour liver flavour counterbalancing the strong and salty bacon in the rice. Daco is also known for its exuberant vanilla slices.
Prices are not tailored to the average domestic pocket, so expect to pay at least 2,000 dinars per head for food alone. They have a good wine list and recommend you reserve in advance (Patrisa Lumumbe 49, 011 2781009, closed on Mondays).