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Bulgarian restaurants offer the opportunity to taste traditional foods and regional specialties and to learn more about Bulgarian culture.
During our several months-long stay, we observed a few surprising things while eating at restaurants in Bulgaria.
From the menu to eating in groups, as well as the payment mode, there are a few things you want to be aware of ahead of time.
To make the most of your restaurant experiences in Bulgaria, here are ten surprising facts about eating at Bulgarian restaurants.
1. Food in Bulgaria Is a Shared Affair
In Bulgaria, people love to eat and share meals together. Dinner is traditionally the largest meal of the day and can extend way into the night.
At restaurants, you’ll often find families and friends dining together. As such, many dishes on restaurant menus lend themselves to sharing.
One of the most popular traditional dishes is sache. Sache is a large serving of sizzling meat served on a large iron plate at your table.
The meat is generally a combination of pork, sausages, and chicken. This is often accompanied by onions, mushrooms, and peppers.
For the non-meat eaters, there is a vegetable sache. In a similar fashion, this is a mix of vegetables like roasted peppers, zucchini, eggplants, tomatoes, and onions served in a hot sizzling pan.
Expect to find several menu items which include platters of salads, meat, vegetables, and dessert at traditional Bulgarian restaurants.
2. Restaurant Menus List Food in Grams
In Bulgaria, most restaurants offer the menu in both Bulgarian and English. As you scan through it, the first thing you’ll notice is the weight of each dish in grams, often depicted as “gr.” or “гр.”
It’s strange at first but something you’ll quickly get used to as you’ll see this practice at almost all Bulgarian restaurants.
The weight of each of the dishes is not limited only to the meat, it also applies to salads, soups, stews, and more.
This practice is actually quite helpful allowing you to match your level of hunger to the portion size.
When it comes to the meat portions, it is quite practical. For instance, grilled meat on a skewer is a very popular dish. While some skewers might weigh 100 to 150 grams, others can be 300+ grams, enough for two people.
With the weight indications, you get a better sense of how much to order, and whether the dish is for a single portion or for sharing.
3. What To Eat and What Not To Eat in Bulgarian Restaurants
Embarking on a gastronomic journey through Bulgaria promises a tapestry of flavors that reflect its rich history and diverse culture.
When it comes to dining out, knowing what to eat and what to avoid can elevate your experience.
Salads are a traditional start to any Bulgarian meal. The Shopska salad, a national dish is a medley of tomatoes, cucumbers, and grated sirene cheese, that you must try.
Another popular starter is Tarator, a chilled yogurt and cucumber soup with fresh herbs—a refreshing delight on warm days.
While Bulgaria has a wide array of traditional and local options, it’s best to steer clear of foreign dishes that may not align with the local culinary scene.
Sushi and other exotic fares may lack authenticity due to the limited availability of fresh ingredients.
Instead, embrace the regional flavors that Bulgaria offers. Opt for dishes prepared with locally sourced produce and meats to ensure an authentic experience.
4. No Tap Water on the Table
Getting tap water at restaurants is not always given and varies greatly depending on the country you are visiting.
In the U.S., tap water is expected. As soon as you sit down, a server brings a large glass of water, typically filled with ice.
While in Thailand, you’ll serve yourself filtered water from a cooler or large water vessel and get ice as needed.
In Bulgarian restaurants, you are rarely served tap water. We found it very surprising for a country that is known for having numerous mineral waters.
We learned that in Sofia, the tap water is filtered, due to contamination from the aging pipes.
But the tap water in the mountains is not only potable, it also tastes amazing. Even so, barely any Bulgarian restaurants offer tap water.
You will need to order mineral water, which fortunately is widely available and relatively cheap.
5. Be Surprised By Bulgarian Homemade Wine
Bulgaria has a long and ancient history in winemaking. Vines grow in many parts of the country, and people make their own wines at home.
Even though the winemaking process at home is often a very rudimentary process, there is pride taken in this millennia-old craft.
At the very first Bulgarian restaurant, we tried in Bansko located in the Pirin mountains, we were offered homemade red wine.
Not sure what to think, but reassured by our server telling us “It is really good,”, we said “yes” to two glasses.
Our waitress was right, the homemade wine was an easy-to-drink table wine. As you eat at Bulgarian restaurants, we recommend ordering some.
One thing to note is that homemade wine does not age well. For that reason, it is best to drink homemade wine after harvest season in September.
In any case, whatever time of the year you are in Bulgaria, don’t leave the country without trying some at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant.
6. Know that Smoking is Allowed in Bulgarian Restaurants
Smoking is a favorite Bulgarian pastime. And unfortunately, this habit has made it into restaurants.
If you’re from a country or culture where restaurants are non-smoking, you’re in for a shock in Bulgaria.
Our focus is on local and authentic dishes, and the best places to try them are in traditional Bulgarian restaurants.
This is also, regrettably, where you will encounter the most smoking in restaurants.
For example, one evening while dining at an outdoor restaurant in Bansko, a group of Bulgarians with six adults and two toddlers sat down at a table next to us.
While we were not surprised the adults lit up, the smoking was ongoing throughout their meal.
It was particularly fascinating to watch the skill involved in chewing food between puffs of smoke.
Although there were young children at the table and food on the plates, the smoking continued.
Be prepared to deal with the smoke at traditional Bulgarian restaurants, and sometimes even indoors.
7. Eating Time in Bulgaria
There is a rhythm to the eating time in Bulgaria. Lunch, known as “обяд” (obqyad), is often enjoyed between 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm.
This midday meal is cherished as a time to gather with friends and family and family and relish a hearty and balanced meal.
Dinner, known as “вечеря” (vecherq), is a more relaxed affair. This is the most important meal of the day and starts anywhere between 7:00 pm and 9:00 pm.
Similar to lunch, dinner is a social occasion where loved ones come together to unwind and enjoy each other’s company.
The evening meal is a time to savor the diverse flavors of Bulgarian cuisine, reinforcing the cultural significance of sharing meals as a communal experience.
8. Restaurant Service Can Be Spotty
When it comes to eating at Bulgarian restaurants, dial down your expectations about the service.
We found the quality of service to vary greatly from one restaurant to another. And sometimes, between one waiter to another in the same place.
Generally, when a server is not confident with their English, they are reluctant to serve the table. It’s really a hit or miss.
We experienced inconsistent restaurant service in Bulgaria, and several Bulgarian friends shared similar stories. Even local chefs confirmed that the service needs to be improved.
One important thing to know is that Bulgarians say “yes” by shaking their heads from left to right. This can often be misleading and interpreted as a negative response.
All in all, service at Bulgarian restaurants is definitely not their strongest asset.
9. Don’t Expect Food to Be Served in an Orderly Manner
Kitchens in Bulgarian restaurants are not the most organized.
We noticed after dining at several eateries that the food is not served in any particular order.
When ordering grilled meat with fries and a side of vegetables, sometimes the fries would be served the fries first, then you have to wait for the meat and vegetables.
Other times, the meat would come first, and we’d be waiting on the side dishes.
One tip to improve the sequence in which the food comes out is to order a salad first.
This gives the kitchen time to prepare the other warm dishes while you are eating.
Large groups of only four or more also seemed to throw the kitchen off. Even when everyone places their order at the same time, there is a significant time difference between the first person getting their meal and the last person served.
We once had to wait over three hours for everyone in our group to eat. From small towns to the main cities, we observed a similar pattern.
If you are planning to have a party of four or more people, make a point to let the restaurant in advance, and be prepared to have patience.
10. State Your Payment Choice in Advance (Cash or Credit)
At the end of the meal, servers in Bulgarian restaurants will typically ask how you prefer to pay the bill.
Although many restaurants only accept cash, others allow you to pay by credit card.
This simple question has big implications. Bulgarian restaurants process the bill differently depending on the mode of payment.
If you change your payment mode, you create a lot of work for your server.
At a local restaurant, we once told our waiter that we would pay our bill in cash. However, when we looked at the amount, we changed our minds and pulled out a credit card instead.
The reaction we received by changing the payment method was very surprising.
Our waiter complained that it was difficult to make the change, even though the restaurant accepts credit cards. Eventually, the waiter accepted our credit payment.
In Bulgarian restaurants, be very clear from the start on how you will pay for your meal and avoid changing your mind.
One tip is to always have cash with you in case you run into the potential issue of the credit card terminal machine not working.
Regarding tipping, although not mandatory and depending on your experience, a 5% to 10% tip is appreciated.
Frequently Asked Questions: Bulgarian Restaurant
What Time Do Bulgarians Eat Dinner?
Dinner in Bulgaria is typically eaten between 7:00 pm and 9:00 pm.
What Not to Eat in Bulgaria?
Avoid foreign dishes such as sushi, and choose meals prepared with locally sourced produce and meats.
What is Bulgaria’s Most Famous Food?
Banitsa, a savory or sweet pie is a signature Bulgarian food. Made from phyllo dough, the traditional stuffing is most commonly prepared with sirene white Bulgarian cheese. Though you’ll find varieties with onions, cabbage, spinach, mushrooms, pumpkin, apples, walnuts, and more.
What Kind of Food Is Bulgaria Known For?
Bulgarian cuisine is a fascinating mix of Mediterranean, Turkish, and Eastern European influences. Some of the foods Bulgaria is known for are known its grilled meats, Shopksa salads, exceptional local vegetables, and Bulgarian yogurt.
What is Bulgaria’s National Dish?
The Shopska salad is widely considered Bulgaria’s national dish. The three color ingredients of tomatoes, cucumbers, and white Sirene cheese pay homage to the country’s flag.
While visiting Bulgaria, make a point to experience traditional food at local Bulgarian restaurants.
Traditional Bulgarian cuisine is seasonal, fresh, and prepared with simplicity, that lets the flavors shine.
Now armed with these surprising facts about eating at Bulgarian restaurants, we hope to help you make the most of your experience.
Have you eaten at Bulgarian restaurants before? What has surprised you the most from this article? Please let us know in the comments below.
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Claire is co-founder of Authentic Food Quest and a lover of simple and exquisite cuisine. Since 2015, with her partner, Rosemary, she has been traveling the world as a digital nomad, creating content about local food experiences.
Her advice from visiting 45 countries and more than 240 food cities has been featured in Lonely Planet, Business Insider, Honest Cooking, Food Insider, and Huffington Post. She has also co-authored three books, including one in collaboration with Costa Brava Tourism.
An ex-mechanical engineer, Claire is responsible for SEO, keeping the website running, and the fun food & travel videos on YouTube.
When Claire is not eating, she can be found running or cycling. Find out more about Authentic Food Quest