10 Surprising Facts You Need to Know About Eating at Bulgarian Restaurants

Numerous Bulgarian restaurants offer the opportunity to taste traditional and regional specialties. 

During our three month-stay in Bulgaria, 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.

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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 into the night. 

At restaurants, you’ll often find families and friends dining together in large groups. 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 with onions, mushrooms and peppers.

For the non-meat eaters, there is a vegetable sache. In a similar fashion, this is a mix of vegetables served on a hot sizzling pan. 

The common vegetables are roasted peppers, zucchini, eggplants, tomatoes, onions served with potatoes.

Expect to find several menu items which include platters of salads, meat, vegetables, dessert, and more, at traditional Bulgarian restaurants.

Vegetable Sache served at a Bulgarian Restaurant AuthenticfoodquestGenerous serving of sache sizzling vegetables

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 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 if the dish is for single portion or for sharing.

Menu in Bulgarian Restaurants by AuthenticFoodQuestTypical menu in Bulgaria

3 – Eat like a Local and Order a Salad to Start

When it comes to meals, Bulgarian usually start out with a fresh salad. 

Even if traditional Bulgarian dishes can be filling, you might want to follow the same local habit and choose a salad to start.

Waiters also expect you to order a salad, and the most common is the traditional shopska salad

The shopska salad is emblematic to Bulgaria. It is a tomato salad made with the delicious pink tomato from the country. 

With the tomatoes comes cucumbers and a healthy serving of Bulgarian white cheese called sirene. 

Ordering a salad before your main meal gives the kitchen time to prepare your order. 

As we’ll talk more below, Bulgarian kitchens are not the most organized. A salad order helps keep your stomach from grumbling as you wait for your main dish.

One additional tip is don’t hesitate to ask for olive oil to go with your salad. Usually you will have a set of salt, pepper, sunflower oil and vinegar on the table.

To get olive oil, you will need to ask for it. Just ask for “zekhtin” pronounced “cetin”.

Shopska Salad at Restaurants in Bulgaria Authenticfoodquest.comA shopska salad is a great way to start your Bulgarian meal

4 – No Tap Water on the Table

Getting tap water at restaurants 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 Bulgaria, you are rarely served tap water at restaurants. 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.

Sparkling Mineral Water at a Bulgarian Restaurant AuthenticFoodQuestFresh and bubbly Bulgarian mineral water

5 – Don’t Be Afraid of Homemade Wine 

On our first evening in Bansko, located in the Pirin Mountains, we went to a traditional Bulgarian restaurant and were offered homemade red wine. 

When the friendly waitress saw our raised eyebrows, she reassured us, and told us: “it is really good.”

We both wondered: “What is homemade wine ?” 

Up for the adventure, we said, yes.  And we were glad we did. Our waitress was right, the homemade wine was an easy to drink table wine.

We later learned about Bulgaria’s 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 very rudimentary process, there is pride taken in this milenia old craft. 

One thing to note is that homemade wine do 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 homemade wine at Bulgarian restaurants.

Related: Read more about Bulgarian wines in our article Melnik wines and wineries

Homemade wine at Bulgarian Restaurants Authenticfoodquest.comTwo generous glasses of homemade red wine

6- Smoking Happens 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 is 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, we sat down at a table for two. 

Next to us was a large table for about eight people. 

When we arrived, the large table was open and we relished our time together sipping homemade wine on the outdoor patio.

Shortly after, a group of Bulgarian’s came in, probably two families, comprised of four adults, two toddlers and the elderly parents of one of the couples. 

Unsurprisingly, after getting seated, all the adults lit up their cigarettes.

At this point, we had just received our salads and had to contend with smoke filling up the air.

Irritated, we waited patiently for the table to receive their salads and looked forward to them stubbing out their cigarettes and eating. 

To our surprise, the men and in particular the eldest one continued smoking.

It was particularly fascinating to watch the skill involved in chewing food between puffs of smoke.

Although there were children at the table and food on the plates, the smoking was ongoing. 

Be prepared to deal with the smoke at traditional restaurants (typically referred to as Mehana), and sometimes even indoors.

Don’t assume the presence of food or even babies, will break the smoking habit.

Ashtrays in Bulgarian Restaurants Authenticfoodquest.comAshtrays are a popular feature on Bulgarian restaurant tables

7 – Service Can Be Spotty

When it comes to eating at Bulgarian restaurants, adjust 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.

In Bansko, we had lunch at a popular restaurants in the center.

We once had a pretty miserable experience with a waiter who acted like she didn’t want to serve us. 

Another time, at the same place, the service was friendly and food tasty.

Generally, when a waiter is not confident with their English, they are reluctant to serve the table.

It’s really a hit or miss. 

Several Bulgarian friends shared similar stories about poor restaurant service experiences.

Even local chefs confirmed that the service needs to be improved.

One thing to know is that Bulgarian 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.

Waiter at Bulgarian Restaurants AuthenticFoodQuestSkilled waiter serving the local chicken skewer

9 – Groups – Don’t Expect to Be Served at the Same Time

Relatedly, it is hard for Bulgarian restaurants to handle large groups. And by large, we are only talking about more than four people.

We had several experiences at small restaurants or larger venues, where group serving was chaotic. We saw the same trend in the main cities as well as in smaller towns.

Even though everyone places their order at the same time, there is a significant time difference between when the first and the last person gets their meal. 

We once had to wait over three hours for everyone in our group to eat.  With the size, refills on drinks or special orders also often go unnoticed.

Ultimately, eating in groups creates headaches that few Bulgarian restaurants can handle. 

However, if you are planning to have a party of four or more people, always make a point to let the restaurant know about it in advance.

Group at Restaurants in Bulgaria Authenticfoodquest.comIt is rare when the service goes smoothly with groups in Bulgaria

8 – Food in Bulgarian Restaurants Doesn’t Come out at the Same Time

As we noted earlier, kitchens in Bulgaria are not always the most organized. 

We noticed after eating at several different eateries that the food does not come in any particular order.

Some of the most popular local dishes are grilled meat or fish. Typically, you order the meat or fish with several sides.

Generally, we would order a serving of grilled meat with fries and a side of grilled vegetables.

On several occasions, we would be served the fries first and then have to wait for the meat and vegetables.

Other times, the meat would come first and we’d have to wait for the fries and vegetables.

There is no particular sequence to the food. And, if you choose to wait for everything to come out before you start eating, you’ll be eating a cold meal.

The one tip found to improve the sequence in which the food comes out is to order a salad first.

That way, the kitchen has time to prepare the other warm dishes while you are eating.

Claire and Rosemary at a Bulgarian Restaurant by Authenticfoodquest.comClaire and Rosemary with happy faces getting their dishes at the same time

10 – Cash or Credit in Advance

At the end of the meal, servers in Bulgarian restaurants will typically ask how you prefer to pay the bill.

Although some restaurants only accept cash, we also found many where you can 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 to change your mind.

One thing to keep in mind is in smaller towns, restaurants prefer cash payments. 

Always have cash with you in case you run into the potential issue of the credit card terminal machine not working.

One last note on tipping. Although not mandatory and depending on your experience, a 5% to 10% tip is welcome.

The Bill at typical Restaurants in Bulgaria Authenticfoodquest.comTypical bill in Bulgarian restaurants
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In Summary

While visiting Bulgaria, make a point to experience traditional food at local Bulgarian restaurants. 

Traditional food in Bulgaria 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.

What about you? Have you eaten at Bulgarian restaurants before? If not, what has surprised you the most from this article? Please share your comments below.

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Pinterest picture with sache about 10facts at Bulgarian Restaurants by AuthenticFoodQuest

59 thoughts on “10 Surprising Facts You Need to Know About Eating at Bulgarian Restaurants”

  1. I am a Bulgarian, but I live in LA. This article must be older – I think the smoking is not allowed in the Bulgarian restaurants since 2012.
    The traditional Bulgarian dinner starts with a salad and usually – a small glass (50g) of local grappa. As a rule – don’t order salad if it is out of season – otherwise you will get the same “plastic” tomatoes and cucumbers you will get in Los Angeles. If you happen to be there in the winter – try the pickled salads or roasted vegies or the yogurt salad.
    I am surprised you didn’t say anything about the Bulgarian yogurt – it is hard to miss it. If you happen to go there – definitely try it.
    Another thing to be aware of is that usually in Bulgaria they don’t serve ice with the drinks. If you want ice – you will have to ask.

    Hope this is helpful.

    Reply
    • Thanks, George for stopping by. Out of curiosity, when was the last time you were in Bulgaria? Unfortunately, smoking is still an issue, especially in the mountain areas. It was prevalent in Bansko, where we spent several months in 2019. However, we didn’t see smoking in restaurants in Sofia or Plovdiv. It must differ 🙂 Did you see our other article – Bulgarian Food Guide? That’s where we talk about the must-eat dishes including the yogurt, which is phenomenal. Out of curiosity, are there any Bulgarian restaurants in LA. We found one that we went to in Chicago and were impressed with the typical Bulgarian food served. Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply
  2. Love your advice to eat like a local and start with a salad! That’s how I usually eat anyway. I’ve known nothing about Bulgarian cuisine, but you’ve definitely opened my eyes.

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  3. Very helpful tips. I can’t imagine group serving to be so bad spread over a long time. It can kill the appetite. Better to split into groups. Waiters being not fluent in English I can understand. It happens here in India too, but why would they be reluctant to serve well. That is very disappointing.

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  4. This is very interesting – and will certainly make a visit to a Bulgarian restaurant easier for first-timers.
    Being European, some facts are not such a surprise – like e.g. that you don’t get tap water automatically on your table.
    What I love is this sharing – we do that at Greek, Turkish, and Arabic restaurants as well. Somehow, it reflects the basic idea of eating TOGETHER.
    Regarding the service – I notice this in many former socialist countries: They didn’t switch to capitalism yet. You’re a guest? You wanna eat? How is that my problem? Oh, I’m the waiter – riiiight!

    Reply
    • Great points, Renata. And there really are cultural differences. We hope this guide helps manage expectations (especially with restaurant staff) so that visitors can enjoy the delicious cuisine. Thanks for stopping by.

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    • That’s absolutely correct – you can finally enjoy the experience of not being served by a slave and by a normal person 🙂 Bulgarians are still pretty much away from the Atlantic imperial ways of exploitation . After visiting the country several times I find that relieving and far from disturbing, considering on how we westerners destroy people’s life’s by so many unnecessary expectations . Go there and enjoy the food ,the people , the spontaneity, the relaxed lifestyle , the culture and the beautiful nature with less prejudices and you’d have the time of your life 🙂

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  5. I love sharing meals and sache sounds perfect. I’m all for homemade wine and will make a point to visit in the fall. Good to know the service is spotty and food doesn’t come out at the same time

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  6. Thanks for the guide, the food looks amazing! Good to know that the food comes out in a, shall we say, staggered fashion. The starter salad looks amazing and a great way to get ready for a hefty meal. I’d love to try the homemade wine. My wife loves sharing food at the table so this sounds like the perfect spot for her! Thanks for sharing!

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  7. One of the things that I love about traveling to a different country/place is the food! It’s so nice to be able to try out the local food that they have there and to just enjoy the dining experience in general. Looks like the food is amazing!

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  8. I am still thinking about why restaurants in Eastern Europe (ex-communist countries) do their menus in grams. Is it to rip of tourists? I only got scammed once doing this by ordering a steak and I got a huge steak and it was very expensive. I think that was in Bulgaria! 😛 Since then I have learnt my lesson (and had to educate myself on grams, despite being British and having this in our education system). Really do hate this when restaurants do this in grams.

    Reply
  9. It’s so funny — they are trying to adopt many of the shared/communal eating practices at restaurants here in LA. But it’s not a comfortable thing, as often we are combining work or romance while eating, and sharing that experience would be awkward. I’m sure I’d get used to the whole “grams” thing on the menu– particularly after the first time I got it wrong and ordered way too much! And while I’d love to try the homemade wine, I’d hate to sit anywhere near smokers. I have a horrible allergic reaction to it, and it would ruin the meal for me.

    Reply
  10. Weight indications might be surprising, but they are quite useful, especially given the fact that Bulgaria restaurants tend to give large portions. One of the reasons probably being that they like to share meals, as you said.
    Good to know that one should carry cash and stick to the stated payment method. Thanks for the tip on tipping as well. It always comes useful to know these things. 🙂

    Reply
  11. The food looks delicious, especially the Bulgarian salad. I’m sorry to learn that smoking is common in the restaurants, I’m sure that put a damper on the meal.

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  12. One of my old coworkers is actually of Bulgarian decent and she would always speak highly of her culture’s food! I love it when cultures have meals that are a shared affair – such an amazing experience.

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  13. This was really interesting to read. I never thought about other countries not giving out tap water on tables, it seems like something so normal.
    The food sounds like it can be incredible.

    Reply
  14. The tomato and cucumber salad looks delicious. I’ve never been to a Bulgarian restaurant before and had no idea that it was customary to order a salad first. Most US restaurants love for you to order appetizers first.

    Reply
    • Yes, the Shopksa salad was one of our favorites as well and it is a great starter. It also guarantees that you’ll have something in your stomach as the kitchen catches up to your order. Appreciate your feedback. Cheers.

      Reply

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