Maybe what you need is a full meal instead, and for this Bucharest is well-equipped. To experience the fascinating mix of Mediterranean and Slavic that is Romanian cuisine, tourists head often to Caru’ Cu Bere (Strada Stavropoleos 5. Tel: +40-726-282-373. www.carucubere.ro), touted as Bucharest’s oldest restaurant, and indeed the interior is stunning with its frescoes, stained glass, and vaulted ceilings. Or they’ll check out Hanu’ Lui Manuc (Strada Franceză 62-64. Tel: +40-730-188-653. www.hanumanucrestaurant.ro), whose vast courtyard is reason enough to visit, claimed to be the city’s largest. For my money, though, unassuming little Vatra (Strada Ion Brezoianu 19. Tel: +40-21-315-8375. www.vatra.ro), nearby but not as much on the tourist radar, is the best in town both for service and cuisine (this is confirmed by my friend Andrei, who certainly knows good Romanian food). It’s a beautiful spot, with walls covered in traditional Romanian textiles and shelves holding an array of ceramics. The food is amazing, from a Romanian cheese plate (washed down with Sauvignon Blanc from Romanian winery Serve) to such traditional dishes as sarmale (stuffed cabbage leaves). Dessert? Papanasi (a doughnut-type pastry smothered in sour cream and sour cherries) sends me right to heaven. Also around the historic center, I love tiny Trofic (Strada Ion Brezoianu 29A. Tel: +40-751-276-600. www.facebook.com/troficfood), open for breakfast and lunch, with just a handful of tables, lovely staff, and a small but delectable selection. Nearby Energeia (Strada Ion Brezoianu 4. Tel: +40-736-374-432. www.energiea.ro) is a hiplittle bistro in a former print shop (with sidewalk tables for nice weather)where you can get everything from blackberry tea-marinated salmon to pasta with mushrooms and truffles.
My two favorite restaurants lie outside the historic center. Winestone Victoriei 37 (Calea Victoriei 37. Tel: +40-21-308 8551), inside the Novotel is the furthest thing from a “hotel restaurant” imaginable, with its lavender-hued illumination of wine bottles behind the bar, sweeping street views through bay windows, and a menu ranging from a “rainbow bruschetta” (eggplant, pickled mushrooms, salami, and sausages) to Chicken Supreme (“happy chicken” in the Romanian version of the menu). With a wonderful selection of Romanian wines, it’s easy to while away the entire evening sampling great food and drink.
Further up Calea Victoriei, near the Peasant Museum, lies The Artist (Calea Victoriei 147. Tel: +40-728-318-871. www.theartist.ro), a revelation in this often culinarily stodgy town. In this gracious room subtly toned in gray and white, some of the finest food in Bucharest is being served. Each dish is a little masterpiece, from scallops with lemon, asparagus, and charcoal sour cream to cucumber sorbet served in a dish full of herbs, complete with a pestle to mash the herbs and a hot water bath poured tableside. My suggestion here: do a “degustation” and get little bites of each of the dishes. The Artist combines beautiful/impressive and delicious (along with great service) stunningly.
Have you had enough to eat? Let’s explore the nightlife. First, though, a discussion of the LGBTQ scene in general, which is, both socially and politically, behind much of Europe, according to Tiberiu Căpudean, a Bucharest photographer and board member of ACCEPT, the local LGBTQ rights organization. Politically, there’s a feeling that (not unlike the US), things are going backward rather than forward. Discrimination is illegal here, though same-sex marriage is not allowed. ACCEPT and colleagues have just won a case in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg involving a Romanian citizen who married his husband in Belgium, but Romania has refused to abide by the court’s decision. While the familiar government/church collusion has often stood in the way of progress, young people report to me that attitudes are changing among their generation. With a high rate of illiteracy and a largely rural population, notes Căpudean, it’s a challenge to move the country forward, and June’s Pride Week (which ACCEPT sponsors) tends to be, according to locals, more politically-charged than festive. Perhaps the hope lies in cultural events like Căpudean’s “Naked,” a series of photographs of naked gay men designed to combat not only homophobic stereotypes but racism, ageism, and body fascism. With the National Museum of Contemporary Art running the exhibit, it represented a major artistic visibility for the community (and has since headed to Brussels, with Paris on the horizon).
I find much hope, too, in my experience with the totally gay-friendly Party On (www.partyon.bucharestadvisors.com), an invaluable company for showing you the nightlife and more. I don’t think I’ve ever gone bar and club hopping in such a painless way, and that a young straight man like Florin would so effortlessly and enthusiastically lead me through the gay nightlife is a wonderful thing indeed. Whether it’s a “where do I go” consultation, or a guide for a night of bar hopping, just contact Party On and you can put away the GPS, the Romanian phrasebook, and the anxiety, and put yourself in the hands of the experts. Honestly, these people are the greatest, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
As Căpudean notes, “there’s one gay bar and one gay club in a city of over two million people.” We start at Thor’s Hammer (Strada Blanari 12. Tel: +40-721-503-250. www.facebook.com/thors-hammer-gay-bar-2004193999857043), that opened at the end of 2017 as Bucharest’s only gay bar. It’s a comfy, friendly spot for the community, run by Trond Bråthen, who moved here from Norway. It’s open to the street (unusual in this city of clandestine life), and Bråthen notes, “When I did this, everyone told me I was crazy, they said I was going to have all kinds of problems. I haven’t had one single problem since we opened.” With rotating displays of art by LGBT Romanian artists, and a crowd of mixed ages that mainly (though not exclusively) tilts young and male, it’s a welcome addition to the city’s nightlife scene.
For clubbing, there’s Queens Club (Blvd. Carol I 61. +40-722-754-293. www.facebook.com/queensclubbucharest), which I found pretty pleasant (though not all locals love it). It’s a long basement-y space, with concrete walls, a rainbow flag painted on one of them, a huge bar at the center, and cages in front for go-go dancers. The crowd is mainly male and mainly young, and we plunk ourselves down on a couch that’s apparently reserved for those who buy full bottles, though no one seems to object (well, it’s “early,” being just past midnight).
Many residents gravitate toward places that, while not exclusively LGBTQ, are known to be friendly, such as Macaz Bar Theatrical Coop (Moșilor 106. www.facebook.com/macazcoop), an artsy activist space that’s LGBT-welcoming (there’s a notice painted on the wall as you enter proclaiming that they do not tolerate racism, homophobia, sexism, or classism). There’s a cement-chic look to the place, with a large stage at the back where you’ll see anything from a DJ spinning tunes to a theatrical presentation to a voguing night. Then there’s the one-and-only Control Club (Strada Constantin Mille 4. Tel: +40-733-927-861. www.controlclub.ro), a gayfriendly spot (they often do events in conjunction with Pride) that’s one of the most popular clubs in town. There’s a diverse crowd here, and it’s like visiting several clubs in one (they even have a nice bistro upstairs). Put on your dancing shoes and hit the floor in one room, party around the large bar in the other, or find a spot, if you can, on the terrace, which has its own bar and by 1 A.M. is packed to the gills. It’s a club done right.
My evening of nightlife is one of the highlights of my trip to Bucharest (thanks again, Party On), but then, this city is full of surprises, and by now the surprising has become standard. There really are a lot of great things to enjoy and experience if you search them out in this city that’s maddening and delightful, sprawling and compact, beautiful and dreadful, stodgy and forward-looking. With jaw-droppingly low prices (dinner for two at a nice restaurant might cost $40), and an energy that puts many better known cities to shame, it’s a voyage into the different. As the sign on a truck I passed read: “Coffee, wine, life, everything.” Need I say more?