I’m in a good old-fashioned pub, drinking beer over wooden tables and eating a big meal. Except that the wooden tables are covered with red checked cloth, the decor is Balkan.
Instead of a roast I’m dipping into a pile of mincemeat beef sausages fleet and imbibing shots of it rakes, the local plum brand. A music player takes a breath in a corner, his companion plays Gypsy tunes from a fiddle, people dance on tables. Welcome to the kafana.
Kafanas are the pubs of Serbia: a restaurant, a pub and a music venue operating from morning until late at night. Regulars come for a hearty breakfast before work, families throw weddings and celebrations here, business deals are cut and sorrow drowns in dark corners. They were so central to people’s daily lives that friends and the postman would come to find you at your local cafe, not your home.
There were poets, artists and singers in Kafanas, who traded their talents for sustenance
Sadly, many traditional kafanas closed in the 2000s, partly due to their reluctance to prioritize making a profit over letting regulars sit at one table all day. However, like British pubs struggling to turn to gastronomy, kafanas have adapted their offers to survive, heralding a culinary comeback. I’m following a renovated kafana tour through the heart of Belgrade to taste it barracks – regular kafana – Goran Magdić from local tour operator Taste Serbia.
We start the day with breakfast at the city’s oldest kafana Znak Pitanja, which means “the question mark”, which started as an Ottoman coffee house in the 16th century. A cozy, wood-paneled restaurant in a low building with hanging lintels above, located in front of one of the oldest churches in Belgrade. The patrons were in trouble for calling him “the bar next to the church,” and so stuck “?” and never bothered to rename it. Seated at low sofa tables, we are served Turkish coffee roasted on a brazier followed by a flaming shot of rakia – the key to Balkan longevity, I suppose. After this came omelettes and pies loaded with cheese, soft bread wrappers, fried dough uštipci and smoked meats.
This Ottoman-style Kafana is just one of the many influences found in Belgrade’s diverse streetscape, where east meets west. Ornate art nouveau and neoclassical facades are offset by megalith communist-era blocks. The kafanas, too, have emerged in three distinct styles.
Some are on the eastern side, with hearty Balkan cuisine and shrill Gypsy trumpet bands. Others are Austro-Hungarian style, serving dishes like goulash, with string instruments and an accordion setting the mood. Lately, night club-like kafanas have sprung up, which amplify traditional music into turbofolk, and attract a younger, reveling crowd.
Turbofolk later: right now I’m exploring Skadarlija, a black street that was once the bohemian quarter of the city. Here, poets, artists and singers lived at kafanas, who drew inspiration from the lively characters they encountered and traded their talents for sustenance. One of the most famous was the singer Toma Zdravković, the singer of the restaurant Dva Jelena. Ugly videos from the 1980s show him wandering from table to table covered in smoke while cheering on patrons. Now he is cast in bronze as a statue of Skadarlija, and people put flowers and cigarettes at his feet.
For a big lunch, we head to the nearby Srpska Kafana, a watering hole for the actors of the Atelje 212 theater next door. Goran tells me that Srpska would get so busy during Yugoslavia that the famous spy Zoran Radmilović, a kind of Serbian Terry Jones, would sit by the toilet cubicle if he got the place full – and entertain on everyone who was present with his comments. the “WC mafia” – the penny-pinching loo attendants of the Balkans.
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Thanks to having a table and not a Radmilović toilet, we are soaking in the juice fleet and grilled meat slathered in melt comedy (sour cream spread) served by elderly waiters in endless white shirts and black waistcoats. Serbian cuisine is meat-centric, but vegetarian options such as baked sauerkraut, grilled paprikas, and delicious soups are available. Dessert is a mix of Bosnian, Turkic and Central European: cakes filled with walnuts and dripping in syrup, baked apples.
After this, I need a post-prandial stroll around the chilled Tašmajdan park. On the way there I pause outside the red-and-white checkered telephone exchange building, and realize that it is just like a kafana.
As night falls, the kafana changes again. Lamps light up from the windows, and the music really starts. At SFRJ, a restaurant full of Yugoslav paraphernalia overlooking the Danube river, we grab a beer and look out over the city lights.
The music evokes great emotion among the local elders: hands flutter in the air and eyes begin to sparkle
It is disturbing to be surrounded by the Tito bric-a-brac because of the violent end of Yugoslavia, and the brutal role played by the Serbian paramilitaries Slobodan Milošević. Serbia has not fully accepted this dark past, and the same mentality that celebrates the transformation of war criminals today into pro-Russian bias in more than half of the population. But here there is a stand-up band wailing in the corner, the musicians playing Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian folk songs on request, as well as Yugoslav hits from the 70s. The music creates a great feeling among the old people of the place: the hands float in the air and the eyes start to sparkle after a few strong drinks.
The band returns around midnight, but I’m keen to keep the party going, so head to one of BAM’s newest “turbofolk inspired” clubs. There are snobby traditions about these spots, but to me they show how the kafana continues to evolve and capture the essence of Belgrade’s nightlife, combining hedonism and nostalgia. I reached a basement full of local legend Paganini playing: a Roma musician with an electric violin. People wear the band with cash, it’s a show act, but it’s done in the spirit of fun. The high-energy turbo beats have me dancing until the small hours. The only possible remedy the next day is a breakfast of rakia.
Taste Serbia offers a new kafana tour, starting from €60