Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.
Bojan Bočvarov had a secret. It was almost too much for the dimpled 39-year-old to bear as he motored up a narrow road on a leafy residential hillside in central Belgrade. He could have taken my wife, Rikki, and me anywhere. Having just landed, we were jet-lagged and famished, easy to please. But Bojan had something special in mind. “This is a very low-known restaurant,” he confided with a devilish smile.
We had good reason to trust him. As the executive chef of a prosperous international restaurant group, Bojan knew the food scene in his home city well. But it wasn’t always that way. He, like many his age, had fled the country in the late 1990s to escape nationalism, war, and the hard times that would follow.
He found work in fancy European kitchens and learned how to cook. A decade ago, he moved back home, joined the restaurant group, and soon was creating menus at Toro Latin GastroBar, a hip tapas spot on the banks of the Sava River in Belgrade, and Ambar, a popular Balkan restaurant in Washington, D.C., among other top-flight eateries. He and his colleagues took pride in exporting Serbian culture to the United States, while importing global cuisine to Serbia: Culinary cosmopolitanism felt like an antidote against the worst of their country’s past and a way of recapturing the best.
Coming around the next bend, Bojan gave a start. He saw a dozen cars, triple- and quadruple-parked in front of what appeared to be a simple home with a terra-cotta roof. It was the restaurant Stari Mlin, or “Old Mill.” His secret was apparently out. Blocking everyone in, he left a business card on his dashboard, in case anyone had to leave. Though he was doubtful. Serbians were doing “slow food” long before it was cool, he said.
We took a wooden table outside, in the shade of a walnut tree. It was a cloudless spring afternoon. A waiter appeared with bud vases full of šlivovitz, a homemade plum rakija (brandy) that served as a sort of fermented currency throughout the former Yugoslavia. We raised our glasses, clinked, and took tiny sips of the not-so-subtle alcohol. Rikki coughed. My eyes watered. “It’s a bit strong,” Bojan said, smiling.
“We also have apricot, quince, and grape,” said Dušan Dordevič, the owner of Stari Mlin. A girthy, grandfatherly type with a hand-broom mustache, Dušan stocked his kitchen with whatever appealed to him in the market that morning. He didn’t bother with a menu. Did we have any food restrictions? None. “And you have enough time?” he asked.
“We’re in your hands,” I said.
“Believe in my kilos!” he replied, patting his waist.
He returned a few minutes later with four types of crostini, including pašteta, a pâté, and urnebes, a spicy pepper and cheese blend. Then came an addictive curd spread called kaymak. Across the patio, some revelers celebrated a birthday, regaled by a guitarist and an accordionist playing traditional Serbian songs.
Plates of foods began to arrive. “We continue with the beans, our way,” Dušan said, presenting a scalding dish of prebranac made with white beans, onions, and leeks. He made it seem like he had been doing this his entire life, but Dušan came to the restaurant business late, almost by accident. A trained economist, he lived in Belgrade until the late ’90s, when the economy tanked. “In our country, you know, it was very stupid things,” he said, shaking his head. Those stupid things included the rise of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević; Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks killing one another; economic sanctions; war in Kosovo; and the NATO bombing of what was then Yugoslavia. And they fed Belgrade’s reputation as the capital of a bullying, intolerant pariah state. Trade dried up, at least until the revolution that toppled Milošević in 2000.
Having fled to the countryside, Dušan finally returned to Belgrade in 2010. The wars were over, life was beginning to normalize, and he had a concept in mind for a kafana, or tavern, where he could re-create some of his mother’s recipes. Of course, he added, with a sly grin, “There’s always a secret ingredient. Some small touch.”
A cast-iron dish of ribič—slow-cooked beef shank so tender it flaked in my mouth like cod—arrived next, paired, on Dušan’s advice, with a rich, inky blend of cabernet sauvignon and vranac, a regional varietal from Trebinje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The wine reminded me of the luscious priorats from Catalonia.
As the afternoon wore on, the birthday party turned increasingly lively; when the guitarist and accordionist struck the opening chords of a crooner’s ballad called “Skitnica,” several celebrants joined arms and sang along. “These guys are making a lot of money today,” Bojan said, nodding at the musicians. “When you’re drunk at a kafana, you always lose so much money, because you’re like, ‘This is my song!’ ”
The cars were all still there when we finally left, after a three-hour meal.
Nearly 600 years ago, the Hungarians reclaimed Belgrade from the despot Stefan Lazarević, who had ruled over the city for 24 years. For the next century the Ottomans attempted to seize power, eventually succeeding in 1521 and gaining control of the city. It carried on like this; Belgrade, and the broader Balkan peninsula, was a land of bloodshed and strife.
They were awful times. And yet Belgrade’s history of disharmony has contributed to its appeal today. It is culturally diverse and relatively free of Western commercialism, a city whose history feels both canonical and unsettled, the capital of a country reckoning with a troubled past as it embarks on an uncertain future.
Driving through the city center, Bojan singled out a pair of crumbling brick buildings. “You can see where the bomb went,” he said, pointing to the spot where NATO warplanes targeted the defense ministry in 1999 to halt Milošević’s genocidal campaign in Kosovo. The ruins are, for some, a potent symbol of shame and tumult but for others a totem of identity, and perhaps intent—a propaganda piece about Serbia’s unfinished business with Kosovo.
Indeed, contested history was what first brought me to Belgrade. In 2012, I was there on assignment for the New Yorker, working on a story about war crimes, to interview a Kosovar Albanian in Serbia’s witness protection program who claimed to have harvested organs from dead Serbian prisoners. (Only later did I discover that the witness had a record of providing false testimony.) The imagery associated with that story was dark and grotesque, and I projected that baroque rawness onto Belgrade. But in the years after that, I met a number of thirty- and fortysomething Belgradians who gushed over their city, describing it in ways that made it sound almost foreign to the one I had briefly encountered: A thumping nightlife. Enviable restaurants. A city on the mend.
‘We eat fatty foods. We drink. We shout. We are loud talkers.’
Belgrade owed much of its reputational rehab to ambassadors like Bojan, who when we met, was just back from six weeks in the States. He and his Serbian partners were opening a taco joint near Washington, D.C., to go along with their two Balkan restaurants there. Their enthusiasm about exposing people to new tastes was unmistakable. That’s what had drawn me back to Belgrade:
I wanted to witness its cosmopolitan turn.
What I saw during this trip was more subtle. Sure, there were new ideas, imported by Serbians such as Bojan who had taken advantage of the country’s newfound openness and traveled the world. But Belgrade was still Belgrade. Bojan said living in the city often felt like living in a time capsule. The unexpected gift of his travels, however, was that he was finally able to appreciate the city’s Old-World side.
“Things here are very retro,” he said, over a heaping sausage platter, the following day. “People with dirty hands, mud under their nails. The speed of the world hasn’t caught up with the Balkans.” Bojan relayed the story he was told as a youngster, about the first time his dad met his future mother-in-law. Bojan’s grandmother didn’t mess around: “She told [my father], ‘We eat fatty foods. We drink. We shout. We are loud talkers.’”
Swabbing his finger in a puddle of salty oil at the bottom of the sausage platter, Bojan said, “This is the Serbian way.”
Several days—and too many rakija shots—later, we were on our way to a village outside of Belgrade when it began to hail. Our destination was Atelje Vina Šapat, a hilltop winery and bed-and-breakfast. Marko Vilotijević, the general manager at Ambar and Toro Latin GastroBar, gripped the wheel with both hands. The hailstorm made his car sound like the inside of a popcorn bag. “This is a big problem for our fruits,” he said, wincing.
A husky man with a scholar’s knowledge and a barfly’s appreciation of good drink, he went on, “Nobody talks about our wines, but if you take the world and put the line”—a latitudinal axis—“from here, it goes through Tuscany to the Napa Valley.” (Close enough. Napa’s latitude is actually about five degrees south of Florence and six degrees south of Belgrade.)
But 70 years ago, he said, Serbian vineyards were producing respectable wines. Then, in 1948, the government nationalized all industry, including wineries. Quality plummeted. By the ’90s, there were fewer than 10 wineries in Serbia, he said. Today, there are nearly 500.
“Our wines are very young. They smell of fresh fruits,” he said, driving past apple and pear orchards edged with red poppies and elderberry trees. As we approached Atelje Vina Šapat, a pair of beekeepers in cream-colored suits and wide-brim hats emerged from a leafy patch that presumably housed their bees.
This, Marko said, was a pride of Serbia: natural foods. Out here, in the Serbian countryside, “They feel what is organic and what is not,” he told me. “We don’t say organic. We say from the village. The eggs in my house? They’re yellow, yellow, yellow. When I buy different eggs, my son is like, ‘I don’t want to eat that.’ You don’t need a stamp to know what’s organic.”
When we reached the winery, Tanja Mrčić, the winemaker, and Nada Vukovic, the marketing director, greeted us with glasses of grappa. Afterwards, to cleanse our palates, we had a nibble of cheese with a ribbon of cucumber around it. Tanja and Nada led us into the winery’s cellar—rows of oak barrels, steel tanks standing sentinel. Tanja opened the spout at the base of one tank and filled our glasses with that year’s chardonnay-muscat blend.
“This is a summer wine,” Nada said. Marko buried his nose in the glass, noting, “You can feel the peach and the chamomile.” He went on, his eyebrows raised: “Can you imagine this with a couple of years?”
Later, in Atelje Vina Šapat’s restaurant, we sat at a round table with a white tablecloth and sweeping views of the vineyard. Our multicourse lunch started with a grilled Halloumi cheese that squeaked in my mouth, served with a smoky tomato jam and a bright peppermint pesto. At the bottom of the hill, the Danube snaked past.
After lunch, Marko lit a cigar and asked a waiter to top off his cabernet. “We like to sit at the dinner table for five, six hours,” he said, waving his cigar.
As we were getting up to leave, Nada, pulling her denim jacket over her shoulders, joked that even her makeup habits were subject to Serbia’s slow food tradition. “I tell my friends, ‘I’m not going out unless we stay out for 12 hours.’ I don’t want to put on makeup for just two hours,” she said. “Twelve hours?” I asked. “When you go out in Serbia, you never really know,” she said. “It’s all so spontaneous.”
In the car, Marko detailed Belgrade’s nocturnal habits: late dinners, dancing in nightclubs until 4 or 5 a.m., after-parties that wrap up with the sun, after-after-parties that bleed into brunch. Just the idea of staying up past midnight made me tired. Marko dropped us back at our hotel to take a nap; he went to put in a long shift behind the bar at Toro.
We met a Serbian couple, Nenad and Sonja, for dinner at Toro later that night. A DJ was spinning down-tempo tracks when we entered the fashionable spot. Marko showed us to our table and sent over margaritas, along with artful plates of shrimp ceviche, tuna tartare, and coconut empanadas. Each was more delicious than the last. But I couldn’t help feeling oddly unmoved.
The truth was, I could eat tacos anywhere. I had come here to write about Belgrade opening up to the world, but there was something more special about enjoying these traditional, I daresay, provincial recipes, perfected by a generation of war-weary restaurateurs with a newfound appreciation of home. I asked if we might go somewhere else. Not far. Just next door, to Ambar. We ordered ćevapi (a type of sausage) and praseće (pork roulade) and kaymak (that captivating curd spread), and I savored every bite.
After dinner, we went to a club in a formerly industrial area known as Savamala. Waitresses in heavy mascara floated through the crowd with their cocktail trays aloft. Disco balls hung from the rafters. Garage beats thumped. By the time we left, at 2 a.m., the line to get inside stretched out the door and onto the sidewalk.
If we liked that, Nenad said, we had to come back for Serbia’s huge annual electronic music festival, which draws some of the biggest acts from around the world.
We’d certainly think about it, I said. But less for the DJs. More for the kaymak.