A version of this post was published by Intrepid Travel. Read it here.
Without knowing much about Georgia (the country), it’s easy to dismiss Georgian food as some variety of Russian: heavy, stodgy, and bland. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Georgian cuisine, like every other aspect of the culture, is independent from Russia, fiercely regional, and probably unlike anything you’ve experienced before.
Georgian food takes flavour cues from neighbouring cuisines, especially Persian, Armenian and Turkish influences. And while red meat, dairy and carbs do feature heavily, it’s complimented by a liberal use of spices, aromatics and fresh herbs. Thanks to its Mediterranean-like climate, a lot grows in Georgia, so fruit and veg is super fresh. A huge variety of regional specialties means you’ll never have to eat the same thing twice – unless you find a few dishes you really love and order them repeatedly like we did.
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While I’m no expert on Georgian cuisine (or any kind of food for that matter), I did spend 30-plus days in Tbilisi, eating out at least twice daily and trying as many different dishes as I could. This posts reflects that research and is totally biased towards my own food preferences. If you’re visiting Tbilisi for the first time with little or no background knowledge about Georgian cooking, you might find this information helpful. For more general tips about eating out in Tbilisi (and believe me, there are certain things you should know), you might be interested in reading this post too.
If you’ve any hope of wrapping your head around Georgian food, it’s vital to first get a handle on the ingredients. The best place for this is the Dezerter Bazaar, Tbilisi’s biggest fresh food market. The abundance and variety of produce available at the market is simply stunning. Look out for these staple Georgian ingredients and when eating out, lean towards dishes that incorporate them:
- Eggplant (aubergine)
- Kidney beans
- Sulguni cheese
- Matsoni yogurt
- Blue fenugreek
Pork and chicken are the proteins you’ll encounter most often, with dishes like khinkali typically using a mix of pork and veal. On that note, Georgian cooking is pretty meat-centric, but vegetarians shouldn’t have any trouble finding meat-free options at most eateries (more on that here). Gluten or lactose intolerant diners might have a trickier time.
MUST-TRY GEORGIAN DISHES
It would be a culinary crime to travel to Tbilisi without trying at least a few of these Georgian specialties…
Khinkali dumplings are probably Georgia’s most famous food export. Reminiscent of Chinese soup dumplings and thought to have arrived in Georgia via Mongolia, khinkali are traditionally made and eaten in the mountains. Lots of different flavour combinations exist; when in doubt, ask for khinkali kalakuri, which are filled with veal/pork and herbs.
Khatchapuri is a versatile bread dish. A traditional khatchapuri resembles an open pizza topped with nothing but salty sulguni cheese. Adjarian khatchapuri is the most recognisable (and indulgent) version; it’s served open with a raw egg yolk and a small stick of butter on top.
Georgian barbecue, or shashlik, is a hugely popular dish that you’ll find on most restaurant menus. Pork, beef and chicken are lightly marinated and cooked over an open fire kebab-style. Served charred, often with a sprinkle of pomegranate gems on top, shashlik is best eaten with sour plum sauce.
My absolute favourite Georgian dish also happens to be one of the simplest. A traditional Georgian salad consists of thick wedges of tomato and cucumber dressed with oil (Kakhetian oil if it’s a quality establishment), fresh herbs and walnut sauce. It’s the sauce that makes it, so always opt in if it’s an extra. Simple but tasty and highly addictive – good thing it’s healthy.
Eggplant with walnut was our go-to entree while in Georgia – I don’t think we ever ate out without ordering at least one serve. Thin, smoky slices of eggplant are spread with walnut paste, either rolled into roses or folded and finished with a sprinkle of pomegranate.
Ojakhuri is a great go-to dish if you’re not sure what to order. It’s basically a sizzling plate of meat (pork, beef or chicken) cooked with lots of onion and small pieces of potato. My only complaint: Ojakhuri is served in the same pan it’s cooked in and can be quite oily as a result.
I love garlic, so it’s no wonder I developed a mild addiction to shkmeruli, Georgian garlic chicken. The super rich, creamy sauce is made from little more than yogurt and garlic. Yum.
Kharcho is technically classified as a soup but whenever we ate it, the consistency was more like a saucy curry. Made with beef, plum puree and lots of walnuts, I often refer to this dish as ‘Georgian satay’.
Chikhirtma, Georgia’s answer to chicken soup, is a deliciously rich chicken broth threaded with egg white and hit with a citrus kick. It’s usually served with a big hunk of meat at the bottom of the bowl – de-boned if you’re lucky – and bread on the side, of course. Another of my favourites.
Nicknamed ‘hangover soup’ and famed for its curative properties, khachi is a gnarly broth cooked with pork offal.
Usually served as a set of three colourful mounds, pkhali is one of Georgia’s more vibrant, prettier dishes. The thick, chunky paste (it’s a lot like a dip) is made from leaves (beetroot leaves, spinach, etc.), and eaten with bread.
Gomi (polenta) is a classic Georgian side dish. We tried gomi cooked three ways: Served soft and warm with pieces of sulguni cheese pressed into it (plain gomi); rolled into balls, crumbed and fried (elarji); or pressed into a small cake and fried (mchadi).
Lobio (kidney beans) is another Georgian classic, cooked and served in a single-serve clay pot. Reduced down to a thick stew and packed with herbs and spices, it’s a lot tastier than it sounds. Look out for lobio Racha, which is cooked with ham hock.
WHERE TO EAT IN TBILISI (AND WHAT YOU SHOULD ORDER)
There are way too many restaurants in Tbilisi to try them all, so here is a short selection of my favourites. Most have beautiful interiors and great atmosphere; all serve delicious food.
FAST GEORGIAN FOOD
You can find branches of this chain restaurant (many of them open 24 hours) across the city. The quality of food isn’t fantastic, but the convenience factor makes up for it.
Recommended: Cold salads; ojakhuri.
114 Akaki Tsereteli Ave
Recommended: Anything from the worker’s diner cold cabinet (salted fish; eggplant with walnut; cottage cheese).
Aghmashenebeli Ave (under the old Apolo Cinema)
Recommended: Megrelian elarji and kharcho.
7 V. Gorgasali St (near the Abanotubani baths)
Recommended: Khinkali; pork shashlik.
3 Right Bank, Mshrali Bridge (under the Dry Bridge)
Recommended: Chicken shashlik; khinkali (the best in Tbilisi).
2 Lagidze St (opposite the Opera House)
Recommended: Georgian salad (the best in Tbilisi); cottage chicken.
Kustba Rd (close to the Ethnography Museum)
Recommended: Eggplant with walnut (the best in Tbilisi); lobio with ham.
132 Aghmashenebeli Ave
Recommended: Churchkela-inspired cake.
5 Kote Afkhazi I Dead End
Recommended: Katchapuri on a spit; veal in walnut sauce.
28 Z. Kvlividze St
Recommended: Beef with pomegranate sauce and mash; trout with fresh orange and spiced pilaf.
1 Abo Tbileli St
Recommended: Georgian or Ukrainian set lunch (the only set lunch deal we encountered in Tbilisi).
Sirajkana Wine Restaurant
8/10 V. Orbeliani St (in the Museum Hotel Orbeliani cellar)
Recommended: Fresh grape salad; Kakhetian mushrooms.
Keto and Kote
3 Mikheil Zandukeli Dead End (on the hill behind Rustaveli metro)
Recommended: Georgian salad served with a thick walnut sauce on the side, a big hunk of sulguni and a glorious piece of freshly baked bread.
16 Geronti Kikodze St
Recommended: Assorted pkhali; meatballs in cheesy tomato sauce.
Sofia Melnikovas Fantastiuri Douqan
8 Gia Chanturia St
Recommended: Khinkali; blue cheese burger with Georgian pickles.
HEALTHY & VEGETARIAN
23 Abano St, Abanotubani
Recommended: We ate at this branch of Culinarium twice, and everything we ordered was top-notch. We particularly liked the chikhirtma and the fried potatoes. The ‘hangover’ khashi is the chef’s specialty.
15 Giorgi Akhvlediani St
Recommended: House-made cakes and coffee (in my opinion, Mukha serve up one of Tbilisi’s best lattes).
Kiwi Vegan Cafe
6 Ivane Machabeli St
(We never ate at Kiwi, but I’m including it on this list because it’s Tbilisi’s first (and maybe only) vegan cafe).
Like every big city these days, Tbilisi has cafes and restaurants that serve up just about every cuisine under the sun. Turkish, Arabic and Italian are best represented – and there’s a light smattering of Asian restaurants, including the popular Fire Wok chain. We found enough variety in Georgian cooking to only eat non-Georgian food once or twice a week. My favourite European cafe-style meals were all eaten at Fabrika: I recommend the house-made pasta at the Fabrika bar, and the burgers at PIPES Burger Joint, which is located in the Fabrika courtyard.
Finding a good breakfast in Tbilisi – a city with no breakfast or brunch culture – is a whole other story. If you can’t eat at your accommodation, my top picks are the drop-in buffet at Fabrika and Rooms Hotel. For something lighter, there’s Brotmeister, a wonderful Austrian bakery.
Planning to eat your way across Georgia’s capital like we did? See this post for practical advice about eating out in Tbilisi.
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Featured image by Barbarestan. All other photos by me.