Eating out in Tbilisi is incredibly affordable – and there’s certainly no shortage of restaurants and cafes to try. While there’s nothing majorly different about the way Tbilisi’s eateries run, there are a few things done differently in Georgia that it pays to be aware of…
When we first arrived in Tbilisi, someone advised us that there’s no real difference in the quality of food between the most basic and the fanciest of restaurants – and we’ve generally found that holds true. If you’re paying extra, it’s probably to compensate for the decor or some other perk, like live music or entertainment.
We were also warned about the quality of service in Tbilisi, and while we haven’t had any particularly bad experiences, the overall standard hasn’t exactly been great. Just remember that hospitality staff still earn low wages (read on for advice on tipping).
Opening hours are more of a suggestion than a rule, which can be a bit annoying since restaurants open so late to start with (see more on breakfast below). We have been bitterly disappointed on more than a few occasions to find the restaurant we’ve been hanging out for for hours is closed, or opening late that day, or has no gas connection (ok, that last one isn’t really their fault). I don’t know how to overcome this other than by calling ahead (or by sticking to 24-hour restaurants, of which there are a few!).
The amount of time you spend waiting for your meal can be excruciating long, so it’s a good idea to include a cold item (salad or eggplant) with your order as this will always come out first (sometimes 10 or 20 minutes ahead of anything that’s cooked to order). If you’re dining with a group, know that meals don’t arrive together, even in the poshest of restaurants.
Breakfast is not really a thing in Tbilisi. If you need to start the day with a hearty meal, it’s advisable to prepare something at home. Most workplaces don’t kick off until mid-morning (with some people starting work as late at 1pm!), so every meal is eaten a little later than most people are used to. There’s not really a breakfast or brunch culture in Tbilisi either.
Sharing is commonplace, so as long as you’re not dining alone, your waiter will assume that you’re splitting meals with your companion/s. When you order soup as a main, they might even ask if you want it divided into individual portions – very convenient if you are indeed planning to share.
Vegetarians are surprisingly well catered for in Tbilisi, with most menus offering a large selection of salads and meat-free mains. Vegans might have a more difficult time given Georgian chefs’ proclivity for butter and cream.
If you’re thinking of ordering khinkali, Georgia’s famous boiled dumplings, be aware that minimum orders apply. Most restaurants will only let you order five or more of any one variety (you can’t mix and match). Khinkali are usually priced at around 80 tetri (30 cents US) per piece; you’ll find that the cheaper they are, the bigger they come. I would never order more than 10 between two people. There is a particular way to eat khinkali – grab it by the nob of dough at the top and take a small bite first to suck out the hot liquid. It’s etiquette to leave the top knot uneaten on your plate.
Portion sizes in Tbilisi usually err on the larger side, especially for dishes like khinkali and khatchapuri. Meat is the exception to this rule – portion sizes are usually very petite. It’s something of a Georgian tradition to over order, so don’t worry too much about leaving food uneaten.
Bread is eaten with every meal – the most basic variety being labelled ‘house bread’ or something similar. If you don’t ask for it outright, most waiters will ask you whether you want to add it onto your order. It’s tempting to say yes; but be aware that when you order a single serving of house bread it might consist of eight to 10 pieces (i.e. a whole lotta carbs).
In the month we’ve been here, I’ve never seen a daily or seasonal special at a restaurant in Tbilisi. But it is possible to order off the menu in some restaurants, particularly the more up-market ones. For whatever reason, house dishes just aren’t advertised. (We’ve never tried ordering off the menu, but a local taught us this trick!)
I know that lunch specials are very popular in other parts of Europe and a favourite for hungry travellers on a tight budget – but not in Tbilisi. We’ve only encountered one restaurant with a lunch special, and that was Famous on Abo Tbileli Street (coincidentally, this was also the only place where we could view a menu before we walked in the door).
It’s commonplace to take wine or beer (or even a bottle of vodka) with every meal in Tbilisi. Most restaurants have a draught house wine (both red and white) available, and this is by far the cheapest wine option.
Remember that smoking is permitted inside cafes and restaurants in Georgia; some dining rooms are split into smoking and non-smoking sections, so make sure you choose your table wisely. Be wary of small taverna-style eateries as they tend to fill up with smoke pretty quickly.
If a restaurant charges tax, your bill will increase by 10 or 15 percent. This should be spelled out on the bottom of the menu; if in doubt, ask before your order.
Apart from the smallest local eateries, all restaurants and cafes should take credit card. Flash your plastic when you ask for the bill and the waiter will return with a portable Eftpos machine. (I think it’s just a hangover from Cambodia, but I still get a kick every time I see one of these in action.)
Tipping is not necessary (or common practice) in Tbilisi; but like most places, it’s appreciated.