BUCHAREST, Romania - There's no better place in Bucharest for food or a cold drink than Caru cu Bere, a fabled restaurant in the Old City that has been serving cold beer, spicy sausages and a lot more since the last year of the 19th century.
Step into the neo-Gothic establishment that looks like it should be in a castle and you may think you are in Paris a century ago or an old-world Bavarian beer hall — except that the food and ambience are decidedly Romanian: hearty, meaty and noisy.
Jo Harris, a British visitor there for a drink with her husband one evening, was bowled over by the architecture, stained glass windows, original wooden staircases and copper pipes that keep the beer cold at the bar.
"It's busy, but you still feel relaxed. There's a buzz," she said, adding they would return the next day for dinner and folk dancing. "I know you have to make a reservation."
Eastern Europe is not known for its fine or adventurous cuisines and Romania is no exception. Restaurants serving authentic local food are few and far between in Bucharest, but Caru cu Bere (which means the beer cart) has found its market, with tasty food, fabulous architecture and competitive prices.
Opened in 1899 by three brothers who wanted to sell their uncle's beer, it soon became a magnet for Bucharest society, with playwright Ion Luca Caragiale, poet George Cosbuc and even King Carol I eating there. Nowadays, it is a protected historical monument.
"We are an emblem for Bucharest," said event manager Andra Ciubotariu. Half the clients come from Romania, she said, and the other half from countries like China, the U.S., Taiwan, Spain and France, an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people a day when it's busy.
Waiter Catalin Staicu, who served me a fluffy omelet, espresso and exquisite sour cherry jam on toast one morning, said menu favourites include pork knuckle, Moldovan stew and "sarmale" rice and meat wrapped in cabbage or vine leaves. If you fancy something sweet and unashamedly local, go for "papanasi" — deep-fried donuts — with sweet cheese and the fruitiest of jams.
The menu plays on "Bucharest of old" themes with delicacies such as the boyar's dish (boyar is an old term for nobleman) of slowly cooked mutton with a dollop of polenta, or the knight's dish, braised veal shin with horseradish sauce. There is also a dish named for Bucur the shepherd, who legend says founded Bucharest, consisting of zucchini stuffed with a rice mixture, served with the sour cream that's a ubiquitous staple in Eastern Europe.
Every Sunday, they make a special fish soup for 14.5 lei ($4.50), and retirees can eat for a song ($3) if they show ID. Affordable lunches reflect the professions once found in the Old City: the hat maker's lunch, the glassmaker's lunch and, of course, the beer brewer's lunch.
On a summer morning before the lunchtime rush, diners can sit outside and gaze down at the ornate Cec building, a grand Beaux Arts structure on Calea Victoriei, or turn right and see Stavropoleos Church, built in 1724 and one of picturesque churches in the capital. On cold winter evenings, the downstairs cellar is crammed with noisy diners.
If You Go...
CARU CU BERE: Strada Stavropoleos 5, Bucarest, Romania; http://www.carucubere.ro/ro/ . Open daily 8 a.m.-midnight.