Cluj, in central Romania, is among the best-served cities in the country when it comes to dining and drinking. The city even has its own dish, Varza a la Cluj, which contains cabbage leaves and minced meat in alternating layers reminiscent of lasagna. What follows is a list of a few personal favorite places to imbibe and ingest in Cluj, Romania, starting with five that are right on the main square, Piata Unirii.
Ursus is an unpretentious place with a basic interior; a long tube-shaped hall filled with rows of tables. The fare is homey Romanian food, which typically means a grilled or fried cut of meat served with French fries and a side order of pickled vegetables. Dessert might be a crepe filled with jam. Prices at Ursus are cheap, service is friendly, but a bit slow. It is almost inconceivable to eat here without having a bottle of beer, as the restaurant is owned by the Ursus Brewery which is based in Cluj. The brewery makes one of the finest Romanian lagers.
Ernesto is a good spot for a quiet evening meal. Located in the underground level of a building, it has a restful ambience, helped by its brick arches and subtle colored lights. Its cuisine is pan-European, with caviar among the flashier appetizers, and steak, lobster and duck dishes among the entrees.
Hotel Melody is a landmark institution, with flashing neon signs which seem to date back to the mid 20th century. Its second floor boasts a pleasant restaurant where even non-guests can enjoy a traditional Romanian meal.
By contrast, Diesel Club is a modern café and bar where hipsters hang out. The coffee here is pretty good, and it is nice to sip it while sitting at one of the outdoor tables on a sunny day.
Flowers caters to a different type of contemporary crowd. It is an alternative teahouse in a new-age style, with a tip of the hat to Central European Secessionist arts; check-out the Alfons Mucha illustrations in the interior wall arches. A wide range of teas and coffees are served here.
Now to stray beyond Piata Unirii. Casa Ardeleana is inside a shopping mall, but it doesn’t feel like it once you enter the restaurant. It has a folksy feel, with embroidered wall hangings and wooden furniture. This is also reflected in the cuisine, which is traditional Romanian, including delicious rich soups and a good Varza a la Cluj. The place is quite popular at lunchtime.
Close by is the elegant Hubertus, with its modern décor and outstanding food and service. The name comes from the patron saint for hunters and game dishes are among the house specialties. They include stag, pheasant and deer. Other imaginative dishes include salmon carpaccio and camembert with fruit. And there’s the cross-cultural experience of eating paprika chicken – a Hungarian delicacy – accompanied by the very Romanian garnish of polenta (known locally as mamaliga.) They offer a great choice of international beers and wines as well.
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Restaurant Matei Corvin is located on the street of the same name, both named after a Hungarian king who was born on this street. The restaurant’s slightly cramped interior is complemented with a random selection of paintings. It offers big, hearty portions of Romanian foods – including a tasty tripe soup.
For Hungarian specialties really well done, try Nostalgia, located on Strada Universitatii. It’s a friendly place where they serve delights such as crispy duck with mashed potatos and steamed red cabbage, pork cutlets soaked in garlic, and cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat.
If you want to get more international, try Club Roland Garros, located slightly north of the city center. It has an imaginative and large menu with Mediterranean touches, such as octopus salad, moussaka, and many pasta options. It is unusually vegetarian-friendly by Romanian standards – the menu even indicates which dishes are meat-free. It has a stylish sport-pub interior, and a pleasant terrace down by the rustling river. From here, you can look up at the bridge leading into the city center and at the elegant 19th-century buildings on the far side. If only the river were not greenish-brown and dotted with garbage.
A more unexpected international menu is encountered at Napoca 15, a restaurant whose name is also its address. While its rivals vie to offer the best local food or the best “western” cuisine, this place offers specialties from other East European countries. There’s a Bratislava-style pork cutlet (which is stuffed with brain), a Prague schnitzel, a chicken Kiev and a Stroganoff.
Bistro 1900 is a place aiming for a European turn-of-the-century mood. There’s not much variety on the menu except for a wide range of light pasta dishes, which arrive very well presented. There’s a good choice of Romanian wines, and the bistro also does a hot chocolate that is delightfully bitter.
Pizza Rex only serves pizza and pasta. But the food is tasty and the service is brisk – a rarity in Romania. It has a pleasingly simple décor, with dark wood furniture against yellow walls, and the arrangement of its tables in booths makes for a comfortable atmosphere.
Lugano, with its elegant menu design and prices toward the high end, is going for a more posh experience. It serves truffles and fancy Italian dishes in a serene, peach-colored interior. Service isn’t quite as good as the food.
Finally, there’s the unique experience of Etno Club, which is in the basement of a building that also contains a museum of ethnography. Hence the curious combination of folk furnishings – wooden tables and chairs and the occasional antler or wagon wheel on the wall – all with techno music. The menu consists of typical Romanian dishes, plus pizza. Come in the summer, when the establishment spills out of its walls, setting about 50 large tables in the gorgeous courtyard.
Written by David Hill for EuropeUpClose.com