I’ve been spending an average of 40-50 Lei per meal in Bucharest. One can save money by going to fast food places, making your own food, eating where locals eat, or by not buying drinks/desserts at restaurants. Of course, it also helps to not choose fancy places, but I’m happy as long as I’m spending less than I do in NZ while eating tolerable food. I rely primarily on Trip Advisor and Google’s “near me” search, but I’ve realized this does mean you miss out on some great smelling street food, which is unlisted. (The main obstacle being not knowing what to order from menus written only in Romanian.)
A really cool thing about food in Romania is that restaurants are required by law to list the ingredients of a dish by weight. This means you know what’s in the dish (although a lot of it remains unfamiliar to me), the total weight, and sometimes the weight of each component. No more inadvertent overpaying for tiny portions! I think one can get really good at calculating how much they want to eat.
There are lots of different cuisines here, though it’s hard for me to tell what’s on offer based on the names of restaurants. Romanian food doesn’t seem to be that common, overshadowed by Italian food perhaps. I guess the moral is that real Romanian food is prepared in people’s houses.
McDonald’s is relatively cheap; it’s often more expensive in Asia because it’s not the norm. Domino’s Pizza and Pizza Hut have exotic looking pizzas. I wouldn’t have thought that possible. Even some higher class restaurants offer online orders and deliveries.
Menus usually have a decent range, and even the drinks menu is often sizable. However, if you’re after hot non-alcoholic drinks without caffeine, namely hot chocolate, many restaurants don’t have it even if it’s on the menu. It’s also usually not that good of a deal in terms of price and how little you get. For some reason, cocktails seem to be universally present. Unfortunately, there are never any cutesy drinks like milk tea, bubble tea, yogurt drinks, or that kind of thing.
I went to Edo Sushi, the 2nd ranked sushi restaurant in Bucharest (according to Trip Advisor). It was disappointing. Most of the sushi was flavorless. The menu had some pointless items. It was on the expensive side; I got the Maki Fever combo (65 lei) which had 25 pieces, and it didn’t even fill me 100%. None of the staff were Japanese. I’m not saying that only Japanese people can make good sushi, but the evidence points to the fact that Romanians don’t know good sushi since they gave this place good reviews. And I’ve had way better takeaway sushi than this freshly prepared sushi. Don’t bother with sushi in Romania. (Yes, that is a generalization that I feel confident enough to project.)
After another disappointing experience, I’m not going to name and shame, but let’s just say I recommend avoiding Asian food. I also don’t trust Trip Advisor anymore. It’s okay for scouting out places to try, but don’t let it set your expectations. I’m always suspicious of the possibility of fake reviews, and I don’t think there is such an issue here, but places with anywhere between a 3.5 and 5.0 rating are not necessarily comparable due to the relatively low number of reviews everywhere. I don’t know if people are used to bad food here, or they would rather not review than give a bad review, but the scale seems pretty skewed to me. It makes me shudder to think what a 2 or 3 star rating would mean.
Cheesecake. Way different to what I’m used to. Only the topping is sweet, the rest is not really. I guess it’s predominantly… cheese? Even the cookie base isn’t sweet, so the flavor is overall kind of subtle.
Although I haven’t explicitly tried, I don’t think you can get free water at a restaurant, at least not boiled and filtered tap water. It’ll always be bottled water, which costs money. Just bring your own if you want to save money. By the way, sparkling water is a thing in Romania. As in, bottled carbonated water. It’s meant to be for fancy occasions or something. The implications of drinking carbonated water are not crystal clear. Anyhow, I tried it and it was disgusting. Like, about as disgusting as raspberry flavored Fanta. I ended up getting rid of all the bubbles.
Snacks and bakery stuff in the supermarket is skewed towards chocolate. It’s not very diverse and I can barely find anything that would at least give me the impression that it’s not too unhealthy. Muesli bars also have the same weakness. Real bakeries are probably a better option for emergency overnight food, but I have no idea what to get. The truth is, maybe I’m a little spoiled. I’m used to knowing what I get before I buy, but I can’t have that luxury here.
Many tourists have described Romanians as being less than great at customer service. (In my experience, this applies to both restaurants and cashiers.) The fact that I look like a tourist who can’t speak Romanian, as opposed to a regular customer, may or may not have a small part in it too. You enter a restaurant and the first line they speak gives me the impression “(Sigh), what do you want?” or “Why are you here?” This is slightly more common among the female staff. One waitress at an Italian place gave me the attitude “Just order what you want” when I asked for advice—on the scale of things, this was considered a friendlier encounter than the average! Men are more likely to treat the dining experience like a business transaction, in which case they don’t show contempt. The friendliest waiters I’ve encountered are at La Plăcinte, which is partly why I’ve listed it below as a favorite place to go. They’re the only servers who have actually helped me order so that I know I’ll be satisfied.
In Romanian supermarkets, they don’t have self-checkout machines like in NZ. They probably wish they did. Interacting with the checkout person seems to be a purely mechanical affair. By the way, in Romania people try to avoid contact when handing money over. For example, you put notes on the counter and they pick it up. When it comes to receiving change, though, it took me a few goes to understand how contact could be avoided or minimized. One of the more elaborate strategies is to take the notes from their hand first, put them in your wallet, and then they can drop the remaining coins in your hand. On my first try, I briefly forgot and tried to take everything, and the man at the counter panicked and dropped the coins. I kind of felt like I messed up at first, but most cashiers are not that paranoid.
Another thing to comment on is the use of Romanian vs English. I’m Asian (surprise!) and I’ve only seen three other Asian people in Bucharest so far. There are a lot of people with dark hair, but I’m pretty sure many people can tell I’m not a native Romanian speaker before I open my mouth. Anyhow, I learned a few basic phrases and how to count in Romanian. (Courtesy of a CouchSurfer I met up with.) Unfortunately, the few phrases I can say are almost completely pointless, because people can understand me either way. People figure out that I’m more comfortable with English, and so they speak English. If I try to pronounce a word in Romanian, even though I know the alphabet now, they’ll just take pity and confirm things in English. I’ve tried making a subtle request for them to speak Romanian, but really the only way to do it is to pretend that you don’t speak English. I’m not quite that desperate to confirm that the words I’ve been taught are intelligible. And for the most part, the few phrases I do decide to utter, like asking for the bill or saying thank you, I’m pretty sure they don’t actually hear what I say, they just assume the meaning when I open my mouth. The only time it counts is when I say “X lei change please”, which indirectly specifies how much money I’m leaving as a tip.
Overall, you get used to the lack of friendliness pretty quickly. As an introvert, I find it acceptable, and the distant interactions makes it easy for me to make weird orders and not conform to people’s expectations. In a way, it makes me feel almost empowered. Money can speak for me. That said, I haven’t been bold enough to test out how much it takes to bribe a restaurant to stay open for an additional 20 minutes for one order. Looking at the average wage in Romania, if I offered 100 lei for, say, three people to work slightly longer, that would be the equivalent (in NZ) of offering more than NZ$30 per person for 20 minutes, a deal that I believe many people would take if they didn’t have other arrangements. Anyhow, once you accept unfriendliness as the norm in Romanian customer service, at least you can be pleasantly surprised. My uncommon positive experiences were when the beautiful waitress at Roberto’s asked me whether the tiramisu was good (an utterly unnecessary interaction by Romanian standards), when an assistant at Mega Image seemingly hunted me down with her sixth sense (or just having noticed by vacant gaze) to help me find specific items (even though one of them was basically right in front of me), and when a friendly cashier at Mega Image spoke to me only in Romanian, even though there was no evidence that I could understand.
The most high class restaurant I’ve been to so far is Roberto’s on La Strada. To be honest, around this time I had started thinking “Why try new things? Why be adventurous with food, if average satisfaction will undoubtedly be lower? Why investigate buildings whose architecture and history I don’t actually care about?” Although I’ve barely met anyone yet due to my cold, I’m already anticipating the likely question “How long have you been in Bucharest, and what have you seen so far?” Although my cold has definitely been draining my energy and sense of adventure, something tells me that I shouldn’t have to answer that way. Yes, I’m taking an expensive trip on the other side of the world from home and I happen to have chosen Romania. But who said I am and have to be interested in tourist activities here? Who said I’m here to try new things? People who assume that, well that’s their problem not mine. I don’t have to feel inadequate about being different, about being too lazy or otherwise to explore. That’s my choice and I have my own reasons for being here.
Anyhow, eating Penne alla Norma at Roberto’s was enough to dismiss these thoughts for the time being. The description reads “The most famous pasta dish from Catania in Sicily, named after Vincenzo Bellini’s opera: penne with fried eggplant, tomato sauce and dried ricotta.” I think it’s hard to achieve balance with just these flavors, and I like eggplant, so I’m impressed enough to want to try making this dish at home. So I guess that answers the point of trying new food; to learn and potentially adopt new ideas. I also ate my first real tiramisu here, but it wasn’t in the traditional cake form. The flavor also wasn’t what I expected; not by any means in a bad way, but I’m still not really sure what the iconic tiramisu really is. Needs more investigation =D
I mostly go to restaurants with four-star feedback ratings. Honestly, I think half the food is okay and the other half is better than okay. La Plăcinte is my favorite place, not only due to its convenient location but the menu having more relateable choices than any other place. It also serves my favorite dish so far—Tort Medovik, which is a many layered Russian honey cake. Moldovian pie with potato is also good. My second favorite item in general has been Cappy orange juice. Not the one you buy in supermarkets, but served chilled from a small bottle at restaurants. It’s more or less pulpless, has just the right sweetness, and it doesn’t make you thirsty. I think the taste is almost perfect; it’s not sour and you can stop drinking it without the aftertaste haunting you. Coincidentally or not, I like Medovik for similar reasons. It’s rich in taste and gets sweeter the more you eat, but that’s the thing. It doesn’t really make you crave more. You can eat a little, and stop, and the aftertaste is just fine.
Old Kitchen is another restaurant quite near to my hotel. It has a smaller menu than most restaurants, and it’s not exactly a popular place, but its items are simple and delicious. I spend about 50 lei for a meal including the 10% tip, but remember I’m a guy who orders a dessert and/or a drink. I have to admit, I usually have no idea what the nationality is of the food I’m ordering. According to Trip Advisor though, this is quite likely the first and only Romanian food I’ve eaten in Bucharest.