Great food isn’t always enough to draw people to restaurants anymore.
That’s something the FEST group in Lviv, located in western Ukraine, has figured out. Founded in 2007 by three young self-described “non-conformist” businessmen, their chain of restaurants have turned dining into an all-encompassing experience. Each one of the roughly 20 establishments is completely unique. Usually with an emphasis on anything fun or quirky, and often with a theme highlighting some aspect of local history.
Another bonus is the price. It’s not unusual to get an entrée (and often more) for the equivalent of CAD$5. Along with Lviv’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status, you can now add dining to the list of reasons to visit.
Eat in a WWII bunker at Kryjivka
After overcoming the first hurdle of finding the place (the address is given as “somewhere at Rynok Square”), you’ll need the password to get in. Hint: try something patriotic such as “Glory to Ukraine”. The guard will then welcome you with a medovukha, an alcoholic beverage made with fermented honey, spices and berries. There’s a reason for all the secrecy. This dark, underground eatery replicates the last hiding place of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Find a wooden bench amongst the WWII-era artifacts and tuck into some hearty Ukrainian food. Choices include sausages, borscht (beet soup), pork and varenyky (stuffed dumplings).
Haggle over your bill at Golden Rose
Come to this cozy eatery with an appetite–and some bargaining skills! There are no prices on the menu because diners are encouraged to take part in some friendly haggling over what they want to pay for their meal. Among the traditional items on the menu are baked stuffed carp, kofta (ground lamb and beef cutlet), shakshouka (poached egg in tasty tomato sauce), with wines from Ukraine and Israel. Lace tablecloths and walls covered with drawings, local artifacts and old photos of former Jewish residents give it a homey ambiance. Golden Rose is located in the historic Jewish quarter dating to the 14th century. It’s next to a memorial site which includes the ruins of the once magnificent Golden Rose synagogue. Check out the fireworks across the street every night around 9 p.m.
Just Trout, Bread, and Wine
When there’s one main item on the menu, it’s got to be good. The idea for this eatery, steps from the Golden Rose, dates from 1826 when the old Lviv City Hall collapsed. This left its permanent resident, a trumpet player, and his family, looking for work. He baked the most delicious Carpathian river trout. When he moved next door to the local clockmaker, a wine expert who also baked the best bread in the city, they teamed up. And the tradition continues today. Enjoy your meal on the leafy outdoor terrace while a trumpeter serenades.
Experience some beer theatre at Pravda
The first thing you notice about this complex on Rynok Square, is the lively, bustling atmosphere on several floors with balconies all around. Watch brewers at work on the lower level making beers that have collected 14 international awards in under three years. You can shop for craft beers and souvenirs on the ground floor. Dine and drink on the upper levels while listening to the Pravda Orchestra. They’re a popular brass band that plays everything from AC/DC to Frank Sinatra and Ukrainian music, and keeps the place hopping most nights of the week. Galician and European cuisine– glazed duck leg, grilled pork shoulder, braised beef shank, broiled mackerel, giant potato dumplings–are prepared in a modern, open kitchen.
Get some Meat and Justice
Expect a bit of theatre along with your grilled meat, sausage, steak or fish at this popular spot. It riffs on the medieval era when many cities, including Lviv, employed an executioner. After you pass the torture rack out front, you’ll be greeted by a burly man who may startle you when he brings his ax down on a log of wood (without warning) at your table for effect. Among the shocking contraptions diners could find themselves in (if willing) is an iron cage (once used to punish debtors) that is lowered into a hole in the floor. For something local, try the spicy salo starter (sliced pork fat with grilled bread and onion) and dvass taras, a stale bread fermented drink.
Achieve enlightenment at the Gas Lamp Pub Museum
You won’t be dining in the dark at this pub. A guide with a lantern will lead you up to the restaurant to enjoy Ukrainian and Eastern European fare. At the same time you can admire one of the biggest collections of gas lamps in Europe. Lviv credits two of its citizens, pharmacists Jan Zech and Ignacy Lukasiewicz, with the invention of the gas lamp in 1853. Hence the restaurant’s, shall we say, illuminating theme.
Other FEST spots worth checking out
The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant, which has a Masonic lodge theme, serves mains such as filet mignon, grilled goose breast and guinea fowl, all with prices you’d expect given the name. Getting in requires first passing through a cramped and quirky 1950s Soviet-style apartment.
Masoch-café/restaurant is the kinkiest establishment in the FEST group and recognizes Lviv-born Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (who had a master/ slave relationship with his mistress and whose name is the origin of the word masochism). The concept space serves “perverse-style” cuisine. Bull’s testicles in sweet pepper sauce is one example. You can wash that down with one of their “stimulating cocktails”. They boast the best fondue in town, but beware the waitresses who are equipped with handcuffs and whips!
The Lviv Coffee Mining Manufacture tour involves putting on a hard hat and going underground for a surprising coffee experience (we can’t reveal everything or that’d spoil the fun! Hint: flames are involved).
Pretty High Kitchen is the newest on the scene and dispenses with fixed menus and conventional waiters in favour of allowing guests to tell the chef what they like and what they feel like eating.
Lviv Handmade Chocolate is a seven-storey paradise for chocoholics. Enjoy a coffee and one of their many delectable sweets on the rooftop terrace.
The Drunken Cherry is an informal stand-up bar and shop found around the city. It specializes in a popular cherry fortified wine.
If you go
Ukraine International Airlines flies non-stop between Toronto and Kyiv, Ukraine, three times a week in summer and twice a week in winter. Enjoy the capitol, then hop on a flight west to Lviv from there.by