The city of Tartu (population 100,000) is located in the south of the Republic of Estonia. Despite serving for 500 years as the centre of the unique Estonian culture, Tartu is curiously devoid of traditional Estonian-style restaurants. Presumably, if Estonians want Estonian food they just make it themselves. Nevertheless, there are several excellent places to eat for the casual visitor to Tartu.
Expensive - At Least by Estonian Standards
The first thing to remember about Estonian food is that it's generally dirt-cheap. All prices here are given in Estonian Kroons1 (officially abbreviated EEK, sometimes also written Kr). Generally, restaurants in the expensive category serve most meals for 80 EEK or more.
Werner (Restoran Werner)
Despite being located nearly across the street from Tartu University's main building and right next door to the university book shop, Werner isn't generally considered much of a student hangout. Back during the first period of independence (1918 to 1940 AD), Werner was one of the most fashionable places in Tartu, host to the movers and shakers of Estonian culture. Today it still retains some of its 1930s-style charm: the staff is polite, efficient and uniformed, and the decor is rather reserved. The food is rather simple (meat, potatoes, rich sauces) but excellent. Sauces tend to be fruit-based, although one of the best meals in Tartu is Werner's pork in wild mushroom sauce. The restaurant proper is on the upper floor, while the lower holds a more casual bakery/coffee shop (see section on 'Meat Pies' below). If you get a salad, main course, dessert and coffee after, expect to pay 150 EEK; for just a main course, 80 EEK. For some strange reason several of the à la carte options cost considerably more than the entrees, up to 120 EEK or so.
Tsink Plekk Pang
Even Estonia has its share of Chinese restaurants. Tsink Plekk Pang, located just down Rüütli from the university, is both the nicest and the most popular. The widely-spaced tables and huge, low, couch-like chairs make for possibly the least efficient use of space a restaurant could conceive: call ahead to reserve a table if you expect to eat dinner at Estonian hours (ie 8.00pm to 10.00pm). The place is likely to be full of chattering university students attempting to drown out the slightly-too-loud jazz music, but don't let that deter you from having a great meal. Almost all entrees cost 80 EEK; beef costs 115 due to the still-fledgling Estonian beef industry. Even the duck is relatively reasonable at about 150 EEK. Food is kept warm by an ingenious raised platform (with candles inside), on which the bowls are served. Rice - white or fried - costs extra but is only 15 EEK. Consider accompanying your meal with a pot of one of the large number of teas listed on the last page of the menu for about 25 EEK: one pot will serve up to four diners.
In English, Gruusia Saatkond translates as 'The Georgian Embassy'. Connoisseurs of Georgian food2 will be pleased with this restaurant's dishes, while those who have never tried Georgian food will be pleasantly surprised. The main street entrance on Rüütli is indicated by a hanging sign but the interior door upstairs is unmarked; proceed securely in the knowledge that it is the only door to lead off of the particular staircase. Timid diners may wish to stick with the Chicken Ketsi (pieces of chicken in sour-cream sauce) as it is the least spicy and most accessible of the main dishes. The Chakapuli (mutton in a wine-based sauce) and Tschahohbili (chicken in tomato sauce) are also excellent and range in price from about 50 to 100 EEK. Patient diners may wish to try one of the various shashlyk dishes for a slightly higher price. These skewers of meat take up to 45 minutes to prepare, as they are grilled over open coals. Beverages include some excellent Georgian wines, as well as a variety of uniquely-flavoured Georgian sodas. Those accustomed to a Western diet should expect to find the flavours in Georgian food pleasantly indescribable.
China Garden is the slowest fast food Chinese restaurant this researcher has ever seen. Kiir toit (Estonian for 'fast food') is very prominently advertised on their signs and brochures. Yet when this claim was put to the test, it was found that an item ordered 'to go' is prepared about as quickly as one would expect any normal restaurant meal, but much slower than what most of Europe would consider fast food. Don't let this bit of misinformation deter you from trying their food, however, and don't let the restaurant's location down a small alleyway off the main square deceive you. Once you get down the stairs to the cosy low-arched dining rooms you can expect a tasty and filling meal.
For those with small budgets, an order of spring rolls or China Garden rolls for 40 EEK and rice for another 20 will make a meal in itself. Estonian spring rolls are like neither American-style spring rolls nor American-style egg rolls. True to Estonian tastes, they tend to be 10 to 15cm-long rolls of fried bread containing some sort of meat and a bit of cabbage and carrots. Entrees include a wide variety of dishes, but the house specialities are crispy aroma duck (elsewhere called Peking Duck) and frog legs. Chicken and pork dishes tend to be around 60 EEK, beef and veal around 100 EEK, and a whole duck is well worth its 270 EEK price tag. China Garden is also the only place in town to get Tsingtao beer with your meal, if you're into that sort of thing.
Moderate prices are between 30 and 80 EEK for a meal.
Café Wilde/Wilde Irish Pub
Wilde is co-named after Oscar Wilde and Estonian writer Eduard Wilde. There is a statue of the two enjoying a drink out in front of the establishment on Ülikooli. Upstairs, you have to proceed through the pub section to get to the well-lit dining room in the back of the building. Wilde offers a variety of dishes at various prices, ranging from beer snacks3 at about 30 EEK to the stewed rabbit for 100 EEK. Main courses may vary by season, but are always good and accompanied by friendly if not prompt service. Also, as one would expect of a restaurant that is half pub, they have an extensive beer and wine list. Watch out for the intermittent 'Country-Western' nights, which clash oddly with the Irish-themed menu and the palm-tree decor. Downstairs is one of the largest bookstores in Tartu.
Pizzeria Pronto is located across the street from Tsink Plekk Pang and serves a wide variety of pizzas for about 30 EEK for a small pizza or 50 EEK for a large. Both are thin crust in the Italian style, so even a large pizza is unlikely to feed more than one person. The topping choices are often surprising, to say the least: it is the first place that this researcher has ever seen a 'peach and hamburger pizza', for instance. Also, the menus are only in Estonian. On the other hand, even the odd pizzas are very tasty and cheap, and the staff at the counter can likely translate for you, if necessary.
Another of the many pizza establishments in Tartu is Taverna, located below ground in the building next to the Tartu Kunstimuuseum (Tartu Art Museum) on the main square. Taverna is actually a full-service restaurant and bar but their main product is their strangely topped pizzas, served in either suur (large) or väike (small) sizes. A small pizza, which should be slightly more than enough for one person, is around 50 EEK. Toppings are generally of the same kind as at Pronto. Pineapple and peaches are popular, and, of course, minced meat or sausages are as well. For the more price-minded, the pizza of the day is about 10 EEK less.
Not that this restaurant is necessarily recommended, but McDonald's always should be included for the sake of completeness. In any case, it's not like you can miss this one. There are roughly as many McDonald's billboards in Tartu as there are McDonald's restaurants in an average American city - that is to say, about one every block. The actual restaurant is at Turu 6, less than a block from the bus station (Bussijaam). They serve the typical McDonald's repertoire with a slightly reduced menu. Good authorities claim that their food is saltier in Estonia than it would be in the United States, and definitely more so than in Great Britain. Also, this is the place in Tartu where you are most certain to find someone who speaks English.
The Püssirohukelder (Gunpowder Cellar) is the one establishment in this entry that is actually a pub that happens to serve food - rather than a restaurant that happens to serve alcohol. Food falls under the general category of 'beer snacks', a commonly used term on Estonian menus. Essentially what this means is small, fried appetisers best accompanied by beer. Examples include chicken wings, fried cheese sticks, potato skins, chicken strips and the like. They are often contrasted with 'wine snacks' (ie cheese or vegetable platters). What it lacks in food, however, the Püssirohukelder makes up for in ambience. The pub is located in a vast old gunpowder cellar in the park halfway up Toomemagi Hill, and has high, arched ceilings. It is a fixture of Tartu nightlife and definitely worth visiting at least once. Depending on your inclinations, you may or may not want to drop by on a Monday when they have mostly English-language karaoke in less-than-perfect English.
If you happen to be in Estonia and you can't even afford a 30 EEK meal, there are still options open to you.
Meat Pies and Their Kin
A staple of Estonian lunches, which is so common as to be almost ubiquitous, is the meat pie (lihapirukas). These are pastries containing spiced ground meat (usually pork). They cost between 5 and 10 EEK apiece, and two often make a meal. They are almost always advertised in Estonian with no English explanation, so refer to this handy list:
- lehe - flaky crust
- parm - bread-like crust
- liha - meat
- hakkliha - ground meat
- singi - ham
- seene - mushrooms
- juustu - cheese
- sibula - onion
- muna - egg
- kana - chicken
- kala - fish
- riis - rice
- kartul - potatoes
- pirukas - pie
These may appear in almost any combination. One of this researcher's most highly recommended items is the singi-munapirukas available for 8 EEK at Kondriitiäri on Rüütli, but Werner Kohvik (Café Werner, downstairs from Werner Restoran) also makes good meat pies, and they can be found at every grocery store and bakery in Tartu. If your tastes run to the deep-fried, you can even find fried lihapirukas at the tiny Rotunda Café in the shadow of the 12th-Century Toomkirik.
Other options exist for cheap, quick food. Hot dogs and hamburgers are sold at many food stands and in cafés for 20 EEK or less. They are also available in gas stations, especially Statoil. These may not be to the taste of non-Estonians, as they tend to be covered in a number of sloppy sauces. Especially common is a sickly-sweet pink sauce that often shows up on hamburgers and other miscellaneous items. It is not too bad in terms of taste, but usually makes a huge mess.