Issue 3, 2012. June-July

   

THE TASTE OF CHANGE

Saburtalo, a central district in Tbilisi more famous for its abundant housing than its nightlife, is used to playing second fiddle to hip Vake, Vere and Shardeni. But a plethora of new coffeehouses, cafés, and restaurants could be the harbinger of the neighborhood's evolution from sleepy to swanky.

Nino Patsuria


Just a few years ago, a pizza bar, and a handful of khinkali joints passed for Saburtalo's dining options. The quiet neighborhood was still better known for the Sports' Palace, universities, and reasonably priced apartments.

Fast forward to today, however, and the leafy streets of Kazbegi Avenue and Vazha Pshavela are laden with cafes, restaurants, and coffee bars. While fast food style dining like Texas Chicken and the Georgian Machakhala chain are abundant near the universities, Kazbegi and Vazha Pshavela are cultivating an eclectic variety of café life.

Tucked among the Soviet-era Khruskhovkas and metro stops are a Turkish eatery, with a lush green and red interior, a wooden-uzba styled Slavic café, and a intricately decorated Chinese restaurant. Acid Bar was one of the first to expand into Saburtalo from the high traffic districts of Old Tbilisi and Vake. With spoon-handle light fixtures and original art work on the walls, the Acid Bar on Kazbegi Street makes a clean break from the neighborhood's staid dining past.

Opening an Acid Bar in Saburtalo three years ago was a calculated risk, noted Bacho Mikadze, owner of the Kala Group that created and operates the Acid Bar restaurant chain, as well as Kala Bar and the KGB Café.

"[When] we entered Saburtalo three years ago, after [opening an Acid Bar in] Vake, we thought a lot about whether or not the Saburtalo location would be profitable," he said, noting the "accent" for café life "falls on old districts" like Shardeni and Vake.

But the Kazbegi Acid Bar is roughly 20 percent more profitable than the three other restaurants in the chain, Mikadze said. Other restaurant owners agree. Teremok, a Slavic-themed café network, has 70 percent higher sales at its Kazbegi location than at the Vake eatery, according to Sopio Brodzeli, the chain's administrative manager. The detailed wooden shutters on its windows and waitresses dressed in national Russian and Ukrainian costumes add to the impression of a warm, cozy Russian cabin.

On a balmy evening in May, cafes on Kazbegi were humming, with couples and large groups spilling out to sidewalk tables.

Many of the patrons are locals, according to Mikadze, a sign that Saburtalo is ready to embrace café life at home instead of traveling to more prestigious districts like Shardeni Street in Old Tbilisi or Vake.

"Initially I feared that Saburtalo's population would be more eager to go to old districts like Vake, but the Saburtalo Acid Bar caught up with the Abashidze [restaurant] within a year and is moving ahead now," he said. "In fact, Gldani is larger than Saburtalo [with] about 300 thousand residents, but they prefer to go to the center for cafes. Saburtalo is already part of the center."

The larger locations, better parking, and lower rents are also encouraging cafes to expand from Vake, noted restaurateur Nodar Shurghaia, the owner of Café Latte, a coffeehouse with locales on Kazbegi and Paliashvili Street.

Shurghaia decided to expand to Saburtalo after traffic jams and parking issues stifled growth for his café on Paliashvili Street. Today, the Kazbegi location earns five percent more than the Vake coffeehouse - attracting even Vake regulars.

"When we opened our café on Paliashvili it was quite popular. Today, one of the biggest problems that hampers our business [in Vake] is parking. The street is overflowing ... it was not a problem at all when we started," he said.

"[W]e chose Kazbegi now because this street is not overloaded despite a lot of traffic, and our café is more oriented towards customers passing by in cars, not on local residents. In fact, the local population rarely drop in here," he said, adding that rent is also about 20 percent higher in Vake which also cuts down profit to a café business compared to being in Saburtalo.

Amy Binder, who owns Ronny's Pizza with her husband Eric, agrees that the larger commercial space, better parking, and larger local population is driving restaurant expansion in Saburtalo.

"I think it's easier to get here," she said, noting there is opportunity for growth.

"There is room here, there are a lot of people here, and they do not have to go to Vake to find a good café...

Vake seems full of a lot of good restaurants and cafes. That is very good for people who live there; they can walk to a café ... it should be like that here in Saburtalo. If I live here, I should be able to walk to five different cafes. Why not?"