Tbilisi's cultural revolution
Few countries embrace their national stereotypes as wholeheartedly as Georgia. Ask the average Georgian about the traditions of this former Soviet nation in the Caucasus and you’ll get a rhapsody about calorific 12-hour supra feasts, wine downed at a gulp from hollowed-out rams’ horns, loquacious toasts to the Virgin Mary and Saint George, and Kalishnikov-toting mountain shepherds who drink moonshine out of hand grenades. Souvenir stands in the capital, Tbilisi, hawk felt hats and daggers, and the city’s restaurant menus are full largely of cheese-drenched khachapuri bread and khinkali dumplings, approximating the rustic mountain style. Until now.
I’ve lived off and on in Tbilisi for five years now, and I’ve seen its historic heart transform (though prices remain remarkably low – a room in a guesthouse can be as little as £15, the cost of a decent meal in a midrange restaurant half that). Unpaved alleys populated by stray dogs are now pastel boulevards leading to speakeasy-style cafes. Old-guard restaurants with a casino aesthetic are giving way to more eclectic places catering for middle-class Tbiliseli, rather than wealthy foreigners.
In the wake of regime change – the nationalist Georgian Dream party was elected in 2012, ousting pro-western President Mikheil Saakashvili – one might be forgiven for expecting Georgia to be more culturally conservative than ever. Chef Tekuna Gachechiladze is at the forefront of a cultural revolution: a generation of young, often foreign-educated artists and entrepreneurs who long to revive Tbilisi’s 19th-century status as a cultural cosmopolis.
“Georgian people don’t like change,” he says. “Georgian people don’t like me.”
Gachechiladze has two outposts – Culinarium (1/17 Lermontov Street, +995 322 430 103), a restaurant and cookery school, and Café Littera, newly opened in the old Soviet Writers’ House – from which she challenges what she sees as her country’s stagnant cuisine. She serves traditional Georgian river trout as a tartar, and replaces lamb with mussels in her thyme-rich chakapuli stew.
“Look at any 19th-century Georgian cookbook,” she says. “Before the restrictions of the Soviet Union, we were using béchamel sauce, and all sorts of European recipes. Look at Café Littera’s architecture – all the art nouveau. We were importing ideas from France, from all Europe.”
Gachechiladze is not alone in her ambitions. In the backstreets of the city’s old town – all art nouveau angels, crumbling facades, and black-skirted women hawking bunches of coriander from street tables – new galleries and bars (invariably unmarked) cater for Georgian artists and activists seeking an alternative to traditional ways.
This is often done with an edge of knowing nostalgia. O Moda Moda (64 Barnov Street) is equal parts bar and vintage clothes boutique. It serves traditional, syrupy, tarragon-infused Lagidze lemonades from the sort of countertop glass funnels popular at the turn of the 20th century. Café Gabriadze (13 Shavteli Street, ), which is operated by the director of the adjacent puppet theatre, has images of William Shakespeare woven into its lace curtains. Cafe Gallery (48 Rustaveli Street) is one of the first gay-friendly venues in this notoriously conservative city and hosts regular tango evenings. Last week, the city’s first biker bar, Cross Riders (Revaz Lagidze Street), opened near the Ottoman-style opera house.
Reinvention has also made its way to the hospitality sector. Last year, the design-driven Rooms Hotel opened in the offices of a former Soviet publishing company. Preserved frescoes are still visible on its conference room ceilings, and the desks all have retro rotary-dial telephones. On my bedside table, a Marshall guitar amp doubled as a Bluetooth-enabled speaker. In a nod to the building’s literary past, the overflowing shelves of the lobby hold what may be the largest collection of English-language books in Georgia.
Oto Berishvili, the hotel’s marketing manager, sees Rooms as the embodiment of the “new” Georgia: one making a definitive break with its past. “If a person has previous hotel experience,” he says, “we don’t hire them.” They would, he believes, be “brainwashed” by the famously surly Soviet style of customer service. “We hire musicians, and people from the drama school.” He likes the idea that his staff will finish their shift in the hotel, then go and perform in a play or DJ at a local club.
That’s not to say Tbilisi has entirely transformed. Between the pastel houses and brick-domed abanos (bathhouses whose natural sulphur pools Georgians hold to be therapeutic) taxi drivers will routinely ignore a potential fare, preferring to continue playing backgammon on a board perched atop a rubbish bin. Inside the 13th-century Sioni cathedral young and old press their lips to the gilded icons of saints; outside, bearded Orthodox priests queue up for fresh tonis bread, baked on the side of a cylindrical oven, from the bakery in the seminary basement.
At the Dry Bridge weekend flea market, sellers hawk Soviet medals and old propaganda posters of Stalin and Lenin. And in restaurants such as Alani (1 Gorgasali Street), the sound of toasts being drunk is drowned out only by the synth-played Russian pop. You might still find yourself abducted, as my partner once was, by a supra party and forced to down 10 shots of chacha (brandy) at one go.
But nowhere exemplifies Tbilisi’s ambiguous relationship with its past like the Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Douqan restaurant, which we find hidden behind a hand-scrawled sign in the garden of the city’s Literature Museum. Among mismatched antiques and plush leather chairs, I spy one of Georgia’s leading anti-homophobia activists alongside a famous contemporary writer. Women with close-cropped blue hair and piercings sit next to expats giving English lessons.
But rather than ordering anything innovative, my companion urges me to try the traditional khinkali dumplings “They brought an old woman down from Khevsureti [the mountain province associated with the best dumplings] and she does nothing but make khinkali all day.” And so, according to locals, the Douqan has the best khinkali in all of Georgia.
For visionaries such as chef Tekuna Gachechiladze, this cultural blend may be what Tbilisi is all about. “People say I make fusion cuisine,” she says. “But we already have fusion cuisine.”
After centuries of invasion, Arabs, Mongols, Persians, Greeks and Russians have all left their mark. Even khinkali, as Gachechiladze points out, aren’t originally Georgian. “The Mongols brought the dumplings first.”