A true local neighborhood in one of the trendiest destinations in the world
Spring comes to Vera as a result of supsarkissi, annual southerly winds that rush down Mount Mtatsminda and blow winter apathy out of our homes and bones while blowing smog from the city to the kingdom. Then one day near Easter, all the plum trees in the neighborhood burst into white blossoms simultaneously. A few weeks later, all of Belinski’s chestnuts appear green. No other district of Tbilisi says spring better than my Vera.
I was walking our dog Ramzes, welcoming deep maskless streaks of the season now that COVID-19 regulations have been lifted, and we passed the cage in the garage where Shalva used to sit like a caterpillar smoking the hookah on a wooden bench, watching the four little corners of our streets. Nothing escaped him.
“Milk? Why did you buy milk?” he asked me with a contemptuous smile.
Shalva’s group would join him in a daily ritual of slapping dominoes on a worn wooden table until it was time to put down the newspaper and indulge in bread, tangy cheese, pickles and wine or chacha from repurposed plastic coke bottles. Heaven be damned if I passed by.
“American! Come! Sit down!” Shalva would order.
“OK, but just one,” I said, grimacing. Chacha’s ambush. There was never “one” and no escape from it; to do so would have been extremely vulgar.
Chacha is technically grape brandy, but also refers to any fruit. It is usually around 120 to 150 proofs. Shalva would fill about 100 grams a greasy, lip-marked glass of water and swipe it at me. Next comes a toast, usually to friendship, and we push them away. I was like “Thank you, I have to run” and they were like “No, no, no!” Not yet!” and filling in a second shot for my other leg. The next toast could be to American and Georgian fraternity and I would say “Thank you, but I have to go to work now.” “Work?” they burst out laughing and filled out a third drink because in Georgia, three is a sacred Christian number. This toast was often for the good neighbors and we laughed at the moron who lived next to me. The counting stopped after that. It was lovely the 50 first times, but after a few years I got to the point where I had to hide under the cage and sneak up the hill. When Shalva left this world, his friends also disappeared. His son replaced the stools and the table by a silver Mercedes.
Ramzes and I were on our way to Jean-Jaques Jacob’s bakery, Au Blé d’or. The Brittany native owns a farm in Kakheti, western Georgia, and is one of the few people to grow the nearly extinct heritage wheat, tsiteli doli, a victim of Soviet industrialization that put many indigenous crops under the plow. Jean-Jacques sold his bread and organic products in a trailer in the Vake district and then rented a storefront here in Vera. We are lucky.
Vera is one of the oldest districts of Tbilisi, first documented in the 13th century. While Tbilisi’s Old Town and neighboring Sololaki grew to accommodate the growing number of tourists, Vera remained a local neighborhood of 19th-century red-brick buildings, even after Rooms Hotel arrived in 2012 and sparked a process of gentrification. Before, we only had one restaurant in the area. Rainer’s is a guesthouse/beer garden/pizzeria, offering everything from sausages and sauerkraut to beef tartare and goulash soup. Rainer Kaufmann, a daring German journalist who fell in love with the country during the Soviet period, opened the place in 1995, when Tbilisi was still smoldering with civil war.
If Vera’s dining options were a weight watcher’s delight, her dining options were an alcoholic’s utopia. Bar culture came to Tbilisi in the mid-1990s with the Heineken pub on Perovskaya (now Ahkvladeli) Street in Lower Vera, and by the mid-1990s there were well over a dozen pubs in these little streets. There were very few water points elsewhere in the city. Even on a Sunday night, you’d find people dancing on the tables to the sound of a cover band cutting chords to Sweet Home Alabama, Another Brick In The Wall, and half a dozen Beatles tunes. Nali, Csaba’s, Wheels and Buffalo Bill’s are some of the old pubs still around, although order “a vodka” now and the bartender will pour you a drink and not give you a bottle.
Thai massage parlors arrived in Perovskaya about 10 years ago, offering a “sin strip” vibe, but there is also a good hamburger restaurant, a few cafes, a fancy pizzeria and Cream Bar, a notable ice cream maker alcoholic sorbets. Alubali inherited the old London Pub, expanding its dining room with botanical patio and serving some of the best food in town. The focus is on Megelian cuisine, spicy and bold western Georgian dishes prepared with the freshest ingredients. Sulguni cheese, reminiscent of mozzarella, is made on site. While the wine list offers carefully selected natural vintages, you can also order a glass of delicious house wine.
Ramzes didn’t know we were going to get bread and diverted me to our usual stop. You don’t really appreciate a great wine store until it’s a few blocks from your house. Giorgi “Kicha” Kbilashvili opened Wine Boutique three years ago and has stocked its shelves with a superb selection of mostly family-produced wines by some of the country’s most exciting artisans. back forward real Georgian wine was bottled and labeled, we had a neighbor, Gia, who delivered fine wine in aluminum barrels to various restaurants in Tbilisi from her father-in-law’s cellar in Kakheti. He would fill our 5 liter plastic bottles for a few dollars. It was in 2004 when we weren’t talking about the nose, the notes or the complexity of a wine. There was no custom of sipping a drink with dinner or your feet while reading a good book. Only fancy restaurants had stemmed glasses and these were filled to the brim, toast after toast, which all the men were obliged to respect by emptying each time. “Good wine” meant you could drink a few liters at a feast without getting a bad hangover. The “bad wine” was exported exclusively to Russia.
Au Blé d’or is on Zandukeli Street, which begins at McDonald’s and along its 500-meter stretch we find some of Tbilisi’s most exciting places to sip and dine. Self-taught chef Ramaz Gemiashvili honed his skills in dessert preparation and bicycle delivery in the 1990s. Then he opened the city’s first cafe before experimenting with traditional Georgian recipes at Citron Plus. Six years ago, he opened Keto and Kote in a historic building above Rustaveli metro. It’s classic Tbilisi charm inside the renovated 19th century dining room and outside in the garden with a menu of contemporary Georgian cuisine.
At the opposite end of Zandukeli, down the street in a basement apartment with a secluded garden patio, Sulico Wine Bar has an extensive wine list and serves the best tolma (stuffed grape leaves) from around the world. . Owner Baya Tsaava was displaced from Abkhazia in 1993 along with 250,000 other Georgians, spent a decade in Chicago driving a taxi, among other things, and has always been an imaginative cook. Its menu sings of flavors and includes a lamb empanada beyond savory, trout stuffed with walnuts wrapped in vine leaves and the cluster bomb of all desserts, the lava cake with feijoa sorbet, a sweet South American fruit grown in western Georgia.
Across from Sulico is Shavi Coffee Roasters. When I arrived in Georgia in 2001, a real cup of coffee meant a small porcelain cup of “Turkish” coffee. An “Americano” was a chemically enhanced instant coffee powder in a packet decorated with stars and stripes. We had a bean vendor on Belinski who sold beans in plastic buckets labeled with questionable nicknames such as Mambo, Nescafé and Pelé. If we wanted a cappuccino, we had to go to Marriott or Prospero’s, an American-owned bookstore-café. Then, in 2016, Ruben Avetisian started roasting beans on Perovskaya and rocked our world until Covid-19 ransacked his health and killed his business. Last year, Ryan McCarrel and his wife Lolo Tovo opened their on-site coffee roaster. You don’t have to be a serious aficionado to enjoy Shavi, but if you are, you won’t want to leave.
Zigzagging west, up and down the streets of Vera, you might come across the Tartan cafeteria, which offers the most perfect gvezeli – rolls stuffed with cheese, beans, potatoes or ground beef. In the next street, the queen of Tbilisi cuisine, chef Tekuna Gachechiladze, has opened Akura San, a wine bar with Japanese-inspired dishes to accompany. Tekuna and her winemaker husband Irakli Bluishvili prove just how versatile Georgian wine is.
A few blocks away is chef Tekuna’s cooking school, Culinarium, in the monumental Wine Factory No. 1, a late 19th-century complex designed by Alexander Ozerov, a prolific local Russian architect. It is a multifunctional space renowned for storing 40,000 bottles of 200-year-old wine, including cognac believed to have belonged to Napoleon. There’s also an outdoor cinema, Tekuna’s taqueria, Teko’s tacos and several Georgian restaurants including Veriko and Shushabandi, while Cocktail Factory is the first local bar I’ve ever had an authentic dry martini at.
With a loaf of sourdough tsiteli doli and a bottle of tsitska-tsolikouri under his arm, Ramzes pulls me up the hill and onto Gogebashvili. She sniffs the corner where Vova used to park her taxi, an old gray Lada with a picture of her German Shepherd on the visor. “Do you have a dog?” he asked me every time I got into his car. “You need a dog. Dogs are good. My dogs have pedigree, see? And he would tear out his dog’s picture and show it to me. “I’ll give you a good price for one of his puppies.” He complimented me on Ramzes, who I explained was a “Mexican Shepherd” with a wink.
Gogebashvili has seen a lot, that’s for sure. It was there that the zveli bichi, the neighborhood bad boys were hanging in the 90s. Georgian gangbangers, but with Kalashnikovs. The French Embassy was here, there was even an ATM, which was the first sign that the neighborhood was changing until it was removed 15 years ago. There was an old bakery around the corner. The tones are tandoori type ovens and every neighborhood has them, but this one would also roast infants for New Years Eve. People lined up in the cold holding their piglets by the paw.
A few years ago, there was a take-out sushi shop next to the family store that was the size of a closet, but somehow had more packaged goods inside than the supermarket chain around the corner. Sushi on Gogebashvili? I live two blocks away and called for a delivery, not because I’m lazy. I knew anything was possible in Vera, I just needed to confirm that anything was too. Twenty minutes later, a scooter came bouncing down the hill past Shalva’s garage with a California roll and unagi. “Pretty cool,” I thought.