Lviv is Eastern Europe’s undiscovered gem, at least to Americans. This utterly gorgeous city, just 40 miles from the border of Poland, is not only home to stunning Austro-Hungarian architecture and colorful town squares, but has gastronomy unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in all of Europe.
They’re called “Emotional Restaurants,” and they are not to be missed.
In 2007, three non-conformist entrepreneurs set out to establish a series of unique restaurants that would give its patrons a unique, creative, and emotional experience. They called the company “!FEST,” and offer several “emotional experiences” throughout Lviv, each one utterly different than the others.
How did I find out about these outrageously fun restaurants? I toured Ukraine with JayWay Travel, a boutique travel agency that specializes in Eastern Europe. They have local representatives in each of their destination cities who have scouted and tested out the very best experience for their clients.
1. Dim Legend (House of Legends)
A large crowd began to gather on the cobblestone street. As all heads were tilted up, I followed their gaze and saw a model train running across the front of an interesting-looking building. Above the train, a large black metal dragon head jutted out from the façade.
“When the train goes back across, the dragon will breathe fire,” I heard one of the onlookers say.
Sure enough, in a few minutes, a pyrotechnic display of sparks flying out of the dragon’s mouth wowed the crowd. This is an hourly occurrence at House of Legends, intended to draw would-be diners into the eatery.
After getting past the chimney sweep at the door, I climbed crooked stairs with low overhangs leading to seven floors of small, kitschy dining rooms. Every room tells a particular Lviv legend about the past, present or future, as well as (largely imaginary) things that are peculiar to the city, e.g. the underground river Poltva, the Lviv dialect book, the Lviv lions, and a room that controls the weather.
At the top of the stairs is a terrace with a spiral staircase to a tiny, eclectic roof for spectacular sunset views of Lviv. Note: this spot has been known for pickpocketing scams, so beware and keep your valuables under close scrutiny.
2. Kryivka (Bunker)
Kryivka was one of !FEST’s first emotional restaurants in Lviv, and in my opinion, it’s the best. If you can find the large but non-descript door in the center of old town, knock loudly. Don’t be surprised to be greeted by the gun of a gruff soldier from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – guerrilla soldiers who fought against the Soviets, Poles, and Nazis. “What’s the password?” he snarled at us.
If you respond, “Slava Ukraini” (“glory to Ukraine”), you will be permitted to enter the tiny antechamber. Here, I was scrutinized because he insisted I look like a “moskal” (aka a Russian spy…maybe the blonde hair?). After convincing him I was not (“Ni, ni!”), he pressed a welcome shot of medivka (honey vodka) to my lips, which I immediately swallowed and found to be surprisingly tasty.
He grunted and opened a fake bookcase door, so I proceeded to clamber down into the last hiding place of the Ukrainian Insurgency, a labyrinth of tunnels and shelters that look like World War II bunkers. At the bottom, I joined my comrades and ordered more honey vodka.
Kryivka is more about the experience than the food. We ordered coarse bread and pungent cheese served up in a dented tin military plate, along with a dish of kholodets – a rather unappetizing-looking repast consisting of pieces of chicken and carrots held together in congealed gelatin. It was difficult to get the kholodets past my eyes and into my mouth, but I took a small bite and shivered it down. One and done!
If you hear a siren, it’s because they’ve detained a Russian spy. Go quickly to the (unloaded) vintage rifles, and if you can lift one of those enormously heavy weapons, be ready for an attack! If there’s no invasion, you’ll still have an opportunity to fire a pellet gun at a poster of Vladimir Putin.
To get out of the bunkers, we had to pass through more tunnels until we reached a secret courtyard with a bizarre sculpture of a car with airplane wings at the top.
Across the courtyard was another door which led into an antechamber with an old motorcycle and sidecar beckoning riders brave enough to withstand the onslaught of Russian soldiers shooting at them from behind. Sort of.
Yes, of course at the end you pass through the ubiquitous gift shop, filled with all kinds of fun and hilarious souvenirs that recall an age when Ukraine and Russia were at war, many inscribed with the motto, “The Fight Continues.”
I loved this place so much, I went back a second time – something I almost never do!
3. Most Expensive Galician Restaurant
If you’re a fan of cloak-and-dagger, you’ll love this experience. The concept of the venue is a mysterious Masonic society that occupies an apartment in an old building. If you can find it, that is. Sound familiar? Yes, that’s because it’s located on a high floor of the same building as Kryivka (see #2) in the bowels of the building.
Ascending up the stairs, we opened a door marked with a blue Masonic symbol and found ourselves in the kind of hallway with multiple doors that you’d find in an apartment building. Huh?
Katia, who lives in Ukraine, pointed and told us to knock on one of the doors. The door opened to reveal a disheveled man in a bathrobe, peeling potatoes in a tiny, cluttered, Soviet-style Spartan apartment. I put on my most saccharine-sweet smile and asked him if he knew where the secret restaurant was.
After studying my face for a beat, he pointed to a door on the right. What? Was he sending me to his bedroom? I opened the door and stepped through. It was like that scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door to Oz and suddenly everything changes from black-and-white to Technicolor.
Spread out before me was a posh room with gleaming wood, stained-glass, and pristine antique furniture. A woman sat at a grand piano, singing and playing soft, classical music. The low-lit ambiance was chic and swanky, yet still strange. This was the super-secret, enigmatic, Masonic restaurant. A maître d’ ushered us to a room near the back, passing a random fusion of décors like portraits of America’s early presidents, vintage cars and more Masonic symbols.
I would be remiss if I did not say at this point that the appetizers, entre, and wine were excellent.
This restaurant is aptly named. The prices are ten times higher than normal, truly making it the most expensive restaurant in Ukraine.
Priceless TIP! You can reduce your price by 90% with a client loyalty card that you can pick up for free at House of Legends or in the gift shop at the exit of Kryivka. But if you were not able to get a card, you can also card negotiate your discount upon entering.
4. At the Golden Rose
This Galician and Jewish restaurant is located in Lviv’s historic Jewish quarter near the ruins of the Golden Rose synagogue. The prime place to eat is in a lovely open courtyard in front of the restaurant, directly facing the House of Legends (#1 above).
Shortly after being seated, our waiter came over with a basin and poured water over my hands, as was the Jewish custom. Such a nice touch!
Our first course was a selection of different flavored hummus and small toasted pieces of pita bread. Hummus has never been one of my favorites. Until then. The hummus they served was so tasty that I could not stop shoving the heaping pieces into my mouth.
The menu consisted of traditional dishes like cholent (stewed potatoes, barley, smoked goose, carrots and beans) kofta (ground lamb cutlet), duck, and mutton. I had the deep-fried beef with red bell peppers and matbucha sauce. It sent me into a sensory frenzy – yes, it was that good. The best meal I had in Lviv!
The menu is without prices and the cost of the dishes depends on the customer’s skills to bargain. Our waiter suggested we sing for our supper. We launched into a howling enthusiastic rendition of “American the Beautiful” and were rewarded by loud applause from the other diners. What choice did our waiter have other than to give us a fair price for our food?
5. Meat and Justice
Did someone call for the executioner?
Set as a medieval pub, Meat and Justice pays tribute to the first municipal employee of Lviv, which believe it or not, was an executioner. Legend has it that he was a strange fellow, having several additional duties besides killing and torture, such as garbage removal and safeguard of city prostitutes.
I suppose one could make the leap that there would be no one better to know about meat, than an executioner; so don’t be surprised when your savory grilled meat arrives it will be cut by “the executioner” wielding sharp, medieval tortures tools and weapons. Heavy metal music plays in the background, and some unlucky souls are daily cast into a cage beneath the floor.
Sign the bill? In blood, of course.
6. Lviv Coffee Mining Manufacture
Lviv takes its coffee seriously. Aromas of the heavenly brew waft out from every corner and down every cobbled alley. And no wonder…. 17th century, war hero Yuriy Frants Kulchytsky brewed the first cup of coffee in Vienna…BUT, he was born in Lviv Oblast, so Lviv puts a lot of credence in its originator.
Coffee Mining Manufacture is the best place for coffee in the city – in both taste and experience. Upon entering the coffee house, we sidled past a glassed-in area where we briefly watched the roasting process before heading to the back. From there, we donned miners’ helmets and descended down mining shaft. The tunnels are dark and tight, so we paid attention to our steps and our heads.
Emerging into a large cavernous space, we quickly snatched up a few vacant stools around a roughly-hewn wooden table. Even though I normally drink my coffee black and without sugar, I ordered the house specialty.
The barista/miner gathered our tin cups of coffee and added a layer of brown sugar on the top. Taking a blowtorch, he lit the tops of the cups, creating a luscious caramelized topping.
Taking care not to scald my tongue, I let the coffee cool for a bit before indulging in the sticky, delicious sweetness.
7. Lviv Handmade Chocolate
This cozy chocolate shop in the heart of historical old town is easy to find. Just look for adults gazing longingly and children with their faces pressed up against the window.
Lviv has been a paradise for chocolate lovers as far back as the middle ages. The process of producing chocolate remains the same, as is the goal to produce high quality, hand-made chocolate from organic ingredients from Lviv. Any of the chocolate candies made here can be sampled before you buy.
You can take a class and learn how to make some delicious treats at their chocolate workshop. It’s a fairly easy process, The lesson consists of cutting small shapes from a flat bar of raw chocolate using small tin cut-outs like hearts, flowers, half-moons, etc. The shapes are then dipped it in a pan of warm chocolate coating and then coated in various toppings such as coconut, sesame, and strawberry sprinkles.
Note you will get messy, and the temptation to eat the ingredients is hard to resist, but you’ll get a certificate at the end.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of JayWay Travel during her stay in Lviv, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.