Imagination, Quality and Passion – Baku’s Dining Scene Continues to Develop
Photos provided by Mark Elliott
Baku has never been more alive with tempting dining options. The range is bewildering, from suave business restaurants to cheap and cheerful kebab vendors to whacky concepts harnessing a remarkable breadth of imagination. Then there are the ever-multiplying street cafes and coffee shops, popular not only with locals but also with the rapidly growing influx of tourists. It’s hard to believe that less than two years ago, the hospitality industry had been crippled by COVID restrictions and the stay-at-home worries of the 2nd Karabakh War. This article highlights a very small selection to illustrate the evolving scene, tickle your tastebuds, and prick your curiosity about the ever-changing foodie options in the Azerbaijani capital.
As in Las Vegas, what happens in Yüngül Cinayətlər, stays in Yüngül Cinayətlər.
Amongst the more daring new dining concepts to have hit Baku this year is the iconoclastic Yüngül Cinayətlər. The name means ‘Light Crimes,’ inspired by its location directly across the road from Baku’s Grave Crimes Court (Ağır Cinayətlər Məhkəməsi). Running with the ‘crimes’ theme, the décor delves into themes that feel daringly transgressive. The graffiti-scribbled statue of a nude torso greets you at the door, but further in, there are comical video-graphic installations morphing Renaissance portraiture into gangster figures.
The folks dressed in orange dungarees are not Guantanamo prison inmates but wait staff. The menu looks like a court summons, and the check comes in an evidence bag. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if your tablemates end up lingering in the bathrooms. Pressing a button marked "you can touch" sets off groovy sounds and special lighting effects to turn the powder room into a party room.
The target audience is clearly young professionals who, on the weekend, come for the full-volume DJ-led party vibe and a fixed price all-inclusive deal, while on quieter evenings, the atmosphere is altogether more laid back and loungey.
Pun-tastic PR for Yüngül Cinayətlər continues the restaurant’s humorous approach with advertising memes for takeaways. To explain, ‘Ev’ means ‘home,’ and ‘Evə’ approximates to ‘to home’ –and is pronounced ‘e-vay.’ It sounds pretty much like a locally accented way of saying ‘away.’ Get it?
Yüngül Cinayətlər is just the latest (and hardest to pronounce) of a portfolio of inviting eateries created by the ever-imaginative Beat Group, whose activities also extend to recording music for their own label.
Old City Options
Until around a decade ago, there were relatively few eating options in Baku’s UNESCO-listed walled old town, Icheri Sheher, beyond a trio of historic caravanserai restaurants, which – while gorgeous – had something of a reputation for opaque pricing. Things have long since changed, and year by year, new restaurants add ever more colour to the area’s pretty streets and squares. Now they are even beginning to creep into the maze-like web of winding alleys away from the medieval inner-city walls.
Breaded aubergine fingers and bacon-wrapped roast beef at Maurice.
While undoubtedly tourist-focused, many offer a very decent range of local cuisine. Long-standing favourites include Art Club (combining a gallery and gourmet Azerbaijani dining) and Sultan Inn (stunning rooftop views, no alcohol). There are also lovely views from ‘secret’ vegan-friendly Manipura (unsophisticated, limited choice) and the similarly hard-to-find Cafe Maurice (delightful atmosphere, food a bit hit-and-miss).
Just some of the hearty stews on offer as part of the AZN7.50 (US$4.50) lunch deal at Tasty Station.
If like me, you’re put off by the name, you might walk right past Tasty Station. However, its beautifully decorated, budget meal deals are amazing value (lunch/dinner AZN7.50/10 for soup, main, pickles, ayran and tea), and what you get is genuinely well-cooked home-style food that, while meat-heavy, trumps many a place that charges double the price. It’s attached to the adorable and highly recommended Maajid Boutique Hotel, a genuinely family-run place whose attractive rooms are another of Baku’s remarkable bargains.
Kurban Said is a veritable shrine to the eponymous author as well as a place for delectable food in a charmingly homely old-world ambience
If you’re looking for a little more sophistication, reliably delicious mid-priced Azerbaijani food, and a literary-artistic twist, then don’t miss Kurban Said. After a refined aubergine roulade, they served me a slightly citrusy qovurma that was one of the best I’ve ever tasted. To top the food, however, the cozily classy interior recreates the feel of a period home and is a veritable shrine to the Baku-born author of the classic novel Ali & Nino – a first edition of which is on display in the little library area. The restaurant’s owner was herself the translator of some of Kurban Said’s other novels from the original German.
In top hat and cape, Kaddeh’s house magician Elmar İbrahimov made sugar lumps appear beneath a saucer before my very eyes before persuading a veritable stream of cigarettes to almost flow from my ear into his meaty hand. It’s all the more impressive given the lack of patter to distract my questioning gaze.
“Nobody is not loved,” declares one of several neon slogans spiralling high above the dining floor of Kaddeh. This is Baku’s latest cabaret restaurant where 8 pm show-dinners kick off with a remarkably impressive table magician before morphing into a song and dance show generally featuring rising star singer Elvin Mirzazada and a supporting cabaret of acrobatic dancers with even the servers getting onto the bar and jigging while setting off fireworks. It’s certainly not everyone’s taste – there’s a dress code and ‘no-unaccompanied men’ rule – but this is a professional piece of showmanship that has, since October 2022, found a fabulous use for a historic 19th-century factory building which had been left preserved but purposeless for decades.
Oozing positive energy, Tunzala Poulson has been managing Baku restaurants and clubs for nearly 20 years. “COVID hit really hard,” she tells me. “Everything closed down – it was March 18th – how can I forget! It felt like the end of the world. I had some savings, but with no work, I ‘ate' them all. Things started to open again in July, but then at the end of September 2020, there was the war in Karabakh, and things stopped all over again. There was no music and no clubs open, everyone was so sad. But in the new year, things started moving very quickly. People were so much in need of letting out some emotion."
Beyond a narrow bistro-bar area, Syrovarnya is a cavernous place, but the entrance is none too obvious, especially for visitors who can’t recognize the understated Cyrillic signage
One of the most impressive newcomers, at least for its breathtaking décor, is Syrovarnya which has recreated an atmosphere that simply overflows with 1930s Art Deco chic. The designers’ attention to detail is truly astonishing, from the giant lamps illuminating soaring ceilings right down to the precise styling of the period effect toilets. It’s the Baku project of Arkady Novikov, host of Russian MasterChef and cited by BBC Good Food as ‘Russia’s most famous restauranteur.’ Even if you don’t want to indulge in Syrovarnya’s pan-European cuisine (think spicy sea bass, fried halloumi, lamb tongues in Port sauce and truffle oil), the tree-shaded street terrace outside is an indulgent people-watching spot for lingering over coffee and raspberry-topped pistachio meringue. However, I did have a few niggles with the service, and arguably if you’re looking for great Russian food and delightfully upscale yet cozy ‘pre-revolutionary’ vibes, you might prefer the ever-reliable Mari Vanna.
In what seems a rather daring concept for Baku, one of Azerbaijan’s best sommeliers, Mansur Valiyev, has created a place which aims to frame African chic as high culture. Giant mural faces project poise rather than ethnic tokenism, zebra-patterned fabrics are used sparingly enough not to become stereotypes, and the overall atmosphere is one of a classy cocktail café. The starting point is an impressive selection of South African wines, and while there are European-style meals available (pasta, steak), much of the food is designed to accompany rather than act as a central feature. Think neatly cut sandwiches and bruschetta. Curious nibbles, that pair well with a glass of rich chocolate-nosed Leopard’s Leap Cab-Sav, are morsels of ‘African meat’ – strips of a lightly spicy pastrami… but what animal do they come from? “Ah, that’s a secret!”
For now, nowhere in Baku is attracting a greater buzz of local foodie excitement than Vətən, despite a ludicrously out-of-centre location in an ex-industrial backwater near 20 Yanvar. A garden oasis hides a series of regionally themed dining spaces. The décor isn’t memorable but what’s fabulous is the focus on high-quality Azerbaijani home cooking using fresh seasonal produce and adding techniques drawn from other cuisines to intensify the flavours.
Vətən is a physical and culinary oasis in an otherwise obscure quarter of northwest Baku.
It’s hard to describe the perfection of their smoked tenderloin in a light, slightly tart jus, served with crisply roast potatoes that would grace any top British Sunday lunch plate. Or the beautifully balanced baked quince stuffed with a sophisticated herby-mince drizzled with a rich mulberry sauce.
Co-owner Tofiq tells me that Vətən started out very modestly as a way for his business partner Anar to indulge a family passion for cuisine that goes back generations. The obscure location had parking, a modest rent, and, initially, the restaurant launched as somewhere for friends of friends to eat well. However, word-of-mouth recommendations meant that they were rapidly overwhelmed by bookings. Despite two expansions and a new branch in Mardakan, getting a weekend reservation remains as likely as winning the lottery.
No discussion of the Baku food scene is complete without reference to the wide-ranging Saffron Group, whose flagship oriental-fusion Chinar Restaurant revolutionized the Baku dining scene when it opened back in 2012 and remains as popular as ever. While reviewing the group’s well-established portfolio, thoughtful new CEO, Fariz Suleymanov, points out that the group is proud to offer a visitor the breadth to dine with a different food and décor concept every meal for a week. Certainly, the ambience varies astonishingly between properties such that, other than the reliable food quality and attention to detail, it’s hard to know that you’re in a Saffron place.
Feel like you’re in France at the Paris Bistro. Image: Paris Bistro/Instagram
Perhaps the most magical is the Paris Bistro, where you really feel like you might have unwittingly stumbled onto the Champs Elysses. Complete with ‘zinc’ bar, chequerboard floor tiles, low-hanging ball lamps and chanson soundtrack, Toulouse Lautrec might feel at home. Of late, the cuisine has a little less Frenchness than it did on opening when the onion soup and escargots were both miraculous Gallic wonders.
Now ten years old, Sahil was one of Baku’s first truly top-class Azerbaijani restaurants and has worked hard to retain its suave business-casual ambience and pleasing sense of calm.
Meanwhile, one of the group’s original properties, Sahil, remains very hard to beat for exquisitely cooked local fare with quality ingredients, partly visible show kitchen and unusually professional yet not overly formal service. Consistently topping polls for Azerbaijani food, it attracts a clientele that tends to be predominantly local business folk, if only because the place seems so wantonly under signposted (on the floor above far more visible Zazu). As well as Azerbaijani food – try the ultra-tender lamb shank baked with a sesame pie crust and served on barberry rice. And don’t miss sharing a starter portion of Mirza Ghasemi – delectable roast aubergine dip based on a south-Caspian recipe.
And there’s so much more. Many new Indian and Arabic restaurants. A whole range of shisha cafes – very much a mixed blessing if you DON’T want to smoke a hookah. And an ever more expansive selection of tandir places with bread, qutabs (filled Azerbaijani pancakes) and more cooked in clay ovens. The choice is superb and ever-changing. Nuş olsun! (bon appetit).
 Kurban Said (aka Gurban Said, aka Essad Bey) is a pseudonym - the author’s true identity is disputed.