According to Wikipedia, the word kafana describes any informal restaurant serving the traditional cuisine of the former Yugoslav countries, often with live music. According to popular culture in the area, a kafana has a quasi-romantic atmosphere of down-at-the-heels loneliness, like a diner in an Edward Hopper painting, where your luck could turn at any moment but probably won't. According to our experience in the East Village, Kafana is a great place to fill up on Serbian specialties, with nary a tear in sight.
In the postcards that adorn the brick walls, Belgrade landmarks have been lightly retouched with neon hues, pinks and purples and greens offsetting a cornice or tree. Spend enough time at a flea market, and you'll likely find similar images from around the world. Titles, deeds, and portraits of stony-faced members of a early twentieth-century social club complete the decorations. Chair cushions feature multicolored embroidery, and the friendly yellow walls open onto a small porch that fronts Avenue C. Cash gets put into a old-fashioned register that requires several turns of a crank to open. While not necessarily romantic, such ornamentation lends an appealing idiosyncrasy.
Despite the quick arrival of tap water in old milk bottles and slices of bread with ajvar, a spread made from red pepper and eggplant, we order more carbs. Lepinja sa kajmakom ($5.95) were slices of toasted white bread stuffed with kaymak, an oozy clotted cream spread similar to ricotta. Dainty enough to eat with tea, substantive enough to take the edge off—these were lovely little things.
Our second starter, a hefty slab of zeljanica ($5.95), could make a meal. Squiggles of spinach interlocked with phyllo dough and feta made from cow's milk, an intense battle for dominance on the plate that finished lightly on the tongue. Popeye would be pleased, but those who can't stand spinach might try the gibanica ($5.95), the plain cheese pie, instead.
The riba na zaru, fish of the day, was a whole branzino prepared simply with lemon and chunks of garlic bobbing in a warm oil. As it turned out, the market price ($23.95) cost nearly double anything else on the menu. We worked for every bit of tender white flesh, pushing the spine and waste tube out of the way, masticating with care to discriminate between the garlic and spiky cartilage. Worth it!
Far less labor intensive was the cevapi ($11.95). These minced meat rolls smelled of grease but tasted beefy, the chopped raw onions there for contrast. Of all the food we tried, this seemed the most typical of the rough roadside bistros in Central Europe. As our waitress warned, the meat came naked, so we supplemented with the boiled potatoes and kale that appeared with the fish.
To finish, the pita sa visnjama ($5.95), sour cherries and walnuts loosely falling out of a flaky blanket. Almost like a crepe, the pie had nevertheless known a fryer, to good effect. Combined with the antiquated decor, dessert evoked our grandparents' house, nicely.
We should mention that Kafana isn't ideal for any of the following: vegetarians, people who don't like their music dosed with synthesizers, people who want to pay with credit cards, people who would prefer that their servers don't step out for a mid-shift smoke break in front of the restaurant. For everyone else, it's super.
"Kafana je moja sudbina" (Kafana is my destiny) goes the popular song, filled with fiddles and and maybe an accordion. (Check it out on iTunes.) We would love it if someone took us on a date here, we said to each other, laughing, since we were already there. Even with a handful of other eaters, a Friday night dinner still felt like a find—and it was certainly a deal, the pricey fish notwithstanding. Kafana, with its old-world charm and cheap, filling feed, is best for: an offbeat, low-cost date.
About the authors: Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler have been eating out together since 2002 and writing We Heart New York since 2006.