The rest of the world is quickly catching on that Latvia might be Europe’s best kept secret. With articles such as this one making the internet rounds, it is clear that Rīga has a unique architectural, cultural and historical scene. However what was immediately obvious to me after a few meals in the capital city was that the culinary scene here is also rich and diverse, and adventurous Latvian chefs are making a name for themselves not only in the Baltics, but in all of Europe.
With three very fastidious eaters in tow we sampled a wide variety of restaurants, cafes and eateries in Rīga, with a few emerging as clear favorites. Coming in first is my preference, which is well known among ‘repatriates,’ the American Latvians who have chosen to return to Latvia and make their home here – Folkklubs ala pagrabs. With traditional Latvian fare, an extensive selection of local beer, live music and atmosphere kačum, this is the place for your evening meal in Vecrīga. With an inconspicuous entrance off of Peldu Street, one must descend a flight of stairs and pass through a long hallway decorated with traditional Latvian symbols into the basement where tables and the bar await.
The traditional Latvian tavern is owned by two musicians, both chefs: one from Latvia and one from Australia. There is live music at least four nights a week, with one night reserved for traditional folk dance nights in which anyone can participate. When there’s not a band onstage the radio is tuned to Radio Oira, a folk radio station we could just about sing along to. A sunny afternoon we enjoyed one of the 14 local beers on tap along with a snack outside on the patio, enjoying the warm summer day and people watching only Vecrīga can offer. Just about everything I tried on their seasonal menu I would recommend to anyone asking, and was additionally pleased to learn the menu and produce are locally sourced.
A second favorite of mine was discovered accidentally after our Laima Chocolate tour; we were ravenous after a chocolate-only diet all morning in the Mieru ielas district! On our return trip to the US I wasn’t really surprised to find a write-up of Rocket Bean Roastery in the travel magazine in the seat-back pocket; this brand-new café certainly looks to have staying power with its Michelin-starred experienced chef Artūrs Taškāns, the trendy interior, a 10 euro 3-course lunch menu and a certain uniqueness factor in that it’s the first modern-day coffee roaster in Latvia. The coffee menu was unbelievable, and I would be lying if I said I knew what all the options meant; roasted, filtered, unfiltered, cold-pressed, espresso shot options and everything else! Where else can you find espresso for sale called Velna milti (the devil’s flour)?
We ordered the three course meal (which included coffee!) while enjoying the industrial interior and more people-watching (Rīga In Your Pocket writes “In keeping with the global trends of bearded Millennials, this industrial-style café on Riga's undisputed hipster Mecca, Miera iela, specialises in exceptional coffee, craft brews and a small menu of imaginative international cuisine.”) The place filled up with a lunch crowd and a steady stream of people ordering coffee to-go, which up until very recently was a completely foreign concept here in Rīga, but just as the amount of coffee shops in central Rīga has bourgeoned in the last two years is becoming more common. Once we had finished our meals at the farm tables made with driftwood and recycled beams we ducked into the coffee roasting operation in back, watching as the coffee meistars fired up the roaster for another batch of beans. The boys were delighted to see Costa Rica printed on the bags as source country, and upon further exploration we discovered beans from just about every country that grows and exports coffee. So, coincidence that Rocket Bean is right across the street from Laima Chocolate? I think not…
To round out my trio of Rīga eateries we have a staple of any visit to Latvia, LIDO. (The folks at the Roastery are probably cringing at the mention of Rocket Bean in the same article as LIDO, but despite the chain aspect this is a great experience for a tourist in Rīga - tautas tērps-clad waitresses and all). Roberts and the boys could probably have eaten at the Vērmanītis location every day without complaint, and I think this cafeteria-style eatery is a great introduction to traditional Latvian food without the stress. It’s a family-friendly option because you get to see exactly what you’re ordering with plenty of options for even the pickiest of eaters. And for those visiting Latvia with a minimum understanding of the language it’s nice not to have to struggle with menus as you can really just point to anything you want, plus the end result is rather friendly to the wallet. LIDO was started in 1987 and has grown to 9 restaurants in Rīga, with more in Talinn and new locations opening almost every year. There is an amusement park, a microbrewery, and historically even a woodworking and metalsmith to provide the finishings for the interiors of new restaurants. Vērmanītis opened its doors in 1999 across the street from Vērmanes park, which is also the reason for our frequent visits.
Upon entering each diner takes a tray. Among one side are the hot foods, served by chefs straight from sizzling skillets, and along the other is a salad bar, a fruit bar, a pancake bar, a dessert bar. Once you have made your selections you take your tray to a cashier who rings you up, and then you pass into the dining room, decorated in the style of a Latvian vecmāmiņas house. Don’t be fooled – this is fast food, and not the most healthy or gastronomic option in Rīga. However, it is dependable, fast and cheap; what you see is what you get.
On our last day in Rīga we were walking through Centrs with a good friend from Latvia, and he was pointing out all the places to eat – unfortunately a day too late for our dinner date sans children – describing each place as we passed. It was clear that there were dozens of great restaurants to try, with plenty of new spots as well as old favorites. In no way am I an expert on the local food scene; if you want some in-the-know advice on hot spots you might be interested to read Heather’s article “The15 Best Restaurants in Rīga.” However, during our time in the city these are the three spots that stood out and worked out for us – I hope you get to try them all and more on your next visit to Latvia!