Baku’s fast-evolving dining scene is making it one of the region’s most exciting foodie destinations. Enjoy everything from traditional pilaf to Russian cuisine and home-made cheeses at the best restaurants in the Azerbaijani capital.
It’s the eclectic architectural mix of everything from Medieval to ultra-modern structures that often grabs travellers’ attention when visiting rapidly developing Baku. However, the city’s restaurant scene has also come on leaps and bounds in recent years, with a range of new establishments bringing increasingly varied dining experiences. The best places to grab a bite in the Azerbaijani capital include a charming tea garden, a museum-inspired eatery and the city’s most exceptional Georgian restaurant.
Shirvanshah Museum Restaurant
Restaurant, Azerbaijani, $$$
Baku’s most experiential restaurant doubles as a museum, so while sampling the delights of Azerbaijani cuisine, expect to be taken on a journey through the city’s recent history. This enormous eatery is a veritable labyrinth of rooms and corridors whose core is a converted Medieval hammam, and it features a collection of antiques and curiosities expansive enough to rival an actual history museum. Each dining room has a unique theme, and one entire wing is devoted to the Soviet period – complete with a room kitted out like Lenin’s cabinet. Prices are remarkably reasonable, and booking is essential for evenings.
Among Baku’s oldest bistros, Araz Cafe opened in 1953 and for many years serviced a cinema opposite. While it’s fondly remembered among older Bakuvians, for many of whom this was a familiar haunt during the Soviet era, the café also attracts everyone from families and young creatives to travellers with its very convenient Fountains Square location, authentic atmosphere, affordability and speedy service. The menu focusses almost entirely on Azerbaijani cuisine, with a vast selection of dishes such as pilafs, dolmas and qutabs (stuffed pancakes) as well as local beer and wine. Alternatively, come for tea and shisha.
In Baku’s southern Bibiheybət district, a quiet lane snakes down to a string of fish restaurants on the coast of the Caspian Sea. The best known is Dərya Fish House, a three-floor establishment whose clean and simple interior exudes a local feel and offers spectacular sea views. “Mainly, what we have is fish: sea and river fish, fried or prepared on the mangal, as well as local Azerbaijani dishes like buglama [lamb stewed with onions, tomatoes and peppers],” says manager Gunduz Osmanli of the menu, which includes white fish, mullet, pike perch and sturgeon caught daily from the Caspian. Prices are very reasonable; expect to pay no more than 30 Azerbaijani manats (£13.50) per person. There’s also a large playground area for kids and a private stretch of a seaside promenade.
Nuxa is the historical name of Sheki, a charming city at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains in northwest Azerbaijan famous for its 18th-century old town with a Silk Road-style collection of cobblestone streets, mosques, hammams and caravanserais. And this restaurant brings a touch of all that – with its red-brick interior and dazzling lanterns inspired by Sheki’s famous caravanserai – to an otherwise nondescript area of Baku. “A long time ago, caravans went there, merchants on camels. It was both a hotel and a bazaar,” explains manager Elshad Rasulov. All of the staff are from Sheki, and while the cuisine is more broadly Azerbaijani, it’s a great place to sample dishes from the northwest, such as piti (a mutton and chickpea soup), which is served in a clay pot.
Located in the heart of Baku’s Medieval Old City, the fourth floor of Çay Bağı 145 offers unparalleled views of the capital’s oldest and most mysterious landmark, the cylindrical Maiden Tower. “The incredible panorama takes your breath away,” says local food writer Emiliya Aliyeva, who also praises the nods to local culture adorning the restaurant’s interior – expect plenty of colourful Azerbaijani carpets. Çay Bağı 145 (Tea Garden 145) is well worth visiting for a typical tea, jam and sweets experience. Alternatively, come early for a traditional Azerbaijani breakfast: tandir bread with cheeses, honey and a range of omelettes. It also prides itself on having the best shisha in town, and in summer, you can enjoy it seated on the roof of a 15th-century hammam.
Mari Vanna’s menu plays imaginatively on Russian home-cooking, with familiar dishes beautifully presented and packing plenty of flavours. “We have wonderful dumplings with potato and mushrooms,” says manager Elchin Rasanov. “We have an excellent borscht that everyone loves, beef stroganoff, pelmeni – all those tastes that we used to have in this post-Soviet space.” The interior also oozes Soviet-era nostalgia, with antiques including shelves stuffed with old books and a Russian stove sourced from St Petersburg. And even the waiters, whose service is excellent, seem to have appeared straight from a Young Pioneers’ camp.
Nestled opposite the National Museum of History of Azerbaijan in downtown Baku, United Coffee Beans (UCB) is part of a new wave of contemporary cafés bringing a genuine coffee culture to the capital. “In our cosy place, we are pleased to introduce our guests to the ‘third-wave coffee shop’ concept, with alternative ways of brewing speciality coffee,” says Parviz Dadashov, its founder. ”We roast the coffee beans and carefully analyse the whole journey from the soil to the cup.” But besides the coffee and simple yet stylish interior, which would fit seamlessly into the hippest neighbourhoods of London or Berlin, UCB also stands out for its selection of healthy snacks, sandwiches, desserts, pancakes and wide-ranging breakfasts.
A Russian restaurant serving rustic Italian cuisine, Syrovarnya opened in September 2019, and its name, meaning ‘creamery’ or ‘dairy’, reveals its unique feature. It produces cheese, including mozzarella, burrata, ricotta, stracciatella, scamorza, matzoon and halloumi, which you can enjoy individually or mixed into delicious salads or on wood-fired pizzas, with prices starting at 12 manats (£5.50). Inside, the decor and dominance of green create a soothing, homely atmosphere: “It’s the best restaurant interior I’ve come across in Baku,” says Aliyeva. There’s also plenty of meat and fish dishes, as well as a range of desserts and wines.
Located away from the tourist crowds in a quieter area of the Old City, Art Club is a restaurant and gallery set in a beautifully refurbished 18th-century townhouse. The fare is Azerbaijani and includes dishes such as shah pilaf, mangal salad, kebabs and dolmas, which are exquisitely presented and complemented well by the local lemonades and wines. But it’s the setting that really impresses, with the artfully contemporary interior offering lots to look at – from a Soviet-era black-and-white ‘Old Baku’ photo series to a string of antiques echoing the Old City’s history. And to round off the experience, a musician strums away on a tar (a long-necked lute) every evening on the porch.
Given this is the Caucasus, the list wouldn’t be complete without a Georgian restaurant. Baku has many, but Tsinandali is highly recommended. Hidden away in an alley in the central Sahil area, its interior is simple and spacious, complete with a small stage for live evening music that might be Georgian, Russian or Azerbaijani. The cuisine is mainly Georgian with a hint of European, so expect classic dough-based dishes like khinkali (stuffed dumplings) and khachapuri (cheese-filled bread), as well as a multitude of pork, chicken and beef mains and flavour-packed soups and salads. Plus, there’s home-made wine from Kakheti – Georgia’s famous winemaking region.