Zagreb is very much a working city. Back in the day, when jobs started at 7am with a cigarette and a coffee, workers would take an early lunch at 11am, a meal known as gableci. This tradition continues, at least in terms of affordable eats around town at midday, and unpretentious Croatian spots and pizzerias remain the mainstay of affordable dining after dark.
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Named for the famous footballer who opened it some 20 years ago, Boban, near Zagreb’s main square, provides that elusive combination of quality and affordability. In addition to the mainly Mediterranean menu and daily specials, Boban also offers breakfast, and Chef Branko Kusovac oversees a quality selection of homemade pastas, with veal, tuna or salmon.
Down near the city’s new business quarter, the former workaday grill and diner Bistro-Grill Deno has upped the ante and given the place a new look. Although now furnished in a contemporary fashion, they still offer wonderfully cheap meals. The quality of the dishes was never in question, but only now does the carnivorous business crowd tuck into the 35-kuna lunchtime specials. Deno is also open for dinner every day except Sunday.
Diagonally opposite Zagreb Cathedral, Capuciner is one of those classic spots that should be far more expensive than it is. Having sadly abandoned domestic cuisine for pizzas and pastas, this long-established eaterie can feed a family of four for 200 kuna, unless you start laying into the turkey or fish mains. Considering its location, it’s still a godsend and provides a pleasant covered side terrace to rest your feet after a hard morning of sightseeing.
Kod Mike keeps its promise of delivering “dishes the way our grandmothers cooked.” Its traditional façade blends in with the fairy-tale atmosphere of Tkalčićeva, and the daily specials run at less than 30 kuna—that’s a full cooked meal for the price of a simple sandwich elsewhere. The interior keeps the spirit of old Zagreb alive, but you’ll want a spot on the terrace to watch the people on the city’s most revered street go about their daily business.
The Gostionica Tip-top is one of those places that makes Zagreb what it is. To lose it would be like getting rid of the main square or the trams. The haunt of the city’s literary set in the 1940s and 1950s–the behatted gent in the restaurant logo is writer Tin Ujević–the Tip-top continues to attract bohemians and thinkers. The regulars here schedule their week around the daily specials, such as Slavonian čobanac stew on Tuesdays and octopus goulash on Thursdays. No set dish breaks the 50-kuna barrier, and the service and atmosphere still belong to 1955.
Purger is the local term for someone from Zagreb, and this cosy eaterie has been part of the local dining scene for generations. There’s nothing cutting-edge about Purger, just honest, traditional veal- or lamb-based dishes served in large portions at friendly prices. This is also the place to try grah, a filling bean stew with a smoked-meat flavour.
Before Zagreb was awash with fast-food options, there was the Pingvin, still tucked inside a little courtyard on Teslina, and open until all hours. They serve huge sandwiches stuffed with every filling you request. Invariably popular as bars start to close, the Pingvin still does a roaring trade and keeps its prices friendly.
Inspired by fairy-tale characters, Ivek i Marek is made up of two similarly named businesses alongside each other on Tkalčićeva; one is a pâtisserie that uses all-natural ingredients, the other is a restaurant. The rustic feel of the sit-down eaterie is reflected in the menu, which is inspired by the age-old cuisine of (mainly) Zagorje and Istria that bring local suppliers to the forefront. Outstanding desserts are produced next door. Given the quality and central location, prices are more than fair.
Nokturno is a local byword for pizzeria with a terrace that fills a narrow thoroughfare behind Zagreb market. The restaurant offers pastas, salads and meat dishes, as well, but the regulars are here to devour Nokturno’s signature pizza with bacon, egg and chili peppers, and are more than willing to pay the 35-40 kuna for the privilege. Also popular is the Slavonian, which comes with spicy kulen sausage.
Surrounded by cheap eateries that open early, Zagreb’s main Dolac market not only provides the ingredients to make your own meals, but it also offers the prepared, sit-down version, too. Make use of the adjoining fish market, as well, and throw together a plate of fried squid and fries with a glass of wine or beer for next to nothing. Locals also indulge in cornbread, cream cheese and dried sausage, sampled in the dairy section of the covered market.