Romanian cuisine tends to be filling and wholesome rather than particularly tasty or imaginative, with menus dominated by meat, in common with the rest of the Balkans. Similarly, the range and quality of restaurants remains fairly average, the one exception being Bucharest, where there is now a genuinely exciting gastronomic scene. That said, the likes of Cluj, Braşov and Sibiu are also experiencing a mini culinary renaissance. For a glossary of food and drink terms,.
Unless you’re staying in a four- or five-star hotel, where a full buffet is the norm, breakfast (micul dejun) is usually a fairly dull – sometimes even depressing – affair, typically consisting of bread rolls with butter and jam, the ubiquitous omelette, and perhaps some salty cheese or a long, unappealing skinless sausage – the coffee, meanwhile, is invariably lamentable.
For snacks, known as gustări (also the Romanian word for hors d’oeuvres), head to a bakery (brutărie), which you can find everywhere. Just about all of these dispense covrigi, plain or seeded bread rings straight from the oven, sold as a bunch and tied to a piece of string. Bakeries are also good for pateuri, flaky pastries stuffed with cheese, meat or fruit fillings, and brioche (cozonac), a Moldavian speciality. Street vendors and beer gardens dispense a variety of grilled meats, the most popular of which are mititei (more commonly known as mici), succulent grilled beef rissoles served with a dollop of mustard.
Given the affordability of eating out in Romania, it’s best to go upmarket if you can, since the choice of dishes in cheaper restaurants is invariably very predictable. Generally speaking, in better restaurants you should be able to get a decent two-course meal, with a glass of wine or beer, for a bargain €10–12.
It’s always worth enquiring Care feluri le serviţi astazi, vă rog? (“What do you have today?”) or Ce Óhmi recomandaţi? (“What do you recommend?”) before studying the menu too seriously. An increasing number of restaurants, including some of the better establishments, now offer daily set menus, typically a two- or three-course meal, with a drink, for around €6, which is usually offered Monday to Friday between noon and 5 or 6pm. While not exactly haute cuisine, these meals are cracking value.
Self-service autoservire canteens are not as commonplace as they once were, but you’ll still find plenty of them in the coastal resorts. A far cry from the grisly canteens that Ceauşescu intended to make the mainstay of Romanian catering, these uncomplicated venues offer simple, cheap meals.
Inevitably, standards of service vary depending upon the type of establishment, but generally speaking don’t expect anything but the most perfunctory of service, while in some places you’ll be greeted (and served) with total indifference. Outside Bucharest and some of the larger cities, you’ll find few staff speak English.
One thing that has changed for the better is the ban on smoking, which includes all restaurants.
Perhaps the most authentic Romanian dish is sarmale – cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, meat and herbs, usually served (or sometimes baked) with sour cream or horseradish; they are sometimes also made with vine leaves (sărmălute in foi de viţă) or, in Maramureş, with corn (sarmale cu pasat). Mămăligă, maize mush or polenta, often served with sour cream, is authentic country fare. Stews (tocane) and other dishes often feature a combination of meat and dairy products. Muşchi ciobanesc (shepherd’s sirloin) is pork stuffed with ham, covered in cheese and served with mayonnaise, cucumber and herbs, while muşchi poiana (meadow sirloin) is beef stuffed with mushrooms, bacon, pepper and paprika, served in a vegetable purée and tomato sauce.
Keep an eye out for regional specialities (specialităţile regiunii). Moldavian cooking is reputedly the best in Romania, featuring rissoles (pârjoale), and more elaborate dishes such as rasol moldovenesc cu hrean (boiled pork, chicken or beef, with a sour cream and horseradish sauce), tochitură moldovenească (a pork stew, with cheese, mămăligă, and a fried egg on top), rulade de pui (chicken roulade) and pui câmpulungean (chicken stuffed with smoked bacon, sausage, garlic and vegetables). Because of Romania’s Turkish past, you may come across moussaka and varieties of pilaf, while the German and Hungarian minorities have contributed such dishes as smoked pork with sauerkraut and Transylvanian hotpot.
Cakes and desserts are sticky and very sweet. Romanians enjoy pancakes and pies with various fillings, as well as Turkish-influenced baclava and savarină (crisp pastry soaked in syrup and filled with whipped cream).
Romanian cheese (brânză) is mainly handmade from sheep’s milk by shepherds who spend the summers in the hills with their flocks. The standard hard cheese is known as caşcaval, while caş is a less salty version of feta, and telemea is a soft and creamy white cheese matured in brine.
The situation for vegetarians remains predictably dull. You can try requesting something fără carne, vă rog (“without meat, please”), or checking este cu carne? (“does it contain meat?”), but you’re unlikely to get very far. It’s worth asking for ghiveci (mixed stewed veg); ardei umpluţi (stuffed peppers); ouă umpluţe picante or ouă umpluţe cu ciuperci (eggs with a spicy filling or mushroom stuffing); ouă romăneşti (poached eggs); or vegetables and salads. However, in practice you’re likely to end up with omelette, mămăligă or caşcaval pané (cheese fried in breadcrumbs).
Most cafés (cafenea or cofetărie) serve the full range of beverages, from coffee (and occasionally tea) to soft drinks and beer, while many also offer cakes, pastries and ice cream. Romanians usually take their coffee black and sweet in the Turkish fashion; ask for cafea cu lapte if you prefer it with milk, or fără zahăr without sugar. Other types of coffee, such as cappuccino, are invariably hit-or-miss affairs, ranging from good quality to insipid cups with a dollop of cream on top. The good news, though, is that the third-wave coffee movement has hit Bucharest big-time, and there are now some superb artisan coffee houses with knowledgeable, enthusiastic baristas; this trend is slowly spreading to other cities, notably Cluj, Constanţa, Braşov and Iaşi. Bars and pubs run the full gamut, from dark rough-and-ready dives to flash, modern concerns. A crama is a wine cellar, while a gradina de vară or terasa is a terrace or garden, usually offering mititei as well as beer.
The national drink is ţuică, a tasty, powerful brandy usually made of plums, taken neat. In rural areas, home-made spirits can be fearsome stuff, often twice distilled (to over fifty percent strength, even when diluted) to yield palincă, much rougher than grape brandy (rachiu or coniac).
Most beer (bere) is European-style lager (bere blondă). You’ll see Silva (from Reghin), Ciucaş (from Braşov), Ciuc (from Miercurea Ciuc), Timişoreana (from Timişoara) and Ursus (from Cluj – which, to all intents and purposes, is the national beer), while Bergenbier and Eggenburger are acceptable mass-produced brands; you will also occasionally find brown ale (bere neagră or brună). More excitingly, there is now an increasing number of craft beers on the market, the best of which is the delicious Zăganu, though at present you won’t find it in too many places. Beer is usually sold by the bottle, so a request for o sticlă will normally get you one of whatever’s available; draught beer is known as halbă.
Romania’s best wines – and they are pretty good – are the white Grasa from Cotnari, near Iaşi; Tămâioasă, a luscious, late-harvested Moldavian dessert wine; blackberryish red Fetească Neagră from Dealu Mare, in Buzău county; and the sweet dessert wines from Murfatlar (notably Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and white Muscat Ottonel). They can be obtained in most restaurants, while some places may just offer you a choice of red or white. Sparkling (spumos) wines from Alba Iulia and Panciu (north of Focşani) are very acceptable. Wine is rarely sold by the glass, but it does no harm to ask – Serviţi vin la pahar?