Every decent Zagreb travel blog has to have food related posts, answering two most important traveler’s questions: where to eat in Zagreb and what to eat in Zagreb.
Being a local, we are amazed at how many excellent restaurants we have in our city with the gastro scene blooming for the last couple of years. There are old traditional restaurants, new restaurants, new cool fusion restaurants, Asian places, burger joints (Croatians discovered burgers in 2015 and even in this social distancing year of 2020 we couldn’t relinquish our Burger Festival), kiosks with amazing to-go meals, pastries and, of course, pancake houses (we finally realized it’s possible to have pancakes with more add-ons than auntie’s plum jam).
However, before all those restaurants, Michelin stars and 24kitchen, we only had our farmers’ markets. Tradition of markets in Zagreb officially dates from the 13th century, and unofficially from the 11th. As you can see, even back in the old days we had that amazing skill of selling stuff without allowing boring details like paying taxes discourage us.
Meanwhile, the taxes became official, and with them, many terms and conditions for market vendors were implemented. Mostly regarding hygiene and quality control (it’s hard to imagine the 14th century quality control officers, but they existed as city employees, patrolling the markets).
For example, even back then, there were many sanitary regulations for butchers. If it had been discovered that the butcher had been selling old or rotten meat, he wouldn’t have just got a fine. First, he was slapped. Then, he was garnished with his own rotten meat (bear in mind that this so-called trials lasted for several days, the meat was rotten, and the refrigerator had not yet been invented…) and banished from the city! If he had been, an intellectually challenged butcher, and for some reason decided to return to the city – he would have been burned at the stake. Strict, but fair, one might say.
With fisherman, it was easier to establish the freshness of their products. Each day, when the church bells had struck noon, the quality control officers went to the fish market and cut all the tails of the fish which were left unsold. Again strict, again fair.
Since we’re still a very traditional nation that enjoys home-cooked meals, doing our weekly grocery shopping remained a strong segment of our lives. Today, in Zagreb, we have 22 local markets, more or less, in every corner of the city. The biggest and centrally located one is the Dolac market, behind the main square. After centuries of moving here and there, in 1925 it got this permanent location, with both indoor and outdoor area. Our Dolac market is not just another fake rip-off market that can be found in some popular tourist destinations around the world whose sole purpose is to sell souvenirs and overpriced fruits to tourists. This is the real deal.
Everything is local and tempting, including the must-eat Croatian version of a brunch. To think about it, we had brunch before it was cool, the only problem is that ours usually ends with a questionable breath smell and alcohol level. Nevertheless, it’s a must-try and it’s delicious! First CRO-brunch, that we would recommend, is fried fish.
Usually accompanied by the potato-onion salad. At Dolac market you can find it at the Amfora restaurant, just next door to the fish market. It’s also a perfect place to get into Zagreb state of mind. Imagine drinking wine with no label, while eating sardines or a 6 EUR tuna steak that is better than any steak you would normally pay 60 EUR. All of that while watching locals and chatting with a lady selling dry figs that sat next to you to have a quick coffee. It doesn’t get more local than that.
Or it does, if you try our second CRO-brunch at our markets. This specialty is eaten as breakfast in some homes- leftovers from the night before, sometimes it’s a proper lunch, and for some it’s a fancy first dinner date. The meal is called ćevapi (pronounced che-va-pee), it’s a finger shaped grilled minced meat served with onions and pita bread (I think the questioning breath smell issue is now easier to understand). You can find ćevapi everywhere, from traditional restaurants to pizza joints around the country. But at markets we have specialized small, usually stand-only ćevapi places.
If asked, every local will tell you THE BEST ćevapi is at the market in their neighbourhood. The truth is, at every market they are pretty much the same. Sometimes even having the same suppliers. However, since we are Zagreb-born from Trešnjevka neighbourhood, we have to take a stand and end this post with celebration of our hood and proudly claim: ćevapi at Trešnjevka market are the best in the city, the best in Croatia, the Balkans and in the whole wide world. It’s not debatable, and we have a photo as a proof to show you that our ćevapi really are… NUMBER ONE!