True to Azerbaijan’s cosmopolitan history, Baku is an intriguing mix of Caucasian, Middle Eastern, European and Slavic cultures. There’s arguably no better place to sample the many sides to this city than around its meal tables. While the capital’s ultra-chic central streets offer unparalleled fine dining, you can find cheap and no less delicious traditional food in the humbler cafes and restaurants of its medieval Old Town, Icherisheher. Here are five places to sample the very best of Baku’s food scene, with something for every taste and budget.
Agabala restaurant is named in honour of the philanthropist Aghabala Guliyev, whose generosity helped Azerbaijani culture and society to develop in the 19th century. Indeed, it’s the Azerbaijan cuisine of the 19th century that inspires the menu at Aghabala, which makes it the perfect place in the capital to try traditional cuisine. The menu includes dishes that have always been staples in Azerbaijani households, such as chighirtma (scrambled eggs with chopped herbs) and dolma (vine leaf parcels filled with meat), and cooks up classic recipes with a modern twist. It also leans on traditional ingredients such as pomegranate, rice, figs, yoghurt and saffron. Undoubtedly one of the city's top restaurants, travellers can expect delicious yet affordable food in an opulent setting.
2. CASA Cafe
CASA Cafe, part of the Culinary Arts Center of Azerbaijan, is a good place to try the capital’s take on fusion cooking. Housed at Baku’s Deniz mall, by the shore of the Caspian Sea and right next to the city’s famous carpet museum, the establishment has a menu that offers a variety of Western dishes, including burgers and sandwiches. It also does Italian meals, in the form of pastas and risottos, and dishes inspired by Thailand and India. What's more, there's a kids’ menu and a selection of European desserts. The adjoining culinary school offers students a wide range of courses, including patisserie and artisan baking. CASA is the only school in the region that provides culinary education as a partner of Worldchefs, with the meals prepared by members of the Azerbaijan National Culinary Team.
3. Vida Cafe
Vida Cafe, located in Baku’s Nardaran neighbourhood, is part of the upmarket Nine Senses chain. In a country where the culinary scene traditionally revolves around meat and dairy products, it’s a place to enjoy some of Azerbaijan’s best vegan and vegetarian food; made with ingredients that reflect local biodiversity. The menu includes sorbets made with local organic fruits, falafel, hummus, vegan smoothies and some exotic salad bowls. One of Vida’s classic dishes is its cauliflower steak with chilli jam. It’s a dish that packs a flavoursome punch, thanks to its dukkah spices and tahini dressing. Mucver (vegetable fritters) is your one-way ticket to moreish fried veggies with a homemade tomato sauce, while the dessert selection includes a vegan brownie and an avocado tart. Travellers who prefer a meaty option are also catered for with several tasty chicken and salmon-based options on the menu. Located by the sea, visitors can combine their dining experience with a day at the beach.
4. Art Club
Located in the Old Town, Art Club is a venue that combines a restaurant and an art gallery in a townhouse dating back to the 18th century. Art Club serves classic Azerbaijan dishes like shah plov (‘king’s rice’: basmati with layers of dried apricots, plums, chestnuts and raisins), mangal salad (a grilled vegetable dish heavy with fresh peppers and tomatoes), dolma (vine leaves stuffed with rice or meat), as well as grilled kebabs. Everything can be washed down with homemade lemonade and local wines. True to its name, Art Club is decorated with a mixture of contemporary artworks and old photographs of Baku. In the evening a musician plays the tar, Azerbaijan’s evocative national instrument, on the veranda. From the restaurant, it’s only a short walk to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a highlight of the Old Town.
5. Nar & Sharab
Nar & Sharab doesn’t focus on any particular cuisine; it simply offers some of the best seafood in Baku, in a calm and simple interior that doesn’t distract from the food. It's one of the many fish restaurants in Bibiheybat, a district in the south of Baku beside the Caspian Sea. It serves fish freshly caught from the Caspian — mullet, pike, perch and sturgeon — as well as river fish. Most catches are either fried or cooked on the mangal (grill). Visitors who aren’t fans of seafood are looked after, too, with some Azerbaijani red meat dishes such as buglama (lamb stewed with onions, tomatoes and peppers) available.
Azerbaijan Airways (AZAL) operate flights between Baku's Heydar Aliyev airport and Heathrow. British passport holders need a visa to travel to Azerbaijan; a 30-day single-entry e-visa can be obtained in five days with the ASAN Visa Service. Visitors staying in Azerbaijan for over 15 days must register with the State Migration Service. For more about the destination, go to azerbaijan.travel.