Tbilisi Might Be the Next Berlin. But First, Coffee.
Tbilisi, Georgia, is a city on the edge. Geographically, the country sits on the fluid border between Europe and Asia. Culturally, it’s on the brink of becoming a hip travel destination, maybe even the next Berlin. Breakfast-wise, Tbilisi is also at a crossroads, combining culinary tradition with modern twists on a meal which Georgians don’t typically prioritize. The city's resulting brunchaissance is sure to be magical. But first, coffee.
Historically, Georgians prepare coffee Turkish-style at home. When I visited Tbilisi in February, my host offered me Nescafé Gold instant coffee, which was heavenly while I was jet-lagged but soon left me craving a proper latte. Fortunately, we were a short walk from the Rustaveli Theatre and its new neighbor, Skola Coffee & Wine Bar, a third wave coffee spot with a mission to educate. Skola co-owner Vakhtang Beraya studied in New York and was inspired by the dedication (sometimes snobbery) locals have toward their coffee. “We want to provide the same quality of service, coffee, and atmosphere as exist in New York,” he says.
Until recently, breakfast or brunch in Tbilisi has not been been a meal with a distinct identity. The breads, meats, and cheeses of the Georgian diet make for a breakfast of leftovers from the prior day’s dinner. After all, who wouldn’t want to tuck into some khachapuri (an egg- and cheese-filled pie) on a lazy Sunday morning? Chacha, a traditional brandy made from upcycling the grape residue of wine production, is an invigorating hair of the dog. (The homebrewed version can top out at almost 70% alcohol per volume.) Add to that some leftover beef kebabs and you have yourself a well-balanced breakfast.
Skola has kept its wine selection local—Georgians invented orange wine—but the food menu is solidly American/European. I enjoyed a Croque Madame, while my local friend raves about Skola’s fluffy pancakes topped with berry compote. The all-day cafe’s coffee beans come from Camera Obscura, a Moscow micro roaster. Every two months a specialist from Camera Obscura comes to train Skola’s baristas. In turn, the baristas can answer questions for customers. “It’s very important to educate our guests,” Beraya says. “How drinking coffee with no sugar helps you understand the taste better. How milk and cream can make your coffee sweeter.”
At Skola, which means school, to-go cups and placemats are decorated with a zany take on grid paper. The check comes in a brown paper box, and wine is served perched on a cork and copper coaster. Attention to detail—including the custom-made blond wood furniture—makes for a minimalist’s Instagram paradise. This is at odds with the “arts cafes” Tbilisi is known for, which are populated with plush living room furniture, eclectic decorations, and patterned wallpaper.
The multiple layers and functions of the art cafe represent Georgia’s culture of warm hospitality. At Skola, the homeyness of the cafe is just a vibe, but at Café le Toit that parlor feel is taken literally. Guests sit on velvet chairs sourced from flea markets and local homes. “My family had an antique shop before, so in my childhood I was [already] thinking of having a cafe with some old stuff,” says Café le Toit founder Edi Simonian. A piano, gramophone, and old suitcases add to the cozy ambience. The cafe opens at noon, making it more of a brunch spot than a breakfast spot, and attracts a 50/50 mix of Georgians and foreigners, Simonian says. They serve a variety of crepes and omelets in addition to local foods like dumplings, Georgian sausage (kupati), and assorted cheeses.
“Coffee culture is very new, and locals don’t understand the concept,” says Nikita Gribanowsky, a former banker and the owner of Pin Pon Cafe, which has two locations in Tbilisi. Pin Pon sources their beans from Coffee Lab, the city’s first-ever roaster, and the two businesses are developing together as the city slowly starts to embrace third wave coffee culture. Pin Pon now offers cold brew, which was also a new concept for the American consumer before everyone went nuts for it in 2015 (the same year Starbucks introduced their version). Taking coffee to-go didn’t catch on in Tbilisi until foreign fast food conglomerates like Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s arrived and became trendy spots to meet friends. There is no Starbucks in Tbilisi yet, much to the chagrin of some local and expat fans.
The most iconic Georgian breakfast that Gribanowsky can recall is a hangover remedy (or prevention, if eaten before bed) called khashi. This garlic and tripe soup is taken with a side of yet more vodka. “That is the real Georgian breakfast for me,” he says. He doesn’t have a full kitchen at Pin Pon, but offers pastries, tartines, and a mix of traditional Georgian cheeses to early-rising tourists in search of a good latte.
Of course, no breakfast trip would be complete without ducking into Dunkin’ Donuts to compare regional menu items. In Tbilisi, Dunkin’ does their own version of khachapuri, the bean-filled version, lobiani, and something called a New York Bagel, which can be ordered with lox. One chilly day I was drinking a Dunkin’ iced coffee—and only got a couple of weird looks.