Kafana is the only restaurant in the city that serves traditional Serbian cuisine and offers customers an authentic Eastern European experience in the East Village.
Restaurant owner Vladimir Ocokoljic opened the restaurant in 2008 and says it was the first Serbian restaurant in New York. His background was in architecture and his experience was limited to designing bars and restaurants, rather than running them. Ocokoljic admits to not knowing why he decided to enter the restaurant business and says it was a decision he made after seeing the vacant property while walking his dog.
It was a steep learning curve, but Ocokoljic was able to navigate the industry with the help of his friends, who were restaurant and bar owners. After nine years in the business, he has learnt over time what works and continues to make adjustments to the menu to keep customers satisfied. While there have been others who tried to open Serbian restaurants, Kafana is the only one that has managed to remain open and gained itself a loyal customer base.
According to Ocokoljic approximately 20% of the customers at Kafana are new, but the majority are regulars who keep returning. Kafana offers a unique environment, with its walls plastered in posters with cyrillic letters and photographs of Belgrade, where Ocokoljic grew up. He attributes the success of Kafana to its natural charm and that the main draw for Kafana was that it offered people something different.
A Kafana is a term that originates from former Yugoslavian countries and refers to a type of restaurant. Ocokoljic explains it as being the Serbian equivalent of a French bistro or Italian trattoria. In Serbia, the term ‘kafana’ would normally be followed by the owner’s name, as it is a general term for the establishment. Ocokoljic chose the name because he wanted he felt that it help emphasise the restaurant’s Serbian origins. To him, Kafana means “the neighbourhood place where everybody know everybody”.
“Nothing says more Serbian restaurant than Kafana,” said Ocokoljic.
The menu at Kafana upholds the Eastern European tradition of a largely meat-based selection of dishes. Ocokoljic says the use of pork in their dishes is what sets Kafana apart from other Slavic food available. One of the highlights for customers is the cevapi sausage, which are skinless sausages shaped by hand and served with onions. However, there are also vegetarian options on offer for those who are unable to indulge in the meaty offerings.
Ocokoljic recommends the ‘Gibanica’ for vegetarian customers looking to ease their way into eating Serbian cuisine. A ‘Gibanica’ is a traditional Serbian pastry dish, which is comprised of layers of phyllo pastry and feta cheese. There is also an option to try a ‘Zeljanica’, which is similar to the Gibanica, but contains spinach as well as cheese. At Kafana, the chef is able to prepare the Gibanica in 2 minutes.
The aim of Kafana has always been to create a friendly atmosphere and offer people an escape from the bustle of the city. Ocokoljic notes, “We make people feel at home and they enjoy being here”. One factor that helps people to feel at home is the intimate feeling of the restaurant, where customers sit close together surrounded by Serbian paraphernalia. The majority of the staff at Kafana are also from Serbia themselves, which helps put Serbian customers at ease, as they are able to converse in their own language.
The food at Kafana is reasonably priced, although be warned that credit or debit cards are not accepted so be sure to bring along enough cash. It is definitely worth checking out the meat lover’s paradise and enjoying a glass of wine while enjoying the sounds of synthesised music and conversations in Serbian.