From fancy Caviar tastings to sweet red Borscht, salty Selyodka plates, and savory Beef Stroganoff, St. Petersburg knows how to make an impression on your taste buds and stimulate your palate.
Tasting traditional Russian dishes isn’t easy in a city that has been heavily impacted by the immigrant food culture, particularly Georgian, in addition to the globalization of food.
And if you wish to top this quest for traditional Russian food with a dive into the local atmosphere, then you might just find yourself at an impasse.
Therefore, instead of trying to create a local food itinerary that has become part of my every trip, testing more restaurants in the process, St. Petersburg made me stick to two places, one to satisfy each curiosity.
The first pub made us feel like locals, the second gave me the chance to taste the best traditional Russian dishes. A third place is mentioned on this list of good eats in St. Petersburg because they bake the best cheese buns I ever tasted.
To finish off, I’ll reveal some delicious Russian sweets tested during the trip, the kind you might not otherwise find out about because their names are in Cyrillic and their packages don’t tell of their contents.
Where to Eat in St. Petersburg + Traditional Russian Food
“I’m Thankful For Today”
4 minutes’ walk from our hotel on Sadovaya street, there’s this little pub with a quirky name and savory dishes.
“I’m Thankful for Today” is frequented mostly by young locals since it’s not near the major attractions in St. Petersburg.
The place is quiet and we sit down around the main wooden table like lazy cats dozing off in the shade during a hot Sunday afternoon.
One raspberry lemonade and a local beer later, we decide to have a bite here, even if they don’t have traditional Russian food on the menu. I go for pappardelle with creamy mushrooms sauce and grilled cheese, Vlad gets a burger and fries. After all, most European city dwellers eat international dishes and less locally sourced meals.
The food is delicious and decently priced, and the service is great – a rarity in Russia.
Maybe that’s why we were back at “I’m Thankful For Today” a few days later for a savory brunch: a blue “Bali” smoothie bowl, a strong lavender coffee, and a warm salad bowl with spicy chicken, roasted pineapple, and rice.
The interior styling at “I’m Thankful for Today” is lovely and pretty similar to hip cafés around Europe, but with a Russian twist – open windows that let you see the people inside.
Many old buildings in St. Petersburg’s city center have pubs on the first floor, windows turned into glass doors, and people sitting at the tables look like exhibits of the good life.
Found it odd until I connected the dots – Russian women always dress like they’re heading to a nightclub or to a ball. Maybe this type of display demands it. Or maybe it’s about being seen in a city with almost 5 million people.
Whatever might be the reason for these window displays, “I’m Thankful for Today” is one of the places you might want to visit for a no-fuss dinner or a colorful brunch.
Address for “I’m Thankful for Today”: Gorokhovaya St., 24, St. Petersburg.
Katyusha Restaurant – Russian Dishes and Caviar Tasting
Stumbling upon a traditional Russian restaurant while wandering the streets around Nevsky Prospekt was pure luck.
Two ladies in long flowery dresses with puffy sleeves invited us to take a seat in this dollhouse interior with ubiquitous floral design, stacks of pickle jars here and there, and the vibes you might get when stepping inside a Russian grandmother’s house.
Katyusha Restaurant turned out to be a fantastic place to taste classical Russian dishes like Borscht – beetroot and cabbage broth with veal, Selyodka – pickled herring with warm potatoes, Blini – pancakes filled with chicken and beef, and Chicken rolls with plums.
We also went for a pork Shashlik – a barbecue type of dish with an interesting history. Even though the concept originates in Turkey, it was widely spread in Eastern Europe because of the Russian language.
We couldn’t leave St. Petersburg without trying the famous Caviar, so we spent our last night in the city at Katyusha Restaurant tasting Beluga and Salmon Caviar.
To be honest, I’m not a fan of salmon caviar since it’s a bit bitter, but I found the Beluga caviar savory – a definite must try when in St. Petersburg. The caviar tasting was accompanied by that delicious Russian sour cream, in addition to toast, lemon, a salad made of spring onions, and a boiled egg.
Katyusha is a bit above the average when it comes to prices, but its traditional Russian menu, great food, and Russian styled interior made me love it. It’s also in a great location, just across the street from Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg.
One other thing I loved about Katyusha was their gorgeous menu featuring exceptional food photography, as you’ll see in some of my photos.
Address for Katyusha Restaurant: Nevsky Ave., 24, St. Petersburg.
“Happiness Café” – Happiness is a warm cheese bun
Puffy pastry at its best – that’s the main reason to stop by the “The Happiness Café”. Their Borscht is not as good as the one at Katyusha or it’s just too sweet for my taste, but those warm buns do make up for it.
I might sound overly enthusiastic about these cheese buns, but they’re the best I ever had, not to mention a comforting reward after going up 200+ stairs to admire the view from St. Isaac’s dome.
You won’t find this café by its English name as it’s the case with “I’m Thankful for Today”, and that’s because most brand names and street signs are written in Cyrillic.
Fortunately, you’ll have no trouble finding this restaurant since it’s right across the street from the imposing St. Isaac Cathedral.
Address for “The Happiness Café”: Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa, 24, St. Petersburg.
Tasting Russian Sweets and a visit to the supermarket
Going to the supermarket in another country is always a fascinating trip for me.
Even though globalization took over traditions and locally sourced produce, I feel that there are always some details about them making the visit worthwhile. Most of the times I don’t buy much, but then there are some countries like Russia where going to the supermarket is a cultural trip.
Vlad, my life and travel partner, was born in Moldova, one of the ex-Soviet countries, and so he speaks Russian almost at a native level. That helped us a lot when visiting Russia, from getting into museums and paying 40% less for tours to picking out the right sweets in the supermarket and getting around easier.
Therefore, he guided me through the aisles of the supermarket across from our hotel, and I got the chance to learn a bit about Russian sweets. He was acquainted with some of the brands because had them while growing up in Moldova, so he knew exactly what to choose for a trip down the memory lane for him and a sweet discovery for me.
Waffles with condensed milk, ice cream brands that have been around for the last three decades (Plombir), Russian almond tea cookies, and tons of varieties of sweet cheese cold bars are some of the most interesting sweets tasted in St. Petersburg.
When in Moscow or St. Petersburg, do try to find those yummy cheese bars and that waffle baguette – you’ll surely love them. The Russian almond tea cookies are pretty addictive because of their crunchiness, but the ice cream is not among the best I’ve tried.
While the Russian dining experience is pretty fancy, a trip to the supermarket is usually accompanied by that feeling that you’re watching an old Soviet movie but with the shelves all filled up. It’s pretty hard to tell what exactly makes it so, but I found it to be one of the most interesting Russian experiences.
Tipping habits in Russia
Most restaurants and pubs in Russia seemed happy with a voluntary 10%. Katyusha Restaurant, on the other hand, included its 10% in the check, just like restaurants in Italy, Spain, and Greece do, but without providing a free snack as it’s the custom for “coperto”.
Considering I visited Moldova twice, and their food culture is strongly linked with the Russian one, tasting traditional Russian dishes wasn’t a novelty for me. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised by the food or by its sweetness. But beware – Russian food is a bit heavy and overly sweetened.
That’s also the reason you won’t find Pelmeni, a staple Russian dish, on this list. I tasted them many times before, in Romania, Moldova, and Poland, and I’m not a very big fan. If you never had Russian pelmeni, then you should add them to your list of Russian eats to try.
Also, you might want to try two other Russian dishes I skipped tasting this time: Olivier Salad, mainly because I have it at least once a year in Romania, usually on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and Shuba – a pretty heavy salad with beetroot, herring, egg, onion, carrots, potatoes, and mayonnaise ( I had it in Moldova).
Dairy products are also a must-try when in Russia because they tend to be better than everywhere else in Europe, at least when it comes to restaurants and supermarkets.
The reason behind it has to do with the different regulations and quality standards in Russia (GOST vs. ISO), allowing factories to pasteurize all dairy products less than our norm. That also means expiration dates tend to be limited to a few days. I found the sour cream to be really amazing, so don’t hesitate to taste it whenever you can.
My food tips for good eats in St. Petersburg end here, and I hope you’ll get to experience the best of the Russian cuisine when visiting St. Petersburg.
Russia Trip: St. Petersburg and Moscow | July 2018 | All Photos ©Ana Matei > Instagram: @MateiAna