“Karchma” – the pinnacle of the culinary search for the perfect Belarusian meal in Grodno

Strolling down the main pedestrian street of Grodno is always a pleasure regardless of the time the year. The cobble-stone pathway beautifully embroidered with antique street lamps connects Lenin and Soviet Squares and takes visitors and locals on the tour of all things Belarusian. Here you are bound to come across quite a few shops selling traditional Belarusian products, a typical Soviet-style department store, a large graffiti on the wall depicting national ethnic patterns, but most importantly the street is home to the most renowned and beloved restaurant of Belarusian cuisine in the city of Grodno – “Karchma”.

It is not only its central location that attracts the hungry and thirsty wanderers to this place, however. The restaurant is adored by both the foreign visitors dying for a taste of traditional hearty soups, savory main courses and refreshing drinks, and the local population that fancy a visit to Karchma, whenever they find themselves missing their grandma’s delicious cooking.
Walking into the restaurant is exactly like getting on a time-machine and getting off a few centuries back, because what you will see is a beautifully and tastefully designed cozy space reminiscent of the old days. The name itself translates from old Belarusian as a tavern, pub, boozer or barrel house, selling strong spirits. But the historical connection and significance of the place is in no way artificial or made-up, as Karchma is located in the cellar of an 18th century building that managed to survive decades of turbulence and instability. To add to the atmosphere, most of the dishes here are served on wooden cutting boards, frying pans or in traditional clay pots.

Karchma, despite being very popular among the guests and being located right in the city center, is relatively small. They claim it fits 54 people but one would never guess a number that high just by looking at the place, it is that cozy and inviting. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday it gets quite crowded, thus making it harder to get a table. During the week, however, reservations are not necessary, just come in and be greeted by a friendly waiter. He will escort you to your table and offer you a menu in English or Russian depending on your preference. Here you may assume that I have no respect for political correctness by putting “he” instead of “he or she” or “they”. Yet the use of this particular pronoun in this case is completely justified as for years now all the waters in the restaurant have been male.

The biggest tables fit up to 8 people and chances are you will see quite a few larger groups of friends celebrating festive occasions here over meat platters and vodka shots. Smaller groups of friends, couples, families and tourists are common here as well. The menu in Karchma is impressive to say the least. It caters to the tastes of all kinds of eaters except for the ones that are on a diet, as even most salads here are seasoned with savory sauces and will most likely get you full. There are five soups here, all of them range in price from 4 to 7 BYN and all of them are worth a try as they are what you call putting a spin on the traditional mix of ingredients. For the main course the guests have their choice of dishes with fish, chicken, pork or beef (10-20 BYN). Quite a few of them are offered with pancakes. Here you may choose between the pancakes made out of flour or out of potatoes. Any and all Belarusians without batting an eyelash would recommend you order the potato pancakes (known here as “draniki”), as they are considered to be the national dish of the potato-rich Belarus. They may be accompanied by or stuffed with vegetables, mushrooms, meat, caviar, etc, but they should always be eaten with sour cream (told you coming here while on a diet is not an option).

While the menu may be exciting and even hilarious for the locals, it is a translator’s nightmare with many original puns and references to the Belarusian way of living. At least one of the names, however, will be easily understood and appreciated by everyone. “Mother-in-law’s tongue” is one of the favorites here due to its pleasant taste and the painfully relatable satirical name. Another top dog here is “Half a meter of hop” which includes fried homemade sausage, smoked brisket, lard, pickles, pickled cabbage and mushrooms, horseradish, and 200 grams of local strong alcoholic tincture. Pork shanks and ribs along with your choice of side dishes are the new additions to the menu that please the eye with their presentation and water the mouth with their delightful taste. Karchma also has a lunch menu which varies from day to day, but usually offers soups and main dishes at moderate prices. Being located right in the centre, it may be the perfect spot for a lunch break in-between business meetings.

Drinks here are medium-priced with beers going for about 4 BYN on average. The list of deserts only offers 4 options and a number of ice creams, but let’s be honest: there is hardly a chance you will have room for desert left anyway. In fact, if you look around at the guests getting ready to leave, you will notice quite a few unbuckled belts and hear grunts coming from the full and satisfied customers struggling to make it out of the table.

Some might think that the overly positive description calls into question the authenticity and reliability of information. There is only one appropriate answer: “You just haven’t been to Karchma, it is really that good!”

The few minor things that do not necessarily spoil the impression but still need to be remembered is that Karchma being located on the pedestrian street does not have a parking lot, thus you would have to leave your car a bit further from the entrance. Luckily, there are a lot of available parking spots in the city center very close to the restaurant. Another thing is that you might have to wait for the order to be delivered for up to half an hour, especially if there are a lot of people in, but we all know that all good things are worth the wait. Also it is likely that the waiter’s English skills will be quite limited, but with the translated menu it should not be too much of a problem. And everything here is so delicious that even if you have no idea what to order and eeny-meeny-miny-moe it, you are still sure to be left pleasantly surprised and inappropriately full.

In addition, in the summertime you may visit the sister restaurant – “Korchma u prichala” (translated as “Korchma by the pier”). The two establishments share the owner and the concept of treating the guests to authentic Belarusian cuisine. And while Korchma u prichala looses when it comes to presentation and variety, it makes up for it with a stunning view of the river and the cathedral overlooking it, as well as a chance to sit outside and enjoy the summer breeze. Whichever one you prefer, no visit to Grodno is complete without a hearty traditional meal.

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