Tomorrow night, New Year’s Eve, is a big night for me, as it will be my fourteenth New Year’s Eve in Estonia. Much bigger than last year, as that was only my thirteenth. And this year’s been a big year for many people in many ways. The economy started to recover, I fought for my life, many countries fought for their futures, many in Japan lost the fight with just a few moments’ notice, but most importantly, Tartu’s restaurant scene changed drastically.
Of prominent infamy, if I can say that, is undoubtedly the “Illegaard Scandal”. Most say that the owner skipped the country, stealing loads of dough from the bar and leaving a mass of debts, only to start over again in another country. This is not entirely true. He did skip the country and leave behind debts, but he did not start over again in another country, and he did not steal loads of dough because, well, there was none to steal. That’s why he left. Doesn’t excuse it of course, but it’s not quite what people think. Rumor has it the owner of the property (Illegaard was rented) acted foolishly as well. She has quite a bad reputation in Tartu. But those chili cheeseburgers are sorely missed.
Other losses this year before we move on to the newcomers: the Žen-Žen Buffet (not the main restaurant!)—it was decent, but way too expensive for what it was, and they were often out of rice. Confucius say, Chinese restaurant that run out of rice also run out of business.
Gruusia Saatkond—this is another classic example of poor management. It was brilliant, fast, delicious, cozy and affordable when it opened almost a decade ago. By the time it closed, service was hard to come by, prices had tripled, portions had halved, and it was cold inside that restaurant.
Vilde Lokaal—they’re not going anywhere, thankfully! But the head chef, the elusive Romanian, is, unfortunately. I do not know the details, but I hope the replacement is at least half as talented. But I did finally check out one of those comedy shows they hold every month. I saw the one a couple weeks ago, entirely in Estonian (but the host spoke English). There were a couple foreigners performing in Estonian. Tickets only five euros for two hours of non-stop laughter—what more could anyone possibly want? Well, I want more, so I’m going again.
Now for the good stuff: in the old Žen-Žen Buffet premises is now a new restaurant called Meat Market Steak & Cocktail. I haven’t had a chance to go yet, but it certainly sounds promising, although on their Facebook page I didn’t see many steaks or cocktails. The décor seems tasteful, however.
Illegaard is still open, but no food apparently.
There’s a new self-proclaimed nightclub where Gruusia Saatkond used to be. A nightclub, in a venue the size of my living room and bedroom. They offer food though, so I’ll check it out.
Right next-door is what I consider the Newcomer of the Year—Vein ja Vine. The name is Estonian, and means “Wine and Buzz”. Buzz as in alcohol-induced, not Lightyear. At first I thought it was a strip club, because I read the name in English. I look forward to reviewing it when the tables are put out in warmer weather, because “the wine bar”, as locals call it, is best enjoyed outdoors. The clientele are great, as are the staff.
I really like how Rüütli Street is slowly but surely filling up with restaurants, cafés, bars and such. Bit by bit it’s also being cobblestoned, the old Soviet-era asphalt disappearing. To make the place truly perfect, the city government should close it off to cars (and trucks!) entirely. Rüütli is a pedestrian street with a lot of traffic.
On Christmas Eve Father Mingus (he visited Estonia for the seventh time) and I took the kids to Town Hall Square. Although there was no snow, the dancing and free soup created quite the holiday atmosphere. Tartu is getting better at this every year. Perhaps next year, if there is no snow again, they could provide a snow machine? Heh-heh, that would be cool!
The city government, in their infinite wisdom, recently held a public brainstorming session on what to do with the river. Seriously, WTF? This river’s been here how many years, and the mayor just now noticed it? I can see it now, the mayor walking over the old Soviet crumbling eyesore of a bridge, the one redheads like to have sex on: “Where the hell did that come from?!” he exclaims, pointing down at the water.
—I don’t know, sir, Krista the city secretary replies.
“Did you know about this? Did you know that was there?”
—Yes, sir, I did. We all do.
“It’s so wide, so big, so wet! I’m going to…I’m going to name it after my mother!”
One of the genius ideas put forth was to build a dolphinarium. No comment. But allow me to submit an idea. One that is crazy, unorthodox, insane. Sacrifice some of the trees along the riverbanks and build cafés, bars, restaurants—buildings that don’t look like they’re made from prefab Legos—and put up lots of easily washable umbrellas to protect would-be patrons from all the mess those hundreds of thousands of birds leave every day.
Maybe even a city amphitheater, for nice, outdoor concerts in the summer, that are too small to fill up the Song Festival Grounds. Make all the seating out of Plexiglas, so you can see the dolphins swimming underneath.
But until that’s done, please respect yourselves by only eating at good places. Head uut!