I ducked my head under a low stone doorway and continued down the dark stairs into the basement. Heavy metal blasted through the speaker system and a man in overalls gave me a too-small hard hat to wear as we emerged into a… coffee mine?
My husband, Dan, and I sat down at our first of nine themed restaurants in Lviv and the waiter promptly set our coffee on fire.
Why are there so many themed restaurants in this Western Ukrainian city? I did a little digging during my five-week stay and found that almost all of them belong to one company: !FEST Holding of Emotions.
In 2007, three men got together and decided it was time for a change in the restaurant industry. “At the moment it was a lot of restaurants in Lviv, but there were no concept restaurants,” Taras, my PR contact at !FEST, told me on an extended interview at the company’s sprawling offices. “You just go there and you get some nice food and stuff, and that’s it. But we started with this emotional part of the restaurant.”
The company sought to enhance the restaurant experience by focusing on something they deemed even more important than the food: the atmosphere.
Pravda Beer Theater, a craft brewery by !FEST Holding
!Fest Holding’s first venture, Diana, was (and still is) an outdoor cafe with dance lessons in the city’s central Rynok Square. But it was Kryivka, their second venture, that quickly exploded in popularity and kickstarted their growth. Now the company has 20 different concept restaurants with more than 80 locations in Ukraine and abroad in places like Baku, Azerbaijan, and Krakow, Poland. The majority are in Lviv where the company was born, and Taras tells me that !FEST Holding employs more than 2,000 people in the city.
What spurred the company’s phenomenal growth in the past 12 years, and why are their themed restaurants so popular? I ate at quite a few of the !Fest Holding establishments and decided that, for me, it comes down to a combination of three things.
First, the food is actually, surprisingly, pretty good at all of them. No two restaurants have the same menu so each establishment provides a completely different culinary experience.
Second, they’re not too kitschy or overdone. If, like me, you’re not a Disneyland-visiting, cruise-taking, Hard Rock Cafe-eating type tourist, don’t worry. Most !FEST Holding restaurants are more subtle than other themed restaurants you may be imagining like Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company or the Rainforest Cafe.
Third, and most importantly, many of the concept restaurants showcase a unique aspect of Lviv’s history. Just like visiting a museum, tourists can learn more about the city every time they sit down to dinner.
Interior of the Kryivka bar
Let’s return to Kryivka. It serves traditional Ukrainian food and is described online only as being ‘somewhere in Rynok Square.’
We knocked on the unmarked door when we found it and an armed guard answered, demanding the password. Prepared by the Tripadvisor reviews of the visitors before us, we shouted “Slava Ukrainy!” (and then again in English, just for good measure, “Glory to Ukraine!”).
Password procured, the old guard put down his gun and pushed a communal tin cup of honey vodka into our hands instead. We dutifully passed it around before descending into the underground bar. It was remodeled to look like one of the hiding spots of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during World War II and is now something part restaurant, part bar, and part military museum, complete with dress-up outfits and fake guns.
Entrance to the Gas Lamp Pub
A few blocks away, another !Fest venture called the Gas Lamp Pub rises four stories up a rickety spiral staircase and showcases one of the largest collections of gas lamps in the world. Why? The inventors of the gas lamp, Jan Zech and Ignacy Lukasiewicz, were local pharmacists from Lviv, so the restaurant display shares their legacy with every visitor who passes through.
In the same way, the Masoch-cafe, with suggestive art and whip-toting waiters, celebrates Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, another Lviv resident and an erotic writer who coined a term you just might recognize: masochism.
One of many Drunk Cherry locations built into an old barrel
The rapidly expanding chain of Drunk Cherry bars serves the same cherry wine that generations of Ukrainians before them brewed from the regions’ abundant cherry trees and Lviv Coffee Mining Manufacture, with the blowtorch-wielding waiters, commemorates one-third of what I quickly learn to appreciate are the city’s three famous fares: coffee, chocolate, and beer.
Because of !FEST Holding, eating out in Lviv isn’t just about the food anymore. “You go to spend time, you go to have the atmosphere,” Taras explains, “You go to see the legends of the city.”