‘It can be incredibly romantic’: how Ukraine’s people are adapting to restaurants having no power
- Serving customers by candlelight with special ‘blackout menus’, Ukraine’s restaurants have found ways to adapt to Russia’s attacks on energy infrastructure
- Diners appreciate the unique atmosphere, with some even calling ahead to ask when the power is going to be out so they can go for romantic candlelit meals
Russia’s ongoing strikes on electrical infrastructure have forced Ukrainians to get used to living in the dark.
Electricity has been rationed and power outages are frequent, in what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has described as Russia’s “energy terror”.
But even without light, heating, refrigeration and electrical ovens, restaurants and bars in Ukraine continue to welcome customers during power cuts, thanks to specially adapted menus of food that can be prepared during a blackout.
Igor Novikov’s favourite restaurant, Thailand Hi, was one of the first to introduce a “blackout menu” – stripping away all dishes that require electricity and adding extra pan-fried meals, salads and cocktails.
Novikov – a former adviser to Zelenskyy – lives in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv with his wife and two daughters. He’s visited several restaurants during blackouts, and says that the atmosphere is “completely unique”.
“With candles burning and dancing shadows on the walls, it can be incredibly romantic,” he says.
At Escobar, a Cuban restaurant in Kyiv, there’s still live music every Thursday by candlelight.
Guests can dine from a blackout menu including hummus, liver pâté, nachos, steak tartare and avocado salad.
They can also order coffee and tea during power outages, as the restaurant uses flasks to keep drinks warm.
Staff have even learned to prepare Escobar’s signature cocktails “by touch”, so they can keep the drinks flowing in the dark, according to manager Anna Golovko.
Guests, too, have adapted. Some bring their own lamps when they visit, and one couple even set up a video of a burning fireplace for employees and other patrons to enjoy.
“You can’t defeat people like that,” Golovko says.
Under Wonder, an Italian restaurant in central Kyiv, is still committed to fine dining through its blackout menu.
Manager Dmytro Tkachenko says they have designed a reduced – but still “exquisite” – array of dishes that can be prepared without electricity.
Options include ceviche with mandarin, avocado and spicy passion fruit; seared tuna fillet with Sicilian citrus sauce, guacamole and olives; charcoal-burned caramel duck breast with chilli jam and fermented pumpkin; and burned pastrami with pear, pickled aubergine, mustard sauce and maple syrup.
“We are Ukrainians. We are strong. We can adapt to anything,” Tkachenko says.
The restaurant has “doubled” the amount of candles it buys, he adds.
Unable to use most of its electricity-reliant kitchen facilities, Under Wonder has also started cooking on portable mini-barbecues, adding an element of “theatricality” to meals.
It’s a similar story at Kanapa, a restaurant in central Kyiv that serves traditional Ukrainian cuisine with a modern twist.
Kanapa is lucky, according to manager Anna Boruk, because it’s located within a 19th-century building that was “designed for a world without electricity”.
There’s a large fireplace to keep guests warm, as well as a wood-fired brick oven – which has now become central to Kanapa’s cooking.
Before the war, Kanapa mainly used the oven to heat large vats of traditional Ukrainian Borscht, a soup made with beetroot. Now, chefs rely on it for almost all their dishes – with the exception of Chicken Kyiv, which needs to be fried on a stove.
Kanapa has invested in battery-powered electrical candles, and the team has revived old, blackout-appropriate favourites – including edible butter candles.
For Boruk, the survival of Ukraine’s bars and restaurants is a show of defiance.
“Russia is trying to break us, but Ukrainians are so strong that we still keep going out. We keep visiting bars and restaurants. We’re not scared of the dark.”
She says some guests were worried when the blackouts began, but people are “already getting used to it”.
“We’ve even had some guests calling and asking: ‘Can you tell us when you’re going to be out of power because I want to take my girlfriend out for a romantic dinner?’”
Restaurant staff have adapted – but they do miss the light. Kanapa’s team pride themselves on the presentation of their food, so they’re “disappointed” that guests can’t appreciate their usual work, Boruk says.
Novikov says the war has sparked an explosion of creativity, which will change the way businesses operate in Ukraine.
“What you see develop in Ukraine under these harsh circumstances will be the new normal everywhere.”