Picture a representation, this isn’t actually in Tallinn. (Image: Wikimedia Commons).

‘Cup’, ‘Spoon’, ‘Chair’, ‘Fork’ — just what is it with restaurants and cafés in Estonia?

Nop, Neh, Mekk, Mull, Moon, Dom … — there’s a restaurant for every letter in the alphabet here, or so it sometimes seems…

Just one word…

If you’ve spent any time in Tallinn you may have noticed a preponderance of ‘one word’-, often just one syllable-, named cafés or restaurants here.

Names like ‘cup’ or ‘spoon’ abound; usually they’re tied fairly obviously to the theme, though there can be some more off-the-wall examples too (eg. ‘moment’ or ‘urghh’).

I personally find this a bit repetitive and unimaginative, regardless of the quality of the fare on offer at these places (which is often astonishingly good and at fantastic prices) and makes for a slightly stilted and self-conscious experience.

To be sure, one caveat is that translating the names (into English anyway) is kind of missing the point — what works in Estonian probably will not do so in English.

I once said to an Estonian girl I thought the name ‘Möku’ — a student bar in Tartu which translates as ‘pussy’, in the sense of ‘wimp’, was quite a good one and she agreed though for quite different reasons: ‘I don’t care what it means, but “Möku” sounds so nice in Estonian’ she reasoned.

So in other words there is a kind of sensory, aural dimension to the naming choices which is suggestive of the atmosphere and food you can expect and which doesn’t really work in the no-frills, gruff Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Nevertheless it can be proven that there’s an awful lot of places which will sound kinda samey to foreigners and, I suspect, to Estonians too (see below).

(Incidentally ‘Möku’ is not to be confused with ‘NoKu’, which makes it on to the list below. ‘NoKu’ is technically an abbreviation of Noorte Kulturikeskus, but has a double meaning (‘noku’ meaning ‘little boy’s penis’. Nonetheless the food there is excellent and not expensive, I don’t think you need a card to get in any more…)).

Purely subjective

I just want to point out in case anyone wants to reach for the pitchforks and flaming torches that this is very much just my take on things and not any beef with Estonia itself; in fact it’s the result of wider trends in the western world.

I don’t have a lot of time for the food worship phenomenon that has permeated our everyday lives over the last 15 or so years.

I want to just go somewhere and get a tasty, healthy (within reason) meal that is also good value for money, and Tallinn’s not at all bad for that, so why tossers need to complicate things by insisting on taking pictures of their food and posting them on social media, name-dropping the latest celebrity or cooking style, or get into a pissing contest about who can mention the most obscure and exotic vegetable I’ll never know.

You see this guy? You aren’t this guy. (Image: Huffington Post).

It seems that, whereas with most areas of life people are content to go to the best specialists, when it comes to cuisine it seems that everyone’s opinion is equal (provided you’re up to date with the latest ‘foodie’ fads noted above).

It takes several years of blood, sweat and tears to get to be a professional chef of any standing, decades even, so this bragging on social media about your culinary exploits makes about as much sense as if I read a couple of books on dentistry then invited some friends round to do some root canal work. Then posted the pics on social media to the mandatory ‘like’ hugs and ‘comment’ arm-squeezes. I’m sorry … but what total wankers …

That’s not to say that the one-word name places here aren’t highly professional and awesome quality (and by the way it’s a scandal that Estonia still does not have a single Michelin star in the whole country — not a one!), but they do seem to pander to the snobbish elitism mentioned above.

It seems this is contrived too — in a recent article about the Telliskivi Loomelinnak (‘A Creative City in the Middle of the City’ by Piret Järvis in the June edition of Life in Estonia) an interview with the driving force behind the Loomelinnak, Jaanus Juss, the latter states that ‘[we] began to think that we could do something similar [to the hip districts of Berlin] in Estonia, but in a more controlled way’ (my emphasis). So there you go.

The inference is that the Loomelinnak in some ways was a step up from what you could find in Berlin. I’m tempted to sit on the fence there, but I felt that on a recent visit to the latter city everything in the coolest districts like Kreuzberg was a lot more natural-feeling and unforced (you often couldn’t pay by card in eateries there!) than here in Estonia.

Of course in Berlin they often have the buzz topic of the moment — immigrants (including Estonians — there is a ‘Jäääär’ there after all) in these districts of Berlin, part of what can happen when you don’t do things in a ‘controlled way’ I suppose ... people might end up having a good time and not bother about what others think of them, rather than putting on a show all the time.

Criteria and list

Which brings us back to Tallinn …

Just to illustrate I’m going to list all the cafés, restaurants and bars which have these kind of one word names — like ‘placemat’ or ‘lemon’ or whatever — but first some criteria…

Anything which falls into the following categories doesn’t make it on to the list:

  1. Tourist Traps.
  2. Ethnic (ie. non-Estonian or, at a pinch, non-Russian) restaurants etc.
  3. Chains.
  4. Dive bars or similarly rough joints.
  5. Nightclubs.

There is a reason I’ve kept it more focussed — these ‘plate’, ‘stool’, ‘sugarcube’-type places seem to appeal to the same, mostly Estonian clientele, which is perfectly understandable.

For sure, tourists and other foreigners are welcome and indeed often make the effort to go to the hip and happening Kalamaja/Telliskivi district, or the more established Kadriorg area, where many of these types of places are located.

But they’re mostly aimed at young, upwardly-mobile Estonians who are well into the foodie and craft beer cult noted above, who want to take time after work and study in their über cool offices to hand out in equally über food emporia — something which Tallinn’s compact size lends itself to, so we’re sort of comparing like with like here.

Oh stop it now! (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Anyway to return to the criteria above, for instance ‘Peppersack’ (tourist trap), ‘Chakra’ (ethnic fare), ‘Lido’ (chain) or ‘Baar’ (a slightly dodgy place near me, I don’t even know what its real name is) won’t make it.

So let’s finally get to the list; I’ve done it alphabetically for effect, and tried to include only places I’ve been to personally, in the interests of fairness.

At the time of writing and according to good ole TripAdvisor, you can go to:

  • Aed,
  • Boheem (one of the more established places),
  • Bokaal,
  • Cru,
  • Dom,
  • Drink (the odd one out in that it’s in English),
  • Frank,
  • Frenchy,
  • Hetk,
  • Kamahouse,
  • Klaus,
  • Klazz (yes this is technically a nightclub but it serves food during the day),
  • Kohalik,
  • Koht,
  • Komeet,
  • Kook,
  • Kukeke,
  • Kuldmokk,
  • Leib,
  • Lusikas,
  • Mamo,
  • Mekk,
  • Mix,
  • Moon,
  • Mosaiik,
  • Mull,
  • Musi,
  • Naan,
  • Neh,
  • Noa (one, or in fact two, of the top restaurants),
  • NoKu,
  • Nop,
  • Pada,
  • Põrgu,
  • Protest,
  • Pudel,
  • Puddel (not to be confused with Pudel, qv., or Must Puudel),
  • Pööbel,
  • Ribe,
  • Sinilind,
  • Tops…

I make that about 40 cafés or restaurants that fit the criteria (and if the criteria were laxer as noted above the list would be way longer) — in a city of around 400 000 that’s good going.

Inevitably my focus has been solely on Tallinn, though from what I can see the same thing happens on a smaller scale in Tartu (‘Krooks’, ‘Crepe’) and Pärnu (‘Fookus’, ‘Piparmunt’) as well.

The list is hardly exclusive

One obvious hole in my preponderance-of-restarants-and-cafés-with-names-like-’tray’-or-’teabag’ thesis is that, while the list may be long, the list of other places which don’t fall into that pattern would be way longer, and so you don’t define things by the exception rather than the rule.

But I think when keeping it to the chic market sector outlined above, it is indeed more rule than exception.

For instance if you were in the UK you could be forgiven for thinking that there were far too many pubs with names like ‘the King’s Head’ or ‘the Queen’s Arms’ or various other pieces of royal anatomy, even though the majority of pubs have other names. But still the point would stand and I think it’d be a valid observation.

And whilst someone could say I’ve just created a category all for myself (ie. ‘all the places in Tallinn with one-word names, have one-word names’), quite a few others more perspicacious than me noticed the phenomenon before I did…

The Red Lion, that’s another one (image: Tripadvisor)

A leftover from Soviet times?

One interesting consideration is that, notwithstanding the normal efforts to appear cool and cutting edge, there is a certain amount of continuity with the Soviet time, when it comes to cafés (such as there were).

This is somewhat speculative obviously, but when I asked one friend who would remember, she seemed to think there were various places with…one word or monosyllabic names, names like ‘Säde’ (‘radius’) or ‘Koit’ (‘dawn’, and a far more signal appellation in Estonia(n) than its English translation would suggest).

The whole experience, food and drink and to a lesser extent demographic would have been radically different from our present day ‘pots’ and ‘pans’-type places, but at the same time there’s a certain amount of nostalgia for the old days as recreated in Tops and Must Puudel, so the connection might well be tenable.

How dare you criticize Estonia…?

Now a little bit of covering my own ass time!…

In a fantasy world where people actually read this blog, there would be a chance that an Estonian girl, living in say Italy, or Australia, would at around this point pop up in the comments and say something like ‘if you don’t like it, just leave’ or ‘you’re just jealous because you couldn’t set up a business of your own’.

I’m not imagining this, this is a real phenomenon here …

The following recently appeared on the comments thread of a Facebook friend, the context was his mocking of anti-refugee protesters at Vao (a small village in mid-west Estonia where both the asylum seekers here are housed) wearing nazi symbols and other juvenalia. For those who don’t read Estonian, it accuses the critic of sour grapes.

I can confirm her name begins with ‘K’. (Image: Facebook)

Anyway let’s just quickly analyse a couple of ripostes to the two points raised by a (in this case purely theoretical) Estonian girl, policing online comments and posts by foreigners living in Estonia!

1) ‘If you don’t like it, just leave’

The obvious response here is, well isn’t that exactly what you did, ie. leave because you don’t like Estonia? (remember, this imaginary irritable Estonian girl lives overseas, probably somewhere warm and prosperous).

If the answer to the above is ‘no’, you’d sooner or later get to their real reason for living away, most normally for life experience, economic, personal or academic reasons — all very fine motivations but they precisely make the point, some aspect of Estonia was left wanting and so you went elsewhere, albeit temporarily, to somewhere you perceived it to be better… nothing wrong with that, but once you’ve made your bed you have to lie in it.

There are more Estonians, out of a population of around a million, living in the UK than Brits, from a population of around 60 million, living here in Estonia and so far as I’m concerned I welcome their freedom to criticize or make fun of what goes on there (as indeed they do).

So, I’m sorry, we’re just going to have to knuckle down and go with a little bit of constructive criticism once in a while.

2) ‘You’re just jealous because you couldn’t do something like that’

This might seem a bit of a far-fetched statement, but it can happen — for instance when I worked in an office which had a calendar with a picture of Prince William on it, and I made light of some aspect or other of the picture, ‘you’re just jealous’ was presented as a jokey rebuttal.

Hmmm. That must mean there are an awful lot of jealous British people since laying into our royalty and political elite is a national pasttime for a lot of people.

Anyway assuming the premise is true, ie. my posited inability to open up, or deal with the day-to-day administration of, a business operating in the catering and hospitality field, can it be logically deduced that I am therefore jealous of those that ‘can’?

I cannot give birth, I will never be president of Albania and I was born nearly 400 years too late to see the Spanish Armada, ergo any criticism on my part of, say, an abortion or some misdeeds in some far off land are borne out of a brooding envy, right?

Yes, these examples might seem slightly preposterous since they’re impossible, but that is precisely the point — the implication made is that there was no possibility of my working in a lynchpin capacity in the food and drink sector either (or to have any ability to trade places with Prince William for that matter).

Furthermore, just take a look at the statistics of small business which fail after a couple of years or so. They’re not pretty (one or two of the places listed above are, I think, no longer with us).

So many of those who do take the plunge actually ‘can’t’ in the end either.

But this is part of a much wider philosophy, one which is doomed to frustration, and that is a rather silly ‘good works’ approach to life, where accomplishment is all and there’s kind of a hierarchical tree which you’re not entitled to shake.

The benefits of being on one of the upper boughs are tangible, incidentally — there’s plenty of evidence for bar, restaurant etc. owners here being able to take their pick of the women in a way that probably wouldn’t apply for a mere garden-variety writer, English teacher, proofreader or translator. Believe me I’ve seen it, 50 year old, fat foreign guys with …urghh, anyway … (no don’t tell, me don’t tell me, I’m ‘jealous’!).

It also muddies the ‘chiefs and indians’ relationship — if we all become restauranteurs overnight, who are our customers going to be?

And in any economy there needs to be specialists — perhaps one of these sainted business owners would spectacularly flop at some of the things I am good at (which is possible, I’ve seen it!) but he or she needn’t feel in the least bit slighted because of that.

In any case it is irrational — if opening up a small, one outlet catering business in a small city in the backwater of backwaters of the EU is an achievement, then, man, Bill Gates must be high on the smell of his own farts and then some! Except he isn’t, so far as I can see. Do you see the inconsistency?

This one gets 5 stars by the way — it’s the Pudel Baar (Image: turismiweb.ee)

Meh!

No that’s not yet another name of a cafe or restaurant Tallinn (I don’t think) — but I rather imagine at this point the theoretical angry Estonian girl working or studying in, let’s say, Montpellier (and before that, Oslo) would simply throw up her hands and say something like ‘hey, just chill, no need to get on your high horse, peace out!’ followed by a flurry emoticons. Either that or she’d vanish into the ether whence she came.

This would only mean two or more people had had yet another meaningless online spat of course, and I know some will say, to return to the theme of this article, ‘hey come on, they’re just names of restaurants, it’s nothing important’ — but I don’t accept that. It’s the small things like this that point the way to the bigger picture — the most complex jigsaws always are made up of the tiniest, wee pieces after all.

To kill a mockingandrew*

Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand why foreigners, expats etc. seemingly picking holes in your country can be frustrating.

But I think that nevertheless, when you live somewhere, you have a duty to engage with the host society and take notice of what’s around you, and that can include the good, the bad, and the neutral — anything less than that is irresponsible.

Yes, I know that for instance some sectors of the Russian minority doesn’t always do that, tending to live an entirely separate, parallel existence where Estonians are more or less invisible … but I thought people were against this divisiveness — that there should be more integration?

I see these places with names like ‘cheesegrater’ and ‘cranberry’, catering for a specific sector of society and where the President of Estonia himself would be quite at home, and demanding a fairly rigidly-defined formula of behaviour and etiquette as almost on the way to a Potёmkin village, Estonian-style, which only masks underlying issues in society. Would an ordinary guy from south Estonia say, feel as at home in one of those establishments as the aforementioned (American) President, I dunno …

I support Estonia’s right to self-determination, to do whatever it wants, and I have freedoms in Estonia which actual Estonians living here even 30 years ago could only have dreamt of — but that includes the freedom to give these one-word food places a wide berth …Except when I’m really hungry of course.

And in the meantime I’ll hold off enrolling in a joint catering and business administration course, and zip on over to the Rimi for my lunch …

*Apologies to Mr. A. Partridge

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