Common perception portrays Esfahan as the city of blue domes mosques, eye-catching bridges, the Imam square – rightfully known as Half of the World – and tile work that is ought to beguile the pickiest of travellers. There’s little focus on the food or the variety of sherbets served in the best restaurants of Esfahan.
Read more: One-day itinerary for Naqsh-e Jahan Sq.
On my recent trip to Esfahan, I was on a mission to explore the top local dishes and the best places they in which they were served so that we could offer our clients the best culinary experience for our new Persian Food Tours branch in Esfahan. But to be honest, Esfahan has a long way to go in presenting its local cuisine. There’s not even that many places that could fit into the category of best restaurants in Esfahan.
As a tourist, this makes the hunt for decent food and good restaurants in Esfahan a challenge. Long story short, to get a real understanding of local food in Esfahan and to find the best samples, you need to know where to go and what to order.
So here’s come my guide to a foody exploration of Esfahan that will cover everything you need to know:
Esfahani food you must try!
Long before Biryani became a thing in India, Esfahanis were cooking it for centuries. But unlike the commercially over-spices Indian Biryani, the “real” Biryani in Esfahani doesn’t come with rice or the overload of spices. In fact, it’s only a fried meat patty topped with walnuts and coarsely chopped almonds tucked into a fold of Persian flatbread. The meat is soft, rich and fatty which is why it’s not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea. The meat broth is separately served in a bowl with chunks of bread.
The best restaurants in Esfahan to have Biryani: Haj Mahmood, Azam biryani, Shahrzad restaurant, Toranj restaurant
#2 Khoresht Mast – Beef yoghurt stew
To me, Esfahani food is all about weird combinations that somehow work well together. The locally loved Khoresht Mast is one of them. Think a saffrony yellow yoghurt with finely shredded meat that is almost invisible. Yoghurt stew is usually served as dessert but it would still come along your main dish. You might even find the locals eating it on top of rice. It’s sweet, thick and very filling and almost always garnished with pistachios and dried barberries.
#3 Kebab Hossein
If you’re not already sick of eating kebabs in Iran, then trying the Esfahani Hosseini kebab won’t hurt. Unlike the common Iranian minced kebab, Kebab Hosseini is pieces of meat cooked on skewers and served with tomatoes and green peppers.
The best restaurants in Esfahan to have Kebab Hosseini: Shahrzad restaurant, Malek Soltan Jarchi Bashi
#4 Gooshfil and Doogh
Speaking of weird combinations, Esfahanis like to combine the sweetness of Gooshfil with a big glass of salty yoghurt drink. Doogh is a very popular drink in Iran made from yoghurt, water. salt and dried mint and it’s usually served with kebab. Now, having it with a super sweet sugary Gooshfil in not something everyone will like. I personally had been avoiding the two together all along. Even the thought of it never seemed appealing. But on my last trip to Esfahan, I gave it a shot and I survived! It’s definitely not my favourite afternoon snack but it works. After each bite of Gooshfil, a sip of doogh would wash the sweetness and before I know it, I was almost done with a full plate of Gooshfil.
The best restaurants in Esfahan to have Doogh and Gooshfil: Most cafes and restaurants serve this but Azadegan tea house is my favourite place to have it.
#5 Gaz (Persian Nougat)
Gaz is probably the most well known Iranian sweet around the world. It’s originally made from the sap of angebin plant native to Esfahan, even though it’s usually replaced with cornstarch nowadays. The sap is combined with rosewater, pistachios and sometimes flour to create this well-loved sweet. The price of gaz differs according to the percentage of pistachios, but it’s relatively a cheap sweet in Iran.
#6 Sherbets (Syrup)
Sherbets are big in Iran and come in a variety of flavours. They are extremely popular during the summer and you may find them being served in cafes. However, Esfahanis have taken Sherbets to a whole new level and even created Sherbet houses. Here’s where you find an array of Sherbat flavours to taste and it’s an experience one must not miss out in Esfahan.
Best cafes and restaurants in Esfahan:
Haj Mahmood and Azam Biryani:
Haj Mahmood and Azam are old and laid back Biryani places that have been serving the local speciality for decades. They offer great food for reasonable prices but don’t expect luxury service or interior.
Looking for a tasteful place in town that serves great food in an amazing environment? Toranj is actually my favourite restaurants in Esfahan to eat. I’ve even heard it looks better in the evening with all the lights. They have everything from coffee and sherbats to top local dishes. The location also a bonus point since it’s in the Armenian neighbourhood of Jolfa and close to the Vank cathedral.
Shahrzad is a well known among tourists and locals as one of the best restaurants in Esfahan. It has Qajar style wall paintings and stained glass windows The locals swear by its quality and the food was truly great. They could really make a shift in their service and food presentation but I’ll give them credit for the food.
Azadegan tea house (Haj Mirza):
Azadegan or Haj Mirza tea house is a famous hub among tourists and locals and absolutely worth the hype. I won’t be going through details as I’ve written a complete review of this place in a separate post which you can read here.
Arc a restaurant:
Arc a is another restaurant located in the Armenian neighbourhood. It has an indoor and outdoor space and can host quite a lot of people. They serve anything from local specialities to pizzas and mojitos.
Malek Soltan Jarchi bashi restaurant:
An old bathhouse that’s turned into a huge beautiful restaurant, Jarchi bashi sure does well when it comes to interior design. It’s always full of tourists and locals but I’ve heard from my Esfahani friends that the food is very much average nowadays.
Firouz cafe charms you with it’s eye-catching interior and a great menu. They have a few local dishes but I’d personally go here for an afternoon break. They have the best Persian saffron ice cream and a lot of sherbats.
You can read all about it here.
Houger cafe is apparently one of the best in town. Located in a Qajar building, the cafe has a beautiful vibe and atmosphere that would be perfect for taking a break from being a tourist. This place is well known for its coffee but you could also find a few dishes served for lunch and dinner.
Bahar Narenj cafe:
Bahar Narenj is a beautiful yet tiny cafe located in the heart of Jolfa (Armenian district). Looking for a great spot to take a break from sightseeing and chill over a glass of sherbat or coffee? Bahar Narenj is the place to go. 😉
Join a food tasting walk or a cooking class in Esfahan
Another great way to get the best of Esfahani food is to join a food tour. Persian Food tours offer great culinary walks that take you beyond the grand bazaar. You’ll get to sample different local specialities as your guide explains about Esfahan’s cuisine and background. They also have cooking classes where you’ll get to cook your own Esfahani feast in a hands-on experience. Check out their Esfahan tours here.