Having been a hungry Riga resident now for almost four years, and running this website for almost one year, I feel confident enough to call myself a bit of an authority on dining out in this city. However, in my texts I've mostly focused on the food. While food is certainly the main ingredient in any night at a restaurant, there are more factors that help make up the complete dining experience. I therefore thought it appropriate to share my (highly personal) reflections on what to expect when dining out in Riga. You might agree, or think that I'm way off the mark; either way, please share your thoughts in the comments below. Would be interesting to hear other people's views.
Websites and email: Coming from a country where every trash can has a website, every lamp post an email address, it's quite puzzling to come to Riga. The percentage of restaurants with a website is shockingly low. Even quite posh places sometimes lack this most basic of online presence. Some try to make up for it by having a Facebook page, but that just screams of unprofessionalism. Considering that nowadays a nice-looking website is basically for free and hardly even requires any design skills, it's just strange that websites are so rare. However, many places are still reachable by email. Or are they? In my experience, if you contact a restaurant in English, about 80-90% of your emails will be ignored. Not only is this annoying and nonchalant, it's also a good way for a restaurant to lose business. If they don't bother to answer your inquiries, you will probably take your money someplace else. Oh, and one final nag: if the place you're interested in actually do have a website, don't go thinking that you can trust the information. The menu, the prices, even the street address can be way outdated.
Making reservations: No need. In my four years of food-crawling around Riga, it has happened only once that I've had to turn in the door and look for another place to eat. This was on a particularly sad Valentine's night when me and a male friend were planning to drown the woes of singledom in each other's eyes, eh, I mean in some delightful plate of something. Whereas in, say, Stockholm you'd have to make a reservation even for a random Tuesday at some random back alley dive, in Riga most restaurants are always near empty. Even a half full place will make you go ”wow, this place is packed tonight!”. I actually don't know why this is, but perhaps the strained Latvian economy is a part of the answer.
Prices: If you're a well-off tourist/foreigner and have heard that Riga is cheap, that's a truth with modifications. Yes, a brief glance at the menu might make you think that the prices are low. You should know, however, that for the most part you have to puzzle together your meal and pay extra for everything: rice, vegetables, ”sauce” such as ketchup or mayo (yes, in Latvia they call this sauce...); some places even charge extra for the little piece of lemon in your drink. And since tap water is considered not safe for drinking, prepare to pay the same amount for bottled water as you would for a beer, and sometimes even more. Also you should add in the fact that a 10 % tip is maybe not obligatory, but expected.
Paying: This is often a hassle. Thinking about paying separately? Forget it. Most serving staff claim that it's ”impossible” to have you pay separately, even if you're only two people. Don't be surprised if the waiting staff gives you a rude, loud sigh when you ask. And no, asking before you order rarely helps either. I don't know what the problem is. Latvia is the only country I've been to where separating the bill seems like such a herculean task. And adding to the nuisances is the fact that so many places don't accept cards (no, don't believe the VISA/MasterCard stickers on the door). This, however, wouldn't be a huge issue if only they would inform you before you order. But they don't. Put on your coat and run to the nearest ATM. Perhaps you'll meet me there in the same errand.
Getting by as a foreigner: Unless you have very specific requests or have some kind of food allergy, you will have no real problems communicating in English. The level of English will of course vary from place to place, but it is often quite sufficient. If you're lucky, you will hear some adorable attempts such as ”please have a good appetite!” or ”good luck!” when they serve your food. Aaaw...
Longevity: Opening a restaurant in Riga is probably the worst business idea you can get. Newly opened restaurants are like ejection seats. Based solely on my observations, I'd estimate that the average life span of a restaurant in Riga is 8-12 months. I've lost count of the number of places that I've started going to for review purposes only to find them closed by my next visit. I think the current record is being held by a place on Skolas which put up ”opening soon!” signs, started renovating, got the restaurant sign up... and vanished into thin air. If there's a moral to this story, I guess it's this: if you find a place that you really like, go there as often as you can. It might not be there next week.
Numbers and types of restaurants: You can find quite many types of cuisine in Riga, but I still miss some types of restaurants. For example, I can't recall hearing about any Greek restaurant. Also, in particular ethnic food from the East is something which might leave you disappointed. The generally poor quality might be explained by the fact that Latvia seems like one of the least immigrant dense countries in Europe. Few people can properly cook this food and few people (except for backpackers and others) will probably know what it's supposed to be like. However, Riga never seems to run out of new places to try. Even though I've been to many, many restaurants here, there are still hundreds waiting to be discovered. So keep reading and I'll keep on serving new reviews!