Even without bars and clubs in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the capital city of Tehran still has its hip haunts – mostly restaurants and cafes, which stand in for other nightlife hangouts.
At a time when Iran is the focus of potential new sanctions and attention over its nuclear program, Tehran's social life doesn't seem to be suffering a slowdown. While Iranians are known for their all-out house parties, some with contraband cocktails, Iranians are increasingly drawn out to Tehran's budding eateries and hot spots.
Some are traditional while others look like they could be in Paris, New York or Tokyo – fitting for Iran's youth bulge (by one estimate the country has 20 million people under the age of 20).
In part because no alcohol is served, eating out is an affordable affair for most out-of-town visitors. Below is an introduction to some of Tehran's classic and contemporary locales.
Dizi RestaurantAt Dizi there's only one thing on the menu: dizi. The traditional Iranian stew involves broth, potatoes, meat, and chick peas. The soup is cooked all together, then separated so that the broth is eaten separately from the chickpeas, meat, and potatoes. The only beverage on offer is doogh, a traditional yogurt drink. On the walls hang folkloric paintings from Iran's over-4,000 year history. Only lunch is served and costs roughly $10 per person.
Dizi Restaurant is at #16 Mousa Kalantari St, at Iranshahre Shomali-Karimkhan St. Telephone: +98 21 88810008
Shouka CaféThe artists, students, and intellectuals who frequent Shouka Café in Gandi district come for three constants: quiet refuge, great coffee, and owner/playwrite Yarali Moghadam. A cappuccino will set you back 2500 tomans (less than $3) and can be enjoyed for hours alongside a good book.
Shouka Café is at Gandi Shopping Center, 1st Floor. Telephone: +98 21 88792036
El CaféLess bohemian than its neighbor Shouka Café, El Café is a taste of Havana – that other revolutionary capital – in the heart of Tehran. The cappuccino, at just over $3, is a delicious house specialty. The pastries aren't bad, with a cheesecake that could easily pass at a New York City diner.
El Café is at Gandi Shopping Center, 1st Floor Telephone: +98 21 88792926.
BoulevardEasily one of the most sophisticated and upscale new restaurants in Tehran, Boulevard serves everything from tuna tartare to a refined hamburger with portabello mushrooms. The food is outstanding, right down to the ketchup, which tastes like fresh tomatoes. Well-heeled professionals and Tehrani hipsters abound. Dinner for two including appetizers: $60.
Boulevard is at 3 Nahid Blvd, off Valiasr St. Telephone: +98 21 22051947
Armenian Club RestaurantWalking into the Armenian Club is like stepping into 1930s Tehran, in part for its antique furniture and design but also because women customers are allowed to go without a headscarf, which is otherwise required in public. Run by Tehran's prominent Christian minority, the restaurant is off limits to Iranian Muslims. At the nearly hundred-year-old establishment, foreigners and non-Muslims can take in kabobs, rice and international cuisine. The fish kabobs are especially good.
The Armenian Club is at 100 Nofel Loshato St, at Khark St. Telephone: +98 21 66700521
RagbarThis sushi bar is the closest thing you'll get to an actual bar in Tehran. Ragbar's hardwood floors and Euro-retro interior houses some of the best sushi you'll find in the capitol, along with various pan-Asian dishes. By 9 p.m. it's full of young Tehranis, the girls looking stylish in their colorful headscarves. Dinner for two including appetizers: roughly $45.
Ragbar is at Valinejhad Street and Valiasr Ave,.next to Khashayar Park. Telephone: +98 21 88885544
SPUDelightfully on the far side of traditional, Spu is an outdoor restaurant at the foothills of the Alborz Mountains that overlook Tehran. Diners take of their shoes and sit on the floor in their own private tent, circled around a gas fire for heat. Each tent seats up to six people comfortably. Salads and chelo kebab (rice with meat, chicken, or fish skewers) are delicious. The whole cooked fish is a special treat, as is the young waiter in traditional dress wafting incense around your table for tips. Dinner for two including appetizers: $23.
SPU is at Darakeh Square in Northern Tehran. Telephone: +98 21 2241 9494 http://www.spu-restaurant.com
Nayeb RestaurantNayeb is a Tehran classic that's packed at lunch and dinnertime, welcoming visitors with a uniformed doorman who sits them down to some of the city's best Chelo Kebab (rice with meat, chicken, or fish skewers). The filet kebab is especially juicy and comes with an outstanding mango pomegranate gravy. There are a handful of Nayeb locations around Tehran, though our favorite is on Valiasr Avenue. Dinner for two including appetizers: roughly $25.
Nayeb is at 1030 Valiasr Ave, across from Saii Park, Telephone: +98 21 88713474 http://www.nayeb.com
Bistengo RestaurantWalk down stairs at the family-owned Ramtiin Hotel and you get to Bistengo. The menu features traditional fare, along with pasta dishes and Iran's renown caviar served with blinis. The rack of lamb is a touch sweet and perfectly succulent. Bistengo is expensive by Tehran standards – dinner for two runs roughly $80.
Bistengo is at the Raamtin Hotel, 1081 Valiasr Avenut, just South of Saai Park. Telephone: +98 21 88554409
Yalda Moiery contributed to this article.