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VLASTIMIR PUHALO - A CONSERVATIVE HERZEGOVIAN TRAPPED IN THE BODY OF AN URBAN BELGRADIAN
Unlike most of the people who remained in some way within the sphere of subculture from the time of their youth, after his growing up Vlastimir has entered quite new, uncharted waters, both for him and for Belgrade.
Almost eight years ago, at the beginning of 2011, he opened together with a friend the first “fine-dining“ restaurant in Belgrade which managed to stay unique until this very day.
It is somehow logical, to mutual pleasure, to start this city adventure right there, in the restaurant Homa.
We met Vlasta early in the morning. The first coffee is almost a ritual for many Belgradians, some like to have it alone, while others enjoy a good company. This time, we were expected by very interesting company in these great surroundings.
II: Homa, the restaurant that had maybe set Belgrade on the “gastronomic map of the world”. At first glance, by its very concept and the idea, it does not belong to the classical understanding of alternative. Therefore, before we start discussing Belgrade’s alternative scene – what it was before, what it is now – I must ask you how Homa came to be, what was its purpose and idea? And of course, maybe most important to us, how does it fit into alternative Belgrade?
VP: (laughing) Homa is a boys’ dream. I’m sure there’s no better description for what we’ve finally created.
The story began while we were still working together in one restaurant in Belgrade, we started thinking about the way we would actually “set up” an eating establishment if it was our own, and if we had any say in it. So we fantasized and fantasized and, of course, gathered our courage. When I look back at it now, I think courage was what brought us where we are now, because all those ideas of ours had been unrealistic in relation to the market. I feel somehow that at the very beginning, aside from the idea what we wanted to “say”, we actually didn’t have anything. (laughing) I think that even this “HOMA“ on the wall didn’t exist. Homa did exist as these three empty walls, glass and concrete bar. But we had, I repeat, quite courageously decided to open it. We’d had this enormous desire, or maybe it’s better to say: need, to show this city “our attitude” towards restaurant business, (laughing) to show them how it’s done. Because of all that, Homa is primarily a boys’ dream come true, and only then, a restaurant.
Let’s admit it, there’s no boy who hasn’t, at least for a moment in his life, dreamt about having “his own bar”, because it’s so “cool”.
II: The question we must ask is how a „fine dining“ restaurant fits into an alternative map of the city?
VP: First of all, this restaurant looks this way because, no matter how funny it may sound now, at a given moment we didn’t have enough money to pay an architect. So the designers of the space, and mostly everything else, were us. Still, regardless of such situation, all decisions made concerning Homa were somehow uncompromising. We did exactly what we’d imagined and in the way we’d wanted it, though it meant we had to do many things in stages. The complete enigma to me is where we found enough self-confidence for such a thing. I congratulate myself for that “WE KNOW“ attitude.
And since there was no compromise in creating Homa, no space was left to create something that already existed on Belgrade’s scene. It was the ALTERNATIVE. Belgrade was given something completely new.
Due to that “angry” attitude of ours and due to unbelievable desire, I dared to invest absolutely all that I had into the very idea about Homa. We didn’t plan to make a restaurant for certain clients or target group, however you wish to define it, but to express our attitude towards restaurant business. And you will admit that our attitude was, in that given moment, the alternative to what this city had to offer.
It is important to me personally that one day, when maybe nothing of all this stands here anymore, someone will remember Homa as a place that had changed something in Belgrade. It doesn’t matter if it happens in 6 months or in 6 years.
II: You are telling us that at the very beginning you didn’t know which target group of people would frequent your restaurant?
VP: No. We didn’t think about that at all. This restaurant was made for people who wish to try something new. That was the basic idea and it remains today as well. I think that’s why we have guests who are regular, but not in the sense of spending their time here every day; I’m talking about family gatherings, to celebrate important moments in life. Homa can proudly say there are patrons who had their first date here, then after some time they returned to get engaged, and soon after that they had their wedding here, so recently we have celebrated the birth of their first child. The fact that they had shared with us almost all crucial moments of their life together, makes them not only regular guests, it also makes them our friends. So Homa is a restaurant created with love for people who recognize the same values as us.
Homa is a restaurant for those who appreciate the ALTERNATIVE to all that is currently being offered.
Summer mornings in Belgrade are quite special, particularly when most people are on vacation, so there are no crowds. Such situation in Belgrade is rare indeed.
Aiming to use the “empty city” moment, we started towards the farthest location on Vlasta’s map of the alternative Belgrade. Senjak. Faculty of Fine Arts.
II: Since we have only discussed in Homa the way it fits into alternative scene of Belgrade, now you cannot avoid talking about the alternative in general, and about that Belgrade’s alternative scene, then and now. Besides, I think we are on the right spot to start conversation about that topic.
VP: Uh. You know what... (smiling) I think that once you grow up a bit, once you are not that little anymore, you face the fact that the alternative, in the form you perceive it, doesn’t really exist. In fact, we live in times when all that looks a bit like an alternative, sooner or later get forced to leave those “cruel hermetically closed frameworks “ and become more or less “mainstream“. For me, the best example of that is the reason I stopped going out in Belgrade, and I used to go out a lot. I understood that somehow everything became the same. Maybe it sounds harsh, but places which used to be alternative and different are gone, while those that have inherited them in a sense, are alternative just esthetically. Cultural value, let’s define it that way, does not exist. I sound like a misanthropist, many will probably think that I’m exaggerating, however, I have no problem with the fact WHO is visiting, but WHY they are doing that.
It is often ascribed to generation gap, however I feel that it had all happened a long time ago. It seems to me personally that such belonging, defined primarily by music, but also by the esthetics around certain musical movement, started to disappear even in “my time“. That is why today we have a situation that we can see people sitting in a tavern and listening to live singing accompanied by the sound of mandolins, just to meet them two hours later on some rave party. Personally, and honestly, I think it sucks. (laughing)
think it sucks. (laughing) II: You are quite critical towards the alternative today, and do you think it has anything to do with nostalgia for a “happier“ time?
VP: I can talk about the alternative from before, as a person who used to go to those cult alternative places that don’t exist anymore. Those were the places that had suited my age. Today, when I see my photographs from that period, it seems funny. However, you could recognize where I belonged just by my looks. I’m not saying that things should not be mixed and developed, evolved, but it is questionable how many people would even recognize me from that period of adolescence. Still, mixing total opposites with no cultural foundation is something I do not understand. Nor do I feel comfortable in such surroundings.
The consequence of all that is the fact that the alternative is now considered to be anything that deviates from the “market” offering even just a little bit. There you have the explanation for how Homa fits into such alternative map of Belgrade. We really did our best to make it a place totally different from the rest that this city offers.
So today the alternative has maybe come to two words: “being different”.
II: We are sitting on the plateau in front of the Faculty of Fine Arts. Unusual location, but very special and dear to you. Why?
VP: My first memories of going out and hanging out with my crew connect me to this place. Those were the horrible 90s, and this place was an oasis in the desert of „pulp and kitsch” and disturbed system of values. Whenever we came here, we felt as if we’d travelled somewhere. I remember my best friend and myself sitting on these steps and listening to hip hop from some bad old cassette player. Temporarily we imagined ourselves as blacks, but hey. (laughing) Here we had fantasized and imagined future for the first time. This place used to displace us from reality. It gave us an impression of being in our own version of Belgrade, where nobody stuck their noses into our affairs or imposed choices. Belgrade for me. What can I do, I’m a man who likes diversity, and this place is the first one where I felt just that.
The biggest praise I can get from people visiting my restaurants is that they felt like they were not in Belgrade. Not because I don’t like Belgrade, to the contrary, I adore Belgrade and I’d never live anywhere else. It’s because I had managed to show those people another version of Belgrade, unlike the ever-present “uniformity”.
I don’t like to repeat myself, but I have given them an ALTERNATIVE. (laughing)
The next stop on our tour was the second restaurant co-owned by Vlasta, Homa Bistrot.
Since Homa Bistrot is placed in Vračar, the problem with parking was to be expected. So we had to leave our MINI a few blocks down.
Judging by the ambience and atmosphere, it seems that these two restaurants don’t share much except the name and the owners.
II: I think that our story about Belgrade’s alternative, about what it used to be and what’s now, has lasted for quite some time. Since I know which places are waiting for us until the end of today’s “stroll“, we’ll try to cut the long story short as much as possible. Tell us about the concept and the idea behind Homa Bistrot, why it is alternative and special to you.
VP: Honestly, when I was putting together the list of places I was going to take you to, Homa Bistrot wasn’t on the list. My wish was to go to Zvezdara Theatre and their club buffet, because that’s the place where I got acquainted with arts and culture. Things that used to be pure alternative during the 90s in Belgrade. However, since it’s summer now, the buffet is closed, so somehow we managed to get here instead.
Homa Bistrot. Years went by and we came to the second restaurant in a natural way, developing ourselves. We understood that we had to go on, or otherwise we would cave in. From the very start we were thinking about the concept which, the familiar name aside, shouldn’t share anything with our first restaurant. We wanted to offer something else, to approach restaurant business in a different way than the one we used until then. We wanted to make an alternative to ourselves.
II: How much do they differ, besides the obvious esthetic element, and the patrons themselves?
VP: The very beginnings of creation of the first and the second restaurant were completely different. When we were opening Bistrot, we’d already had name and reputation, so that beginning was much easier, for sure. Also, it enabled us to approach everything in a new way, so we can say that in the menus of these two restaurants, aside from our famous “flower pot” (laughing), yes, we hate it but everyone else absolutely love it, (laughing) no meal is identical. Concept, idea and approach were indeed quite different from the very start.
The food is, primarily, much simpler, which is one of the compromises we agreed to this time.
That is probably the reason for small percentage of patrons attached to both restaurants, visiting them equally.
II: How would you define Homa Bistrot, in the sense of the alternative?
VP: Since I’ve been living in Vračar for the last 15 years, there was a dose of fear for the outcome. I feared the diversity of people you can meet in restaurants in Vračar and I wasn’t quite sure how I would manage all those people.
Moreover, we had to figure out a way to be different from the deluge of other Vračar bars, and what we could offer to people besides something different, (laughing), I mean alternative.
So we came to the idea of the “hotel“ breakfast, served here. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to be so well received, because I didn’t believe Belgradians had any culture of having breakfast outside their homes, bakeries and classic meals served in bars for breakfast.
However, again I was pleasantly surprised by the way Belgradians received OUR approach to breakfast. After that, I started to believe that things “different and alternative“ are much closer to our fellow Belgradians then I thought until then.
Let me reveal you a secret. After this conversation, we quickly tasted some of the specialties in Homa Bistrot-and went on, happy, smiling, with our bellies full.
Warm recommendation. Curry.
Right under Kalemegdan, near the Austrian embassy, in a beautiful prewar apartment building, hidden on the street level, there is a restaurant called Radost (Joy). One of Vlastimir’s favorite Belgrade spots.
II: Besides being one of your favorite city places, why are we exactly here? How does the restaurant Radost fit into the alternative map of Beograde?
VP: First of all, Belgrade is not a city that can boast with many places where you can try something new and amusing. We’ve opened Homa because of that, haven’t we? (smiling) Anyway, this is a vegetarian restaurant, maybe the first in Belgrade. I’ve been coming here ever since its opening. Not only did I wish to support this idea and this pioneering endeavor, I honestly liked it a lot. I kept coming here. They make my favorite “veggie burger“. Nowhere have I tasted a better veggie burger than this one here.
I can rightly say that this place is an alternative to Belgradian way of consuming food.
I think that every metropolis needs at least one restaurant like this; Belgrade has Radost, and I think it’s the only such restaurant that had managed to survive, instead of opening and quick closing. Radost survives, although it’s hidden from view. Due to its quality, people are finding it and I believe they stay, just like me, as regular guests.
We haven’t really noticed, but the day had somehow flown by, and working hours were reaching their end. They say time flies with good company and nice topics of conversation. Because of the nature of our last stop, we swiftly drank coffee in the restaurant Radost promising ourselves and Vlasta as well to try the food here as soon as possible.
We went towards our last stop for today.
For the end of the day, Vlasta had left the location that was for him, and maybe for us as well, most emotional. The very center of the city. Rajićeva Street. The sealed door of the cult club “Akademija“.
II: We’re sitting here, in front of the place where club “Akademija“ used to be, and I honestly don’t know where to begin. Because my question, why is this place alternative to you, is more than redundant, since for decades „Demija“ was a synonym for Belgrade’s alternative.
VP: If we are talking about Belgrade, its spirit and alternative, we must mention at least one of those city places that did have, besides the cult status, a good run as well. We are witnesses of those places closing down one after another in the last ten years. I don’t want to be harsh to the people trying to revive that scene somehow, Dom omladine and SKC are renovated, and so on. However, the fact is that the whole scene we had inherited from the 70s and the 80s is slowly dying.
Why did I pick Akademija? (laughing)
We are sitting now at the entrance to the club where on weekend nights, until some ten years ago, a crowd of young people used to hang out. Moreover, this space was a meeting place before entering, not one but two clubs. Akademija and Basement right across. Both clubs were quite alternative for Belgrade at one time. One was for the electronic music, while the other one – Akademija – tended to harder, guitar-oriented sound. The same or similar people went to both places. And this plateau used to be an ambience by its own right, where all those people mingled and enjoyed their time together. Here where we sit, people used to sit every weekend until dawn. Sometimes they even played guitars. All of that gave you the impression that city was alive. That was the spirit of Belgrade, and unfortunately we can see it less and less today.
I am sure that such scene still exists somewhere, only we had experienced it as something much bigger, because we were part of it. That alternative scene was ours. However, I’m under impression that the people who are a part of that alternative Belgrade’s scene today, have no support in protection of that legacy. The consequence is what we are seeing before us right now.
The street under construction with no end, the Akademija’s door under lock, the entrance to Basement looks like there was never any club there. The cult mural on the wall damaged, neglected, forgotten.
So many memories connect me to this plateau, memories of the best parties, memories of great romances. In my understanding of the world, the intersection of Akademija, Basement and Knez Mihailova Street is one of the symbols of Belgrade’s alternative.
Finally, it should be noted, if it’s not possible to have clubs here anymore, it’s a pity if someone doesn’t make a museum or a stage or something to celebrate the subculture which had spawned it. It really is a pity.
We parted ways with this assessment and melancholy in our thoughts. Maybe it was a sad ending of this walk, but on the other hand, I believe, it was quite inspirational for us who had spent our twenties on these pavements. It was more than amusing.