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"Ram pulp" with a side of polenta

To enjoy restaurants in the new Bucharest you have to get past the menus.

Belgium's Queen Paola tastes local food during a visit to Cristian village in Romania, July 9, 2009. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

BUCHAREST, Romania — Of all the obstacles that Romania’s communist dictatorship put in the way of foreign journalists trying to cover the country, the daily quest for decent food was one of the most exasperating.

By the late 1980s, the hardline regime of tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu strictly rationed most basic foodstuffs. There were a few dreary restaurants — for those who could pay — but their fare was extremely limited and often so unappetizing that I, for one, usually left whole meals untouched. I remember one time lugging a backpack full of groceries from Budapest, intended as gifts, that I ended up devouring.

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But that was 20 years ago, when Romanians endured Ceausescu’s despotic rule, the most suffocating in all of the Eastern bloc. Today, of course, Bucharest’s shops are chock full and there are restaurants of every kind. I returned to Bucharest open-minded and determined to make up for the past: Romanians rave about their traditional cuisine and I explored it by eating at a different locale every day for a week.

The first stop for gastronomy in Bucharest is the centrul istoric, the historic financial quarter, one of the few parts of downtown Bucharest that Ceausescu didn’t get around to leveling. During communism, it fell into disrepair and became a kind of ghetto where many Gypsies lived. Today bars, cafes and restaurants, including Hungarian and sushi spots, line its quaint, cobbled lanes.

The lively hubbub coming from an alleyway rathskeller called Curtea Berarilor tempted me inside. The dimly lit place resembled an Old World tavern with its thick wooden tables and low ceilings. It was packed with a congenial student-y crowd, and I soon learned why: For about $14, a table could order a “rack” of beer, namely 11 good-sized steins delivered by the barman on a long, thin wooden plank. The pub features the draft beer “Timisoreana” from western Romania.