The Gradska Kavana Arsenal Restaurant offers a window (or three, in fact) into the history of Dubrovnik. Game of Thrones might have swept the city into the spotlight, but the reality is far more intriguing than the fantasy. Sitting centrally in the Old City harbour, what was once the beating heart of this maritime superpower remains a focal point for the buzzing cosmopolitan city Dubrovnik has become.
The ‘Arsenal’ is unmissable. In the twilight hand-cut stone glows golden yellow. Three enormous limestone arches fill your eyes. Their weight and strength is balanced perfectly by the airiness of the structure, befitting a sweltering Mediterranean destination that relies on the sea breeze for the sanity of its residents. This perfect use of negative space adds spectacle and grandeur to a place designed with no such thing in mind. The restaurant was in fact a real ‘Arsenal’ - a shipyard - built around the 13th century. Dubrovnik’s ship builders were world renowned for their strong and durable vessels, crafting their legacy inside this very space. Their enormous fleet made Dubrovnik a powerful force in the 15th century, dominating Europe from the Black Sea to the Atlantic.
From our perfect table, at the water’s edge under the central stone arch, we’re flanked by history. St. John's Fortress stands tall to our right, the last line of defence against sea raiders. In the distance on the left, the Lazareti complex, the oldest European quarantine centre, built in 1377. Mojitos wash the heat from our aching bodies as we watch lovers and friends wander the busy harbour late into the night.
A typical review might focus on gastronomy, but my experience was one of discovery. Being transported to another age. All said though, such an the experience would fall flat had the food been subpar. Fortunately for us, it was brilliant.
The menu offers numerous nods to Dubrovnik’s maritime past, including the fresh morning catch, salmon, calamari and a fish stew with spicy tomato sauce and creamy polenta. Fresh produce dominates the Mediterranean diet, and the Gradska Kavana shares this commitment, from the green salad and lemon dressing that accompany the Adriatic bluefin tuna carpaccio, to the medley of marinated zucchini, exquisite sundried tomato and feta that began our food experience. Our traditional ratatouille added a homely comfort to the beautifully crisp Marinated Half Chicken, and steamed zucchini with a demi glaze was a treat with the excellent tangy Pork Fillet stuffed with plums.
As the sun sets on another perfect summer day, the constant din of hedonistic bars and parties gives Dubrovnik Old Port new life, though not quite as the 15th century shipwrights would remember.