Sonja Restaurant relies on quality ingredients
Delicious seafood, authentic Istrian flavours, the tastiest fish soup and a relaxed ambiance; you can get all this and much more in Sonja Restaurant in Simonov zaliv bay in Izola. Years ago, Dušan Brkič took over the family restaurant, and brought the gourmet experience up a notch. We spoke to him for the final culinary story this year.
Sonja Restaurant boasts a long tradition. How has the culinary offering and you as a person changed over time?
My late mother first opened a restaurant in the village of Korte in 1988. She didn't focus on seafood as much because it was commonly served in other restaurants, but our focus has shifted over time. In 2000, we moved from the countryside to Izola, which was definitely the right decision.
The most significant change happened after my mother died, when I took over and changed the vision. I put more emphasis on starters. I was quite young at the time. At 30 years old, I started creating a new story, took on full responsibility, made every decision I had to make, and worked on new ideas… it turns out that the direction I decided to take was the right one. The pandemic was also a unique period when we had time to stop for the first time in a while, to rest, and think of new approaches. During that time, I updated the menu and the wine list.
As for me personally... My confidence has maybe grown over time.
I know what I buy, what I pay for, and what I put on the table.
What type of gastronomy do we currently find in Sonja Restaurant?
Our menu is centered around local cuisine, offering a variety of dishes from Istria and perhaps a bit further, mainly because of the diverse range of guests we receive. Our primary focus is on seafood, with a particular emphasis on quality ingredients. The most important aspect of a plate is the ingredient itself, without any complications or culinary trends that may mask the flavors. In this sense, we adhere to tradition. We are proud to have 80% regular guests, with the remaining 20% coming from all over the world.
Who's the typical guest of Sonja Restaurant?
Our regular guests know what they want. I'd say they are 4 to 5-star guests. In reality, they can afford to eat anything and anytime. They are not limited in their choices, but they choose Sonja Restaurant regularly. Why? Because they feel at home here. They feel safe and content. And because they see that we don’t focus only on money, but that we care about people first and foremost.
You started helping in the restaurant as a child. What did you like the most about it then versus now?
As a kid, I definitely appreciated the tips! (laughs) But, in all seriousness, I value the relationships with our guests. We have many regulars who have become our friends. Any kind compliment is also motivating; we all appreciate praise. Full tables at the restaurant give me the satisfaction that keeps me going.
The team at Sonja Restaurant is relatively small and committed. Is there a family spirit among you? Do you ever get into conflicts?
Ugh, yes, there are conflicts almost every day, but everything runs smoothly once the door closes. The most important thing to remember is that I’m always right. (laugh) In the end, we always find a compromise and agree.
In Gostilna Sonja, they have prepared a special dish for you: stewed salted cod. Have you ever tried this seafood dish?
What is your signature dish? Is it fish soup? People have been talking about it a lot. (laugh)
Yes, our fish soup is definitely one of them. Its reputation probably comes from the fact that we cook real fish in it, not rice. (laugh) One of the other most popular dishes is shrimps, which we prepare in various ways.
Do you follow any sustainable guidelines? Are you thinking of applying for any sustainability certifications?
We primarily focus on local sourcing; we have our own olive oil and grow some vegetables. Unfortunately, the demand is too high to be able to source exclusively local products. We also produce minimal amounts of organic waste. In general, the trend is to bring back simplicity and tradition, which is evident when you look at plate sales. Currently, plain white plates are the most popular. I've never really given much consideration to sustainability certificates. We have no ambition to earn a Michelin star, for example, and the reason is simple: we value tradition, and the foundation of that is high-quality ingredients. Quality ingredients can be expensive. The profit may be lower, but it's consistent. Our cooking is also very traditional; our chef has been working here for 28 years and can prepare dishes the old-fashioned way. We can't and don't want to experiment in this area.
How is Sonja Restaurant different from others? Why do you think it's often one of the locals’ TOP 3 picks among restaurants in Izola?
It's probably because our restaurant is small and we're very adaptable. And the relationships we have established with our guests, of course. We know them well by now and can joke about all sorts of things with them.
The locals don’t come here very often. I would say they are around 10% of our clientele, so it’s really interesting that they mention us in the TOP 3. It must mean something to them that we’ve never had any bad reputation in all these years of working, and they certainly recognize the quality of our food.
What about your presence in the digital world? Do you use social media or work on getting Google reviews?
We don’t have any social media presence. If I’m being honest: whenever I decide to do something, I want to do it as best as possible, and I don’t have time for social media. But you can find us on Google. Our rating is about 4.7, I think, and we have almost 500 reviews. That's important, especially because it influences the decision of those who don’t know us yet.
What's your vision going forward? How do you see the restaurant in 10 years?
I would like to continue our story in the direction of a small family hotel with approximately 10 rooms. I see a lot of potential for Izola in this segment. I would like to downsize the restaurant and the terrace, and I would only accept guests with prior reservations, but we need the support of the local community to do that.
My short-term plan is to close the restaurant two days per week – Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I would also love to have a free weekend here and there and not have the phone ringing non-stop.
We'll keep our fingers crossed. The restaurant is not your only business. You also do a fair amount of catering events. What types of events are predominant?
Mostly corporate business events all around Europe, least of all in the Slovenian Istria. We don't advertise this service either, we don't even have a website. Our publicity is word of mouth – happy clients recommend us to others. If we chose to advertise, we would be absolutely in over our heads. Even at this point I have to sometimes politely decline some offers.
We do around 100 catering events a year, ranging from small to large. We cater from 50 to 2,000 people per event.
Which event stands out the most so far and why?
The most memorable event was the UEFA – Europa League in Ljubljana. Probably because we were there for a whole month, working every day from 6 am until midnight. We really enjoyed it; we had team buildings in the bathroom. (laugh) We’re a good and organized team. Some of them also work in the restaurant, and they’re mostly people who have been with us for a long time (since they were students) and understand our work process very well.
Let's talk about Izola for a bit. How do you see it developing in the future? Is there enough happening in terms of gastronomy?
Personally, I would like to see all four coastal municipalities working together more. It would make sense to have a more detailed segmentation of tourism, and to establish a direction in which tourism should develop. Only when these things are established on a macro level, we could then specialize locally. Within the region, Izola is certainly number one in terms of gastronomy, and I see the greatest potential for development in this area. However, accommodation providers should follow suit. Given the size of Izola, I think there’s great opportunity for the development of mid- to upper-range tourism. Due to the small size of our town, this would be more manageable.
Can we then conclude that the future of tourism and hospitality lies in collaboration? Do you support the idea of establishing a formal unified destination of Slovenian Istria?
I think politics has a lot of power to dictate the direction in which a destination should go. A Kebab shop opposite a 5-star Kempinski Hotel is an absolute no-go. I think the state could also influence or control granting business licences more. In the past, people had to have a licence or a degree to open a place; not just anyone could start a food business.
What about cooperation at the local level? Is there a good relationship between the restaurateurs in Izola or in Istria?
It’s very good! We always recommend other places to our guests. I personally suggest the Restaurant of Hotel Marina. If we’re closed, we refer them to Manjada or Beach Garden – they’re good neighbours with quality service.
Honestly … I think there aren't any bad restaurants in Izola. Everyone is doing well in whatever direction they have chosen.
You have many loyal guests, but what advice would you give someone visiting Izola for the first time? What are the TOP 3 things they have to experience?
My world revolves around gastronomy, so I recommend čevapčiči at Doro, wine tasting with Zaro and stopping by the Restaurant of Hotel Marina.