Snapshots of Split in 2014: Culinary Pioneers

Paul Bradbury

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August 21, 2023 – As discussion about Split’s tourism strategy continues, snapshots of Split in 2014, and a missed opportunity.

People’s perceptions of Split tend logically to be based on how long they have known the city, and the majority of today’s expats living there know the city for perhaps a few years at most. I have been a regular visitor for 21 years now and seen enormous change, but I also acknowledge that I never got to see Split in its prime, if stories from locals about the 1980s are to be believed.

It has been quite a journey looking back at those 21 years. Back then when I first started to visit, there was not even a hostel in Split, and parts of Diocletian’s Palace were a little forbidding to walk through at night.

The most exciting time, at least in my opinion, was the period of 2012 to 2015. Split was still known as the ‘Gateway to the Islands’, and while tourism did exist, it was nowhere near on a level as it is today.

Back in November 2012, I decided to start a portal called Total Split, the first dedicated English-language portal to the city, and together with Mila Hvilshoj, we also produced the first modern guidebook, called Split, an Insider’s Guide.

It was an exciting – if exhausting (up at 5am to catch the catamaran from Jelsa, home on the last ferry at 23:00, 3 days a week) journey of discovery, as I got to know the tourism businesses and restaurants who were shaping the offer of the city.

One of the early stars was a new concept for Split (seems crazy to think it was new just a decade ago, given how the concept is everywhere in Split now) – a wine and cheese bar called Paradox. It was the first of its kind in the Dalmatian capital, and it took its name from the fact that Croatian bureaucracy did not have a category of wine bar in its system, despite it being an excellent tool to sell Croatian wine.

Paradox was an instant success, promoting Croatian wine and cheese from all over the country, with tutored tastings, winemaker presentations, and an impressive number of lesser-known Croatian labels by the glass.

I remember sometime in 2013 the first sushi place opened, run by a Japanese guy. Sushi in Split! I had only been living in Dalmatia for 10 years to witness this seismic moment. As more and more places opened, Split was developing a reputation for a cultured and foodie destination. It felt raw and exciting, a quality destination adding touched of local and international class to a very strong cultural and heritage tradition.

The Paradox team, spearheaded by Zoran Pejovic, a tourism expert with an impressive global track record in luxury tourism, then opened Paradigma, the first truly fine dining restaurant in the city. Pejovic’s vision of Split as a high-end destination was impressive, and the products he brought to the market certainly fitted the bill.

Paradigma, while adored by those who frequented it, failed as it was too early for the market, and Split did not have the base of clientele to sustain it. The pandemic succeeded in killing Paradox, and Pejovic moved on to other projects, and with considerable success. He masterminded the opening of Maslina Resort on Hvar, as well as luxury Villa Nai 3.3 on Dugi Otok (both of which top the lists of luxury accommodation in Croatia), and is currently performing hotel wonders on the island of Losinj.

What prompted this article was a LinkedIn post from Pejovic last night, in itself prompted by Facebook memories. I publish it in full below. And, as an aside, there were 203 Spilt restaurants on TripAdvisor in 2014 – I wonder how many there are today.

I just received the image below from my long-time friend and business partner, Marko Sučić, who got it as a Facebook reminder two days ago.

Nine years ago, two of our restaurants, Paradox, a wine and cheese bar focused on Dalmatian wine, and Paradigma, a fine dining restaurant imagined as the laboratory of modern Dalmatian cuisine, held the top two places in the city on TripAdvisor. Paradox went on to become the Andrew Harper Hideaway Report’s Best Wine Bar in the World in 2019. It was featured in the New York Times as an essential stop in Split and was voted Gault Millau’s best Pop place in Croatia, among many other accolades.

Paradigma quickly became a member of JRE in its first year of operation, was voted one of the 10 best restaurants in Croatia in 2015, and was the first restaurant in Croatia to have its pop-up version in Zagreb and more.

The Split we envisioned back then was different. These days, British media compare it to Magaluf in Spain. I cringe at that comparison. While it’s hard to pinpoint what went wrong, one thing is clear: we were lone pioneers in attempting to culturally and gastronomically position Split in a distinct and elevated sphere.

But as the early adopters vanished, Split slipped into mainstream tourism for the young and thirsty, characterized by pub crawls and shotting Olympics.

After spending the last few days in Split, following time mostly in Lošinj and on the road this summer, I’ve sensed a different vibe. It’s neither good nor terrible, as they say these days. While I try to avoid romanticizing the past, I can’t help but reflect on what could be done to get back on the path we envisioned with our projects. It would require persistence, patience, education, compelling storytelling, and investments in quality products. I’m uncertain if anyone is prepared for that challenge.

Let the dice fall as they may. I still love this city, despite everything.


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