Magazine article Russian Life

Dining Old and New

Magazine article Russian Life

Dining Old and New

Article excerpt

One of the changes in the last few years most evident to foreigners in Russia has been the boom in places to eat out. In the past, poor service, monotonous fare and constant absence of dishes written on the menu came close to ruining many a Westerner's holiday or business trip.

Under perestroika, things began to change, with the appearance of joint venture and 'cooperative' (i.e. private) restaurants, usually more expensive but at the same time customer-friendly and tastefully arranged. This trickle turned into a flood, and now most major Russian cities have a reasonable variety of eateries for most tastes. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, most cuisines of the world are sufficiently represented.

Every silver lining has a cloud, though, and in this case it is cost. In Moscow, average costs per person per meal have long been in the area of $30-40, and it's not unusual to find yourself paying over $100. Elsewhere is almost always considerably cheaper, although recently the provinces have begun catching up with the capital.


Despite Moscow's abundance of decent Mexican and Chinese restaurants, it is unlikely that you have come to the land of borshch and pelmeni to eat nachos or sweet and sour pork. There is a commonly held belief that Russian food is stodgy and unimaginative - indeed it lacks the rich variety of Southern European cooking or the spicy intrigue of Asian dishes. However, many private restaurants have now revived culinary delights that were made virtually extinct by the revolution, showing that Russia too has its share of delicacies. Nowadays it will take more than one holiday to try all the varieties of zharkoye (hotpot) or dishes fit for hussars (po-gusarski) or boyars (po-boyarski).

As you might expect from the names, these dishes are usually very expensive, as is Russian haute cuisine in general. Because such fare is considered an attraction for foreigners, prices are mostly high.

A cheaper option, and one much loved by frequent visitors to Russia, is Caucasian, especially Georgian, cuisine. While there are similarities to Turkish and Middle eastern food, you can also treat yourself to local delicacies like khachapouri (cheese pies) or lobio (beans in spicy sauce, delicious when hot) and sample delicious wines like Tsinandali (semi-dry white) or Kindzmarauli (semi-dry red). Most major Russian cities now have some kind of Caucasian care or restaurant.

For cheaper still or snacks, fast food options are now increasingly convenient in Moscow and St. Petersburg, As well as the usual array of McDonalds, Pizza Hut and other western chains, Moscow now has the home-grown Russkoye Bistro. Visitors should make a point of visiting this new Russian 'institution,' with its delicious pies, kvas on tap, rather chaotic service and liberal policy on alcohol (unlike McDonald's, they sell miniature bottles of vodka and 'herbal' liquor). Note that other cities still have a much more primitive approach to fast food, with many cafes still leftovers from the Soviet era.


RESERVATIONS: Gone are the days when grumpy doormen angled for bribes, claiming that there was no room in the restaurant. Now you're only likely to be turned away if there is genuinely not a table to be had. If in doubt, book - especially on weekend evenings or at a particularly popular restaurant. Always ask for chisty stol (clean table) - if you arrive to find a tantalizing assortment of cold meat, fish and salad on your table, you can expect a hefty bill at the end. …

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