Cafes chart Moscow's drive for 'la dolce vita'

Eating out is no longer the preserve of the super-rich, the mafia or foreigners, writes Steve Crawshaw in Moscow

A sandwich bar, packed at lunchtime, with a queue snaking out of the door. The local speciality? Hot baguettes, piled high with beef, ham, turkey and pastrami. A dozen tables inside and a couple more outside, facing on to the noisy and dusty street. It is all rather ordinary and, partly because of that, rather extraordinary.

Kombi's, just opposite the Mayakovsky Square metro station in central Moscow, is inconspicuous these days. That in itself is a notable change.

Five years ago, there was only a handful of semi-private restaurants in the then Soviet capital. Even two years ago, Western-style eateries were an exception. Now, they are everywhere. Only an obsessive could keep track of every new restaurant and cafe that has opened in Moscow in the past year.

The clientele has also changed. Until recently, only foreigners and the Russian filthy rich could afford to eat out. Now that pattern is slowly changing. In Kombi's, and in a string of similar bars across the city, the customers are mostly Russian. They are not typical, not yet, at least. But nor are they from the gun-toting, limousine-owning classes. Take Olga, 30, who used to teach English. She now earns around $800 (pounds 500) a month: "Things are beginning to change. Most of those who come here are around 30 or younger. For people in that age group, things are really changing."

Three Armenians sitting at a corner table agree. They all earn around $1,000 a month as computer programmers: "Lunch here is expensive. But we come here quite often."

Tania, 40, works for a firm selling Russian tights: "Russian tights are 10 times cheaper and our suppliers are gradually learning that they must improve the quality, too". She also earns around $1,000 a month. In Moscow, that can go a long way, at least if, like most Moscovites, you do not have pay enormous, foreigner-style rents.

For these people, spending five or six dollars at lunchtime is no longer the absurd extravagance it would have been only two years ago. Marina, a 32-year-old accountant, throws her hands open wide to describe the gap between her present and previous earning power: "The difference between heaven and earth."

In the shops, similar changes have taken place. The well stocked supermarket has multiplied. At the crowded supermarket near where I am staying, you usually only hear Russian.

Here, too, the shoppers cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as typical. But nor are they rich freaks. Alla Tkachova, a bookkeeper earning $800, says: "The prices are high. But that's understandable."

The security men standing at the door, patrolling the store, armed, and wearing fatigues, are a reminder that Moscow is still far from normal. In some respects it is perhaps less abnormal than a couple of years ago, when Western prices were unthinkable for all but the mafia and the KGB. (The banana boom is another sign of that: almost every street corner seems to have a stall selling bananas - and the bananas sell).

Tatiana Shpuntenko, manager of the new supermarket, acknowledges that the cashiers can scarcely afford to shop in the store where they work. But, she insists: "Already, it's better than a year or two ago. It can't not be. In some years, it could be possible for ordinary people to use these shops - just like in the West."

Moscow is not indicative of the rest of the country which still lives on a different economic planet. Even in Moscow, however, such changes, until recently, would have seemed impossible.

Few doubt that the mafia or mafias, still have a stranglehold on the economy. But Tania, the seller of Russian tights, sees a ray of hope even here. "I think it's a transitional phase, though nobody knows how long it will last. Eventually people want to become respectable."

For the older generation there is little hope. Crime is up, security is gone, jobs prospects are few and pensions are low.

Among some of the younger generation, though, there is an almost startling self confidence.

Nineteen-year-old Mikhail who now wipes tables at Kombi's returns to his automobile engineering course in the autumn. He has no regrets for the Soviet period, when he would have been guaranteed a job for life, a basic standard of living and safe streets: "The prospects are better now. In a few years time I hope I can open my own car repair workshop. Now, anything is possible."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Key stage 1 and 2 teachers required for the Vale of Glamorgan

£90 - £110 per day + Travel Scheme & Free Training: Randstad Education Cardiff...

Foundation Phase Teacher required

£90 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Exciting opputunities availabl...

Learning Support Assistant

£65 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Due to the continual growth and...

Learning Support Assistant - Newport

£65 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Due to the continual growth and...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz