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."

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
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
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

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home