A change of course for Chekhov's favourite café

 

Anton Chekhov celebrated the premiere of one of his plays here, and Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote a poem praising the tasty lunches and high-quality beer. But the Prague restaurant, perhaps the most famous eatery in Moscow, has closed its doors for good and will soon be turned into a luxury restaurant run by the Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli.

Mr Cavalli's representatives have reached a verbal agreement to buy the restaurant from its current owner, the controversial billionaire Telman Ismailov, and the restaurant will reopen in the summer under the name of "Just Cavalli", according to Russian media.

Mr Cavalli has yet to confirm the move, but it looks like the capital's most famous eatery, which has changed faces many times during its long existence, is due for another makeover. The building, an art nouveau masterpiece that stands at one end of Moscow's pedestrianised Arbat Street, has a legendary place in the city's history. It started out as an ordinary drinking tavern and cheap cafe, but when the wealthy merchant Pyotr Tararykin won the entire building in a game of billiards in 1896, he decided to turn it into something special. He hired the best chefs in town and served elaborate dishes to the upper echelons of Moscow society in nine different dining rooms. It also attracted a literary and artistic clientele; after the premiere of Anton Chekhov's new play Three Sisters in 1901, the actors and playwright celebrated together at the restaurant.

After the revolution in 1917, the restaurant was nationalised and most of the dining halls were closed down to make way for a cinema and shops. The kitchen was used for the canteen of a state-run agricultural conglomerate. But in 1955, to celebrate a decade since the liberation of Prague from the Nazis, the restaurant was reopened under its former name, and soon again became one of the capital's most famous dining spots. During the last decades of the Soviet Union, it was one of only a handful of restaurants in the capital.

In recent years, as hundreds of restaurants have sprung up in the new, cash-rich Moscow, the Prague was unable to compete and the legendary restaurant has not been open to casual callers, catering instead only to parties and banquets. Its most recent owner, Mr Ismailov, is a moustachioed businessman famous for extravagances such as flying in Jennifer Lopez to sing "Happy Birthday" to him at his lavish parties.

In 2009, he drew criticism from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for opening a super-luxury hotel in Turkey. Mr Putin suggested that the businessman would be better off investing in Russia and shortly afterwards a sprawling market that he ran on the outskirts of Moscow was raided by police and shut down. Mr Ismailov fled Russia and went into hiding, but now seems to be back in favour with the Kremlin and Mr Putin.

The closing of the Prague, however, means that he now has hardly any business in Moscow.

Russian news agencies said that Mr Cavalli and another businessman had bought the restaurant and brand for $450m (£287m) from Mr Ismailov's AST company. But other sources said that so far there had only been a provisional agreement, and the deal would involve renting rather than outright buying the place. The designer, whose clothes are popular among Russia's new rich, already runs a similar bar and restaurant, also called Just Cavalli, in Milan.

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