A feast fit for a Muscovite: Dining in the Russian capital

Moscow's eateries used to be famed for their watery soups. These days they serve sushi. Where can you eat some authentic Russian fare? Ask long-time Russophile Robin Buss
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

The best way, if you can manage it, is to get invited to a Russian home. The Russians love to entertain and have a positively oriental notion of hospitality. On our last visit, we went to dinner with our friends Nadia and Nikolai. We arrived to find Nikolai cooking pancakes in the kitchen; and sat down to a first course of blini and red caviar, smoked salmon, prawns, cold meat and the pickled mushrooms that Nadia had collected in "her village", where they have their dacha. This was followed by wild boar, then goose, then a torte (a Viennese-style confection smothered in cream), and finally ice cream and tea.

Meanwhile, the three of us who were drinking got through two half-litre bottles of vodka, a cranberry-flavoured spirit and a lot of fruit juice. Nadia, who served us this delicious but potentially life-threatening feast of calories, is a consultant cardiologist.

This is not everyday fare: it is the sort of meal with which Russians like to celebrate, and for which, in Soviet times, they went to restaurants on rare occasions such as weddings and graduations. The rest of the time, most Soviet citizens ate at least one meal a day at a works canteen - not the same as a restaurant and certainly not the basis for a restaurant culture.

Perestroika brought the first McDonald's to Pushkin Square: Muscovites queued for hours to get a Big Mac and fries. After that came chains of Russian fast food, such as Russkoe Bistro and Rostiks. If you want good as well as inexpensive Russian fare, the MuMu chain offers self-service with rustic décor, where you queue for dishes course by course: salads, mains, soups, shashlik and desserts. There is an English menu - though some of the items need deciphering: what, for example, are "duck's trotters"?

One step up is the "business lunch", a set meal for 200-500 roubles (£4-£10) available in many establishments where an evening meal would cost 10 times as much. In the centre of Moscow there is a good light business lunch to be had at Mesto Vstrechi, at Maly Gnezdnikovsky Pereulok 9, with soup or salad and a main course. At Ekspeditsiya, Pevchevsky Pereulok 8, they serve "authentic recipes ... all basic food products from the Arctic region". It offers caribou and muksun (Siberian salmon) and has a Siberian sauna and an Arctic rescue helicopter in the dining room.

The helicopter supplies ambience, an important element for Russians in eating out. (The reason for the success of McDonald's was the opportunity it gave to get a feel of the West.) The post-Soviet years saw a rush of themed restaurants named after comedy films and the novels of George Orwell, or cashing in on nostalgia for Soviet and pre-Soviet times.

The king of the Moscow restaurant scene is Arkady Novikov, who, allegedly after failing to get a job at McDonald's, borrowed enough money to open his own place. He ended up with 90 restaurants, including the chain Yolki-Palki and such exotic venues as the Vogue Café, Biskvit (designed to look like a 19th-century gentleman's club) and Sirena, a fish restaurant with an aquarium under its glass floor. Apart from Yolki-Palki, most seem to cater for thosewho like to be seen to be rich.

Typical of such places (though not in the Novikov empire) are the three restaurants at Ulitsa 1905 Goda 2: Shinok, Shato (Château) and Le Diuk (Le Duc). The first specialises in Ukrainian cuisine, but you are more likely to remember the farmyard in the middle of the room; diners can look through the windows at cows, chickens and goats, and the woman in Ukrainian peasant costume who feeds them and sweeps up.

Shato offers French cuisine in surroundings meant to suggest gracious living in old Aquitaine. Next door, Le Diuk is also French, and the visitors' book boasts the signature of Mikhail Gorbachev and other celebrities. The château motif is taken still further: the décor is somewhere between medieval dungeon and Gothic crypt.

Such fantasies are not everyone's idea of fun, nor would they do much for your bank account, your health or your waistline. By contrast, coffee shops such as Donna Klara, Malaya Bronnaya 21/13, and Delifrance, inside the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Triumfalnaya Ploshchad, offer small snacks and cakes. One of the best is Kafe Gotti, Ulitsa Tverskaya 24, where young women watch passers-by or meet friends to chat over a coffee, a light lunch or supper, and probably a cigarette. After the extravagant make-believe that goes with eating elsewhere in Moscow, this place offers a welcome return to normality.

Intourist (0870-112 1232; intouristuk.com) offers three-night breaks in Moscow from £790 per person. The price includes return flights, transfers, three nights' b&b at the three-star Hotel Cosmos and a visa, which is subject to a minimum of 10 working days' processing time.