A 30.000 pies por viajeros para viajeros

Ten Places to Eat and Drink in Moscow

The food thing in Moscow is rather odd – with exceptions, it’s usually simpler and better quality in economical eateries than in pretentious upmarket restaurants. Why should that be? We could go off on a historical, aesthetic, cultural, existential rant that would lead us back to Lenin’s czars, via the Cold War, and end up reflecting on certain post-Perestroika aesthetic criteria affecting much of Russia’s ruling classes, Yeltsin’s new rich now happily ensconced in capitalism. That aversion to minimalism; that Russianhorror vacuiexuded largely by the prevailing fashion, architecture and – of course – gastronomy.

Hence, by adopting the mantra that less is more – an idea many Russians eschew – you will win the gastronomic battle in a city as fascinating as it is hostile, but overwhelmingly beautiful, so different from what we pictured in our mind’s-eye. A city in which you need to have all your wits about you, the impelling need to come to grips with everything which is the driving force behind any journey. And, remain impervious to the odd diatribe hurled at you by Russians of any age and condition, who vent all their pent-up energy just to make it quite clear from the word go that they detest you and everything you stand for.

And, once you have experienced the cold and have been shouted at in Russian; once you have strolled along those huge avenues designed for tanks rather than people, and discovered, to your dismay, that in many respects Moscow is more like London than Moscow, then you will realise you have gained greater insight into the 20th century. And, that nobody who has not borne the brunt of being yelled at forcefully in Russian at least once in their life is in a position to voice an opinion about last century, or about its legacy, its influence on us and, in short, about who we are.

However, as we dedicated long, endless hours of strolling about to existential reflection, we also ate. At times, amazingly poor food, in mainly pseudo-modern restaurants. At others, very tasty food, in those places we are interested in here – notably more modest restaurants. Here, then, is the selection of our ten favourite restaurants in Moscow:

1. Caffe del Parco (Via di Camaldoli, 7)

Take note, hipsters. This will be your favourite restaurant in Moscow, located in what is surely about to become your landmark district in the city – Red October – alongside the river, by way of a Russian version of Williamsburg-Malasaña-Shoreditch still in the making, and that is the best part about it. There aren’t many establishments there yet, although there is the odd interesting store, a bookshop and a good number of restaurants with recycled furniture, bars, DJs and nightlife. Caffe del Parco, recently opened by a Sicilian who settled in Moscow some years ago, is a charming, minimalist café-restaurant where they have recovered the nonna’s recipes and where we were lucky enough to taste one of the best risottos ever. Just another of the thousands of paradoxes Moscow metes out to the visitor.

2. Cafe Mart

Pressing on with our modern streak, this cafe, one of two branches of the Moscow Modern Art Museum, is located in a delightful garden adorned with statues by the Georgian artist, Tsereteli, and packed with families dedicated to the noble art of brunch, with a host of children scuttling about the dining-room or participating in one of the workshops held inside. Delicious coffee, pastries, sandwiches and the odd dish on the simple, unpretentious menu featuring a combination of French cuisine with Georgian specialities in a setting that could well be somewhere in Berlin or Amsterdam.

3. Harat’s Pub

This small, cosy Irish pub on Arbat street, a broad pedestrian avenue that acts as the nerve centre of the city’s shopping and leisure milieu, happens to be one of the few options for having a drink. It is an unusual spot, run by a friendly Muscovite and former resident of Andalusia who loves Latin culture to the extent that he cares less about heading an Irish pub and is unfazed by its siting in one of Moscow’s mainstream precincts where one would expect to find some Russification, rather than forays into the cosmopolitan. He and his rock clientele seem to be enthusiasts of the Spanish beat, so that when you step inside you are hit by a full-blown “Lega-lega-li-za-ción” seemingly blaring out from some boomboxes. Indeed, the crowd here are fans of Spain, Ska-P, imported birras and Ireland in all their magnitude, and this strange yet endearing mix makes for one of Moscow’s most entertaining bars.

4.  Varenichnaya N.1 (Arbat, 29)

This is our favourite restaurant in the city, an unpretentious, pleasant, centrally located and economical eatery also on Arbat street which offers traditional Russian cuisine in the form of such dishes as vareniki (a pasta pie with various fillings, topped with a delicious sauce), pelmini (a similar dish of Ukrainian origin) and chebureki (traditional meat-filled pasties). They also have a selection of traditional pancakes, cocktails with or without alcohol, coffee and homemade pastries. All set in large, crowded but very cosy premises with motley adornments revealing extraordinary good taste juxtaposed with others striking one as just the opposite. This matters not the least when you sink your teeth into one of the economically priced delicacies served by charming staff who, surprisingly, are able to communicate in English.

5. Varvary

A rundown of gastronomy in Moscow is not complete without mention of Anatoly Komm, the country’s first chef to earn a Michelin star, who has an avant-garde restaurant offering haute cuisine known as Varvary. If you can afford it, it is worth booking a table in the dining-room run by this eccentric and unclassifiable chef who applies the latest cutting-edge techniques to a base of traditional Russian cooking (soups, smoked food). Komm regrets the terrible autarky Russia is going through and the indigenous people’s reluctance to open up to influences from neighbouring Europe, and he must know what he’s talking about. This is not the case with his luxury Muscovite restaurant, which offers molecular cuisine for customers with informed tastes, worlds apart from those “new rich”, as Kromm puts it, practically uneducated and with rather pompous tastes. The dishes crafted by this sensitive, art-loving man are noteworthy for their spectacular aesthetic, among other things.

6. Monsieur Croissant (Baumanskaya, 42)

You need to move away from the centre and approach the area of Baumanskaya, which we strongly urge you to do if you want to discover the real Moscow, which is much warmer and welcoming, far from the inclemencies of a centre as hostile as it is spectacular. And, if you decide to confront the beautiful although complicated Moscow metro system, this small restaurant is a great choice, whether you want to breakfast on one of its buns or pastries or have a simple but well prepared lunch, such as pasta with vegetables or the soup of the day. Nearby is a Hotel Mercure, where we happen to be staying, at a laughable price compared to downtown rates and just two metro stops from Red Square.

7. Tamerlan

This mega-restaurant with its mock luxury comes with a clientele dressed as if they’re were all attending a wedding downing vodkas like they were water. This Asian restaurant is a good option if you’re feeling like some glamour, as the Eurasian cuisine is outstanding, the price, reasonable and the decor, striking and attractive.

8. Chemodan (Gogolevskiy Blvd., 25/1)

It would be unforgivable to leave Moscow without having dined at least once in Chemodan, a delightful, absolutely unclassifiable restaurant that breaks the mould of what one would imagine contemporary Moscow to be like. Chemodan is located in the vicinity of Arbat and has an ambience (with its grand lamps, wallpaper, carpets and paintings hung on the walls) more reminiscent of a bar of intellectuals in the Paris of the twenties than what you would expect in Putin’s Russia. As you open the door and are met by a charming little old man, with the sound of Bésame mucho in the background, you know you’ve come to the right place. There, you give yourself over to cuisine with Russian roots, selecting from a well-worked menu featuring pampered, sensitively crafted dishes from all over the country.

9. Café Pushkin

Only if you have around €300 in your pocket should you venture into Café Pushkin, a legendary locale which is worth mentioning for figuring in all possible world rankings for both the best restaurants and the most beautiful ones. Don, therefore, your best attire and take your place like some Cinderella in this majestic environment lined with fine woods and where even the most secluded corner is lavished with tasteful luxury. Prepare to savour Russian cuisine with French touches – or, might that be the other way around? Despite the charm of the establishment, however, the dishes may not satisfy those diners seeking haute cuisine in its pure state.

10. Beverly Hills Diner

Lastly, a big lark, which we’re eager to not leave unmentioned as it is surely the most telling joke we have seen in Moscow. This is the most American of eateries, where you would expect Olivia Newton-John to make her entry at any time. It stands in downtown Moscow, with neon lights that appear to be proudly blaring out to the world that – yes – they won the Cold War. You bite your tongue and see for yourself, with some resentment, that you’re not quite sure what victory is being celebrated. You realise that, after so much salmon and Russian sauces, what you really fancy is the pleasure of the familiar, being able to finally sink your teeth into a hamburger.

Come and experience it for yourself! Check out our flights here

Text and photos by Laura Conde (Gastronomistas)