Finding a congenial bar in the Soviet capital is not easy, especially since the anti-alcohol campaign that began last June.
The typical beer bar is a smelly, smoky, stand-up joint where watery, tasteless brew is dispensed by machine for 20 kopecks a pint (about 23 cents). Scratch that idea.
Places labeled "bar" serve only syrupy-sweet cocktails with such names as "Golden Autumn," and the atmosphere is plain chrome racks.
But there is a wonderful saloon near the celebrated Taganka Theater that combines the atmosphere of an old-time speak-easy with that of a friendly pub. The music is as lively as the customers.
It is known as Vysotsky's Bar, for it was the hangout of a legendary folk singer who created an enormous following by composing tell-it-like-it-is songs about the harsh realities of Soviet life. His portrait hangs in the entrance. When he died in 1980, a crowd of 20,000 or more crammed into Taganka Square in an unprecedented show of love and grief.
The bar is slightly kooky, with a moose head hung on one wall and a little statue of Dopey (of the Seven Dwarfs) standing in a corner. Strangers are turned away unless they come with a regular or know the current password, such as "Sasha sent me."
Beer is served in pitchers. With a word to the doorman, though, you can substitute your own wine, or something stronger.
On a recent night, musicians performed on banjo, washboard, piano, trumpet and guitar. An actor from the Soviet production of "Fiddler on the Roof" sang "If I Were a Rich Man," and a guitar player, in the Vysotsky tradition, celebrated the bittersweet realities of lost love and renewed hope.
Like a haunting melody, this bar lingers in the memory. It's just a few steps down from the Taganka Theater, at No. 15, Verkhnayaya Radishchevskaya.