Warning: A vacation in Moscow is not for the faint of heart (beware Soviet hospitals) . . . or the weak of stomach.
For the curious who wish to meet the Soviet people at a time when their country is considered to be in its most widespread state of change since the 1917 October Revolution, the trip will be worth it.
In terms of consumer services and products, however, the Soviet Union is strictly Third World.
Forget that this country launched the first manned spacecraft. It is also the country whose citizens must line up for an average of two hours a day to track down even the basics of dinner.
It’s a good idea to carry along your own culinary supplies. That way you can always eat, whether in a hotel room or Gorky Park. Pack paper plates, cups, plastic knives and forks, a Swiss army knife with a corkscrew attachment, and a small knapsack for carrying food.
No Quick Big Macs
Groceries in hand, you will never be at the mercy of the bureaucrats, who close restaurants and hotel cafeterias during mealtimes, nor will you spend the major portion of your touring day trying to find lunch.
For a tourist looking for a quick Big Mac between tours of Lenin’s Mausoleum and the Arbat, it can seem like a constant battle against starvation. No matter how many times you’ve read that McDonald’s has opened in Moscow, it hasn’t. Nor has Pizza Hut.
And government-run restaurants--the only restaurants, until Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s economic reforms permitted co-operatives (restaurants that share their profits with the state)--are not restaurants but torture chambers: the waiters and maitre d’s become the torturers, the food the poison, the time spent there an eternity.
Having said all this, salvation--in the form of Moscow’s co-operative restaurants--is happily around the corner. Here is your guide on how to eat well in Moscow.
Gastronom Beryozka: Upon arriving at your hotel in Moscow, ask a taxi driver to take you to this restaurant at the Exhibition Complex, on Krasnopresnenskaya Naberezhnaya. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 3 to 7 p.m.
This is the closest thing that Moscow has to a grocery store. Load up with bottles of wine and juices, cheeses and salamis, jars of pickled peppers, tomatoes, dills, hot Russian mustard, fruit (if you’re visiting at the right time of the year, you may even be able to get fresh fruit), bread, breakfast buns and chocolate.
Make sure that you buy bottled or tinned water. If no foreign brands are available, the best Soviet brand (and the least salty) is Narzan. It appears as “HapzaH” on the label.
Do not drink tap water. The American, British, Italian and West German embassies, among others, have warned that the water must be filtered and boiled before being drunk.
Co-operatives are the oasis in the desert. They must share their profits with the state but do get to keep a portion of the profits, and that is their incentive to care about your happiness.
Unfortunately, co-operatives are still rare and not inexpensive. And most, if not all, require you to bring your own wine and make a reservation. If they don’t speak English, ask your hotel clerk to phone for you and get him or her to write out the address for your taxi driver.
If the restaurant does not have a printed menu with prices listed, the best way to ensure that there are no surprise billings is to agree on the amount ahead of time. In any event, be prepared to pay up to $40 per person (and that does not include wine). Here’s a listing of some to try; the trouble and expense will be worth it:
Upirosmani restaurant, Novodevichy Passage 4: Of the 15 Soviet Socialist Republics representing distinct nationalities, the Georgians are the group most recognized for their tasty, spicy cuisine. And Upirosmani is a tribute to that reputation--salty cheeses, creamy cheese breads, spicy eggplant dishes and incredible shashlik (shish kebabs).
The restaurant is also graced by its location--directly across from the Novodevichy Convent.
Founded in 1524 by Grand Prince Basil III, this gracious walled former defense post stands with its beautiful golden domes and turrets overlooking a wonderful small lake laden with ducks (in the winter the ducks live in tiny, floating duck houses).
You look out from the windows of Upirosmani onto the duck pond. Eat till you ache and then walk off your meal on the Novodevichy grounds and in its cemeteries.
Aist, Ul. Bolshaya Bronnaya Street 5: In the heart of the literary district, this restaurant serves a Moscow rarity--wonderful steaks. A walk through this neighborhood after dinner will give you a flavor for the older parts of Moscow that survived Stalin’s “renovations” to the city.
Atrium, Leninsky Prospect 44: With the emphasis on numerous starters and small entrees, this beautifully appointed dining room offers chicken with mushrooms, cheese in pastry and mushrooms in sour cream.
Lasagna, Piatnitskaya 40: While the service here is notoriously slow--even for Moscow--the food is claimed by some to be the best in the city. The chef was the cook for the Soviet Embassy in Italy for 15 years. Wonderful fresh sauces and vegetables. This restaurant accepts major credit cards and in summer has tables set up on an outside patio.
Chez Yuzet, Dubininskaja 11: Hidden behind a railway station in a little dead-end street, this Jewish restaurant is worth seeking out. It serves flavorful fish pates, original dishes of mixed vegetables and eggs, and wonderful breads.
Before Gorbachev allowed Russians to start co-operatives he allowed foreigners to join in partnership with the Soviet government in business as a way of keeping half the profits while obtaining the foreign expertise.
While the resulting restaurants are not as good as the co-operatives (the staff doesn’t get a share of the profits as they do in co-ops) they are still much better than the state-run restaurants.
Here is a list of some joint-venture restaurants:
Delhi, Ul. Krasnaya Presnya 23-b: This Indian restaurant near the American embassy has both a foreign currency side (it will accept your dollars or your credit cards) and a ruble side.
The ruble side caters to the Russians’ preference to combine restaurants with discos, thus a live band strikes up every half an hour or so. The foreign currency side will entertain you with lovely costumed women performing authentic Indian dances.
While the food is not dependable--if they are out of what you order, they may substitute without warning--and the quality of the food fluctuates. But it is still one of the best restaurants in the city.
Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel, Krasnopresnenskaya Nab. 12: This international hotel, built with the backing of American philanthropist Armand Hammer, caters to foreign businessmen (tourists are not placed in this hotel). It has several restaurants.
The only excellent one is the Sakura, an incredibly expensive Japanese restaurant that charges about $150 for two for dinner, or about $80 for two for lunch to cover the costs of the fresh food it claims to fly in from Japan daily. Payment is in dollars or by credit card.
The hotel also has a pseudo-English pub, the Red Lion, that serves shepherd’s pie, eggs and sausages and the like. While the quality of the food is not outstanding (the so-called plowman’s lunch is a joke), the service is quick and the experience hassle-free.
Across the hall from the English pub is a German beer hall/restaurant called Bier-Stube that offers fast lunches and dinners. The Mezhdunarodnaya also has a Gastronom Beryozka in it, for the aforementioned picnic lunches.
As for fast food, basically the concept doesn’t exist in Moscow. Look for shashlik (shish kebab) stands in market areas and street vendors selling meat pies out of boxes.
If eating at Upirosmani leaves you aching for more Georgian breads, head to the bakeries at Ul. Mnevniki 9 and Proletarsky Pr. 73.
Or try Slastyona, the bakery that provided the rich cakes for President Reagan’s spring summit visit. Krasnokazarmennaya 3.
Moscow’s largest bakery is at Kalinina Prospect 45.
For more exotic picnics, try the produce at Moscow’s private markets, where the Soviet Union’s industrious sell their best fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and pickled goods. A good one is on Ul. Vavilova.
Finally, there is a permanent shashlik stand at the southwest end of the Arbat--Moscow’s wonderful old walking mall. You have to stand outside while you eat it, but it is delicious and at about two rubles, relatively cheap.