It’s a cliché because it’s true—you can’t talk about Russian food without talking about vodka. Performance artists hold a feast in memory of Russian poet Dmitri Prigov in a metro carriage. (Photo by Thomas Peter / Reuters)
In many ways, Russia is an aesthete’s delight. Heart-wrenching literature, breathtaking ballet, wildly ornate churches and some of the best dramatic theater in the world. A food paradise it is not—or so the thinking goes.
Russian cuisine is not inherently delicious. The most common salad dressing is mayonnaise and the spice of choice is dill, sprinkled on everything from fish to pasta. Boiled potatoes, broiled meat and stewed cabbage are standard Russian fare.
But there are secret delicacies, largely unknown in the West, guaranteed to make your mouth water. As the country’s culinary epicenter, Moscow is packed with restaurants offering cuisine from every corner of its former empire.
My favorite is Georgian food. Its vegetable dishes are laced with pomegranate seeds and served with grilled lamb, beef or chicken and several variations of eggplant (best when stuffed with a nut puree). Satsivi, a cold chicken in walnut sauce dish, is worth suffering through a Russian winter.
The Ukrainian restaurants make the best sweet vareniki, dumplings stuffed with sour cherries, and borsht, beet soup. Uzbek chefs add lots of cumin, coriander and hot pepper, and there’s no better cure for a hangover than a big plate of their plov, a greasy rice and beef dish.
It’s a cliché because it’s true — you can’t talk about Russian food without talking about Russian drink. I recently asked my Russian grandmother why her napoleon, a flaky layered pastry filled with cream, tastes so much better than any I’d tried in France. “I put vodka in it,” she said.
Vodka is a regular meal accompaniment, so I’ll let you in on a little trick, one that Russians guard like a state secret. Before you take a shot, breathe out through your nose, but not all the way. Take a sip of vodka and a bite of food. Then, after you swallow, breathe in. The vodka will go down like water. You’ll be singing the Russian national anthem in no time.
An Uzbek restaurant in a quiet courtyard off Moscow’s oldest street, Vostochny Kvartal is the perfect spot for an informal lunch or dinner. It features traditional Uzbek decor, with thick wooden tables and richly colored rugs that adorn the walls. A nice change from the massive restaurants usually found in Moscow, it attracts young Russians resting their feet after strolling the historic city center.
The chicken shashlik (shish kebab) is tender and juicy, and goes perfectly with a small dish of tomato and sweet onion salad and a lepyoshka, a warm fluffy bread roll. My favorite dish is chuchvara, a spicy soup with beef or lamb dumplings that soak up the rich onion and spicy flavor of the broth.
Its enclosed outdoor patio with umbrella-shaded tables makes Vostochny Kvartal particularly popular in the summer, solidifying its reputation as one of the few good eateries along Arbat, Moscow’s most famous tourist street.
Metro Arbatskaya or Smolenskaya
Moscow – Arbat
+7 495 241 3803
Reservations: Not required
Meal for two: 2,000 rubles ($66)
Seating: Indoor with outdoor patio in summer
Café Pushkin has long been Moscow's most famous eatery, and rightly so. Walking through its majestic doors, you enter Tsarist-era Russia, with perfect service (a rarity in Moscow) and expertly made Russian dishes (just as rare).
Huge windows framed by heavy curtains allow you to gaze out onto the sleepy boulevard while sitting at marble tables fit for Russian aristocracy. The soft hum of Tchaikovsky and Chopin accompanies your meal, rather than the throbbing techno favored by most Russian establishments.
Waiters attend to your every need, addressing men as sudar and women as sudarnya, the old Russian terms for monsieur and madame abolished during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
This is the place to go for the French-inspired dishes feasted upon by the Tsarist court before Communism put an end to their way of life. Start with black caviar and a plate of homemade pickles or blyny, thin buckwheat pancakes. Then move on to my favorite entree, beef stroganoff, or the roasted chicken served with mushrooms and garlic sauce.
And definitely save room for dessert. From almond cake drenched in cherry confit to eclairs and millefeuille, every sweet on the menu will make you swoon.
Tverskoi Bulvar, 26A
Moscow – Pushkinskaya
+7 495 739 0033
Meal for two: 7,000 rubles ($230) in the ground floor dining area; Prices rise on the second and third levels, with more privacy in each subsequent dining hall.
Located on the top floor of the Lotte Plaza business center, this bar has the best city gazing and people watching. Through floor-to-ceiling windows, you can see the towers of the Kremlin and white domes of the Christ the Savior Cathedral on one side, and the gleaming skyscrapers of the Moskva-Citi business district on the other.
From your table, you’re sure to catch a glimpse of a Russian pop star or oligarch. From Russia’s zolotaya molodyozh, or “golden youth”— sons and daughters of the politically powerful — to Western bankers and Russian men wooing young models, Kalina attracts all kinds. Every Russian is impressed when I tell them I once saw Dima Bilan, Russia’s Justin Timberlake, there.
The food is typical Moscow fusion, offering dishes like sushi, duck salad and Russian beets mixed with peas. The menu is filled with high-quality fare that changes often. My recent favorite is a seafood risotto with lime sauce, better than any Italian restaurant in Moscow could attempt to make.
Be sure to try a cocktail. The cosmopolitans are particularly good and their wine selection is impressive, priced in line with the pocketbooks of its high-rolling patrons. But beware, Moscow’s infamous “feis kontrol” policy is in full effect. You must look the part of high society (or reserve well in advance) to ensure they let you in.
Novinsky Bulvar, 8 (21st floor of Lotte Plaza)
Moscow – Smolensksya
+7 495 229 5519
Meal for two: 4,000 rubles ($130)
Ambience: DJ music
Seating: Indoor, with a small outdoor balcony in summer
From the outside, Genatsvale looks like a submarine. Inside, fish swim in open streams that line the winding halls as you walk along fake cobblestone floors. You may wonder why a Georgian restaurant would choose such a decor. Just chalk it up to Moscow absurdity.
Flashy, themed restaurants were all the rage in the post-Soviet early 1990s, when this restaurant opened. And with one bite of the fine Georgian food served here, gaudiness will be the last thing on your mind.
Genatsvale has some of the best khatchipuri (cheese bread), lobio (beans) and shashlik (grilled meat) in town. With Georgian food, starters are the best, so be sure to load up eggplant rolls stuffed with nuts, fresh tomato and cucumber salads, and satsivi dripping in nut sauce. For the main course, choose a bunch of meats—lamb, chicken, beef and salmon—and have them grilled in simple Georgian style.
Genatsvale’s five-man Georgian band strolls through the twisting dining halls, which seat at least 200. The restaurant, a favorite with patrons celebrating holidays or birthdays, is never full, so you’ll likely be serenaded unless you politely wave them away.
Noviy Arbat, 11/2
Moscow – Arbat
+7 495 697 9453
Reservations: Not required
Meal for two: 3,000 rubles ($100)
Ambience: Quiet, except when the Georgian band strikes up a tune
Seating: Indoor with a small outdoor balcony in summer
This smoky den of sin is all things to all people. Home to Moscow’s dissident community, journalists, theatre actors and musicians, it’s the perfect slice of Moscow bohemia. Walking inside, you feel like you’ve stepped in someone’s salon-style living room, complete with an upright piano.
Mayak serves one of the best steaks in Moscow, cooked just the way you like it. The magret de canard is another winner, strips of duck dripping in sour cherry sauce accompanied by a dollop of mashed potatoes wrapped in thin carrot strips and topped with peas. They also serve a tasty cheese plate with honey, almonds and grapes that compliment the red wine that flows so freely here.
The service is among the worst in Moscow, with waiters who seem to take pleasure in ignoring customers and rolling their eyes. But its raucous political debates and bygone-era energy more than make up for it.
Metro Biblioteka Imeni Lenina
Bolshaya Nikitskaya, 19
Moscow – Near the Kremlin
+7 495 691 7449
Reservations: Recommended for Friday and Saturday nights
Meal for two: 1,500 rubles ($50)
Ambience: Quiet on weekdays, loud on weekends