On the Menu in Moscow, Soviet-Era Nostalgia

It’s lunchtime in Moscow and the line for Stolovaya 57 is out the door — a 20-person long struggle for borscht, jellied pork, soft boiled vegetables and grated cabbage. Though it might be hard to imagine that people would wait any amount of time for a tray of food served by a stern-faced Russian woman in a dowdy canteen, this restaurant in Moscow’s historic GUM department store is proving otherwise.

“Stolovaya” is Russian for “canteen” and the common term used for affordable state-run diners before the collapse of the U.S.S.R. At these establishments Muscovites would gather for a filling meal — complete with lemon tea — and a guarantee of great value for money. Today, Stolovaya 57, with its drab 1970s interiors and the unimpressed lady counting up the plates of food on each person’s tray with a wooden abacus before barking their total at them, is one of a growing number of restaurants catering to a Russian nostalgia for the “good old days” that have sprung up around Moscow.

The longing for service without a smile is part of a general nostalgia in Russia. The independent polling organization the Levada Centre recently found that two thirds of Russians harbor feelings of regret toward the breakup of the Soviet Union. “Life was better back then,” said 73-year-old Vera Petrovna, who sat at the table across from me at Stolovaya 57, tucking into a plate of soggy looking dumplings. “I had my own career and I wasn’t constantly looking for more. I wasn’t even trying to make ends meet. I was rich with my cow, my plot of land and all the vegetables I could grow for myself in the summer.”

Customers choose three or four small dishes — or judging by some diners’ selections, as much as their tray can handle — usually a vegetable or salad option ranging from over-boiled carrots and broccoli to mayonnaise-laden Russian salad, then a plate of meatballs, mashed potato and gravy or oven-baked herring with rice pilaf. It’s all served lukewarm, aside from the soup of the day, which perhaps is the most hearty and fulfilling option on the menu. At 470 Rubles for three courses and a tea (about $7.30), a meal here is perhaps the cheapest thing you can find in GUM, otherwise populated with upmarket designer stores like Bulgari and Gucci.

When it opened in 2012, Stolovaya 57 was the first of the city’s foodie spots to feed Muscovite’s nostalgia, but since then, a number of Moscow restaurateurs have opened themed eateries that cater to the longing for a past before Putin. Here are five of the most notable.

One of 18 restaurants in the ‘Restaurants of Rappaport’ group and perennially popular since opening in 2015, Grand Café Dr. Zhivago — where the well-heeled of Moscow brunch — is almost always fully booked. Just opposite the Red Square with a view of the Kremlin through floor to ceiling windows, the restaurant is designed in the style of an elegant cafe at the turn of the 20th century and is peppered with a mix of Russian revolutionary and Soviet references.

“The main purpose was not to make a historical restaurant for tourists, but I was inspired by the Russian avant-garde movement at the beginning of the 20th century and went with that,” said the owner, Alexander Rappaport, a lawyer turned restaurateur.

Inside, the color red reigns. Red carnations — a historic symbol of the Russian proletariat — adorn each table under dramatic crimson chandeliers. Waitresses (and there are only waitresses here, no male servers to be seen) dressed in freshly starched maids uniforms complete with crochet-trimmed aprons and pretty white bonnets, wear thick smears of red lipstick on stern expressions. Imitations of works by avant-garde artists like Malevich and Petrov-Vodkin look down on diners from the high-sheen monochrome walls.

Wes Anderson-like in their color-coordination, the interiors at Dr. Zhivago are enough of a draw, but the Grand Café’s more-than-reasonably priced menu packed with modern Russian favorites like hot oxtail sandwiches (280 rubles) and perfectly poached eggs topped with red caviar (460 rubles) is another. “When we first opened, the number of restaurants serving Russian cuisine could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and that was in Moscow — the capital of Russia with a multimillion population,” said Mr. Rappaport, explaining the ‘empty niche’ that existed before Dr. Zhivago.

Try the hearty “Guriev Zhivago” (200 rubles), a rich semolina porridge with blueberries, hazelnuts and candied fruit on a frosty morning or the cherry dumplings (280 rubles) if you have a sweet tooth.

Grand Cafe Dr. Zhivago, Mokhovaya Street, 15/1; Phone: +7 499 922-01-00; drzhivago.ru/en/

As well as being home to Stolovaya 57, the grand atrium at GUM also happens to be famous among locals for its ice cream. “It’s literally one of the best food places recommended to me since moving to Moscow,” says the Cambridge University student Jessica Philips, who is in Moscow for six months studying Russian. She recommends a crème brûlée cone, which does not disappoint.

The Soviet Union was once famed for its particularly thick and indulgent ice cream since the state regulated its production in the 1950s, demanding that only fresh produce be used with strictly no chemical interference.

Dressed in a Soviet-era uniform of gray pinafore and hairnet, the ice cream sellers at GUM tout pastel-hued ice-cream and can be found dotted around the department store in ice-cream stands that look like mini cottages, decorated with garlands of flowers.

The original ice-cream stand was established in 1954 but two more stands have opened in GUM since 2017 to cater to the ever-growing number of people developing a taste for the ice-cream recipes that haven’t changed in half a century.

For a fixed price of just 100 rubles, pick up a ‘stakanchik’, a cuplike cone filled with a single scoop of fruit sorbet, crème brûlée or vanilla. Do not ask for seconds, in true Soviet fashion, the rule is one cone each.

Gum Ice Cream, Red Square, 3; Phone: +7 495 788-43-43; gum.ru/

The ultimate place to vacation to during Soviet times, Georgia was seen as a land of plenty owing to its fertile land and mild climate. It’s here that comrades would take their prescribed quota of rest each year at U.S.S.R. sanctioned sanitariums (or spa resorts). With this in mind, the restaurateur Andrey Dellos (the man behind Moscow’s perennially popular 19th century-themed restaurant, Café Pushkin) and the chef Mamiya Jojua, along Mr. Jojua’s Tbilisi-born mother as sous chef, created Kazbek in late 2016 — a restaurant designed in memory of their childhood vacations.

Step into Kazbek and journey to beyond the Black Sea to 1960s Georgia. The two-floor restaurant’s interiors are a bricolage of vintage furniture, heavily fringed velvet lampshades, faded paint and a collection of keepsakes like old pouring urns, porcelain figurines and framed family photographs from Dellos’s trips to the region designed to recall the apartments he visited in his youth. Add to this a live Georgian band five nights of the week for full holiday mode.

On a crisp spring afternoon, warm light spills across a packed terrace (in summer it is impossible to get a seat outside owing to the restaurant’s position overlooking the Moscow River) dotted with lush greenery in terra-cotta pots and hanging vines. While reminiscent of the dishes the chef ate on his holidays in the ‘60s, the menu reflects the restaurant’s sunnier outlook, with ultra-light salads (440 rubles) like beet leaves, walnuts and fresh spices and traditional fried trout in pomegranate sauce (890 rubles) — a welcome change from dumplings. Chkmeruli, a type of Georgian, crispy-fried, garlic chicken is the chef’s favorite comfort food (990 rubles). His mother is in charge of all oven-cooked dishes, with coriander-spiked lobio — a thick, red bean stew featuring the unexpected crunch of walnuts — the best of her repertoire (520 rubles).

1905 Year Street, 2; Phone: +7 495 651-81-00; mykazbek.ru/en/

If there’s one thing Russians are proud of, it’s their successes in the space race, with Yuri Gagarin — the first man into space — hailed as a national hero. As if the 42-metre titanium statue that stands in Leninsky Prospekt in Gagarin’s memory were not enough, the new Voskhod restaurant — busy even on weekday evenings — presents a gastronomic dedication to the man who put Russia ahead in the space race in 1962.

Voskhod is a stylish U.F.O.-like capsule of a building dropped into the expanse of green that is the newly built, urban Zaryadye park, on the northern embankment of the Moscow River. The interiors by the award-winning interior design firm, Sundukovy Sisters (also behind the Novotel Moscow) combine space age novelties like ceramic astronaut centerpieces dotted across dining tables and an enormous solar-system-inspired light installation, with plush midcentury furniture.

“There’s a Russian saying: all new is just well-forgotten old. When you get to the restaurant you see a future, but a future dreamed of by men and women of a country long gone,” said Mr. Rappaport, the restaurateur also behind Dr. Zhivago. Voskhod is what Muscovites of Gagarin’s generation might have imagined a ‘restaurant of the future’ might look like.

Thought to be one of Russia’s best chefs, Maxim Tarusin brings together traditional dishes from all 15 former republics of the Soviet Union, from Azerbaijani pilaf rice spliced through with nuts and dates (650 rubles) to an alarmingly fuschia pink borscht (620 rubles) and satisfyingly spongy Georgian cheese bread (500 rubles). It’s delivered to the table by a waitress in a space cadet onesie embroidered with badges of honor plus matching beret and Stan Smith sneakers.

Ulitsa Varvarka, 6с7; Phone: +7 495 531-04-30; voshodrest.ru/eabout

Varenichnaya No. 1 translates to “the No. 1 place for dumplings.” It may well be a chain (19 have opened in Moscow since it first opened in 2014) but it’s hailed as the ultimate place to experience vareniki — with more than 20 kinds of dumplings on the menu and the young, cool and freelance of Moscow descending en-masse during weekdays.

The Soviet nostalgia levels here are through the roof. Walls are plastered with U.S.S.R. propaganda, with posters depicting beaming blond comrades, hard at work. Soviet literature like dog-eared copies of Krasnaya Nov, the iconic Soviet magazine, is at hand to flip through while you wait for multiple orders of dumplings. Old gramophones, TV sets and telephones are crammed onto midcentury bookcases. The entire place is designed in the style of a 1960s Soviet apartment, a colorful contrast to the dowdy Stolovaya government canteens of the same era.

It’s popular with young Muscovites dipping into books and punching away at their MacBooks between slurping down their hot dumplings. Our waitress, dressed in a Soviet era maid’s uniform of simple, starched, button-down dress in black with matching frilled white apron took our order for two lots of pelmeni. We opted for a main course of soft stewed beef dumplings and a dessert serving of sweet cherry. Expect to pay Cold War prices for a hearty Russian feast (700 rubles for a main, dessert and a soft drink).

2-Ya Brestskaya Ulitsa, 43; Phone +7 903 672-97-97; varenichnaya.ru/

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