RESTAURANTS, CAFES AND BARS

Although eating out was a rare privilege during the Soviet era, and, in the years immediately after "perestroika" (restructuring), an unaffordable luxury, Russia has been experiencing something of a restaurant boom in recent years. New places open and close every week and include anything from cheap student cafes to exclusive sushi restaurants. All the major cuisines are represented including Russian and modern European, Indian and Chinese, as well as restaurants serving dishes from former Soviet Republics, such as Georgia, Armenia and Uzbek. The hungry visitor should have little trouble finding a place that matches his or her appetite and budget. The following will help to locate some of the best-quality food and most exciting cuisine on offer in all price categories.

WHERE TO EAT

Most of Moscow's better known restaurants are to be found in central Moscow; most, therefore, are relatively easy to reach by metro. Tverskaya ulitsa has the highest concentration and variety of restaurants, from Russian and Georgian to Italian and Japanese, as well as a now ubiquitous branch of McDonald's. There is also plenty of choice along Ulitsa Arbat and, on Triumfalnaya ploshchad, Russkoe Bistro is one of many popular new chains offering fast food Russian style.

READING THE MENU

In restaurants specializing in international cuisine, the menu is usually in Russian and English, or available separately in English. Waiting staff speak English in most restaurants geared towards foreigners. In smaller, local eateries, a knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet will help with deciphering the menu, as many ingredients are phonetic transcriptions of their English equivalents.

TYPES OF CUISINE

There are surprisingly few good, exclusively Russian restaurants in Moscow. Russians have never made a habit of dining out, nor has Russian cuisine ever enjoyed the reputation of, say, French or Italian. Much of the best Russian food is either wholesome dishes and soups from recipes passed down from generation to generation, or cured and salted fish, as well as caviar, for which preparation is more important at its source, as opposed to in restaurants. Georgian or Armenian cooking, both of which are delicious and relatively inexpensive, are a better option. Mediterranean and other Western European restaurants, especially Italian ones, are now increasingly popular in Moscow. Chinese and Indian food is generally overpriced, bland and of variable quality. There are a few excellent Asian restaurants, however, particularly Japanese, with sushi being the most fashionable cuisine of the past decade in Moscow. Prices are high as the city is utterly landlocked and fresh fish has to be flown in daily.

WHAT TO DRINK

Vodka is the alcoholic drink most often associated with Russia. However, in the years since perestroika beer has become more widely available as an accompaniment to meals. Most restaurants now offer imported and local beer on tap, along with a variety of bottled beers. Russian beer is light and generally very good. Imported beer is often overpriced. The better European restaurants have commendable wine lists, though good imported wine tends to be quite expensive. It is a shame to visit Moscow without sampling a bottle of Georgian wine in one of its many Georgian eateries. This is an excellent accompaniment to Georgian food, although it can sometimes overpower the subtler flavours of European cuisine.

PAYMENT AND TIPPING

One of the drawbacks of eating out in Moscow is that some restaurants, usually the less touristy ones, only take cash. This situation is gradually changing, but it is still a consideration when deciding where to eat. Generally restaurants that serve Western or Asian cuisine will accept credit cards, but it is a good idea to call ahead and check exactly which cards are accepted and whether a surcharge is taken. Prices vary enormously from the cheapest local cafeteria (stolovaya), where a meal might cost the equivalent of around US$5, to the Central House of Writers, where dinner will be over US$75.
Tipping is not as ingrained in Russia as elsewhere. Keeping to international standards of 10-15 percent if you are satisfied is appropriate although regardless of the total spent in a restaurant it is unnecessary to leave more than a few hundred roubles. In Russian-style restaurants or cafes it is acceptable to leave small change, or nothing at all. Service is rarely included in the bill.

OPENING TIMES

Dinner is the main meal of the day, but many restaurants in Moscow have now adopted the concept of the business lunch. These often take the form of a fixed price menu and can be excellent value. They are usually served from noon to 4pm. Most restaurants start serving dinner at around 6pm and stop taking orders at 10:30pm; some family-run Georgian establishments close their kitchens as early as 9pm. Increasingly, restaurants are staying open until the early hours of the morning, and some are even open around the clock.

MAKING A RESERVATION

Most international and tourist-oriented restaurants take reservations and some of the most popular require them. Generally, it is best to book ahead whenever possible. However, some of the most popular Georgian and Caucasian restaurants do not take reservations and these can be busy, especially at weekends.

ETIQUETTE

Casual or semi-formal dress is acceptable in almost every Moscow restaurant. Russians tend to overdress rather than underdress, however, so it is probably safer to err on the formal side. Children are a rare sight at expensive restaurants and most menus do not have special dishes for them. Moscow does have a few family-style restaurants, and many of the Western-owned restaurants provide children's menus.

VEGETARIANS

Much of Russian cuisine consists of meat dishes. Even salads often contain meat, so the best option for vegetarians is often a beetroot or tomato platter. Georgian cuisine, featuring numerous excellent bean and aubergine dishes, is usually a better bet. Restaurants are increasingly taking into account the demands of vegetarian visitors. European, Chinese and Japanese restaurants usually have some items suitable for vegetarians. There are a few vegetarian restaurants in the city, and the standard of these is rising.

SMOKING

There are generally areas for non-smokers in restaurants. However, smoking during meals is considered acceptable in Russia and smokers sometimes pay scant regard to non-smoking areas.

DISABLED PERSONS

Few restaurants in Moscow have facilities for disabled visitors. Some restaurants are located in basements and would therefore pose a problem. It is always best to phone in advance to check if there is full disabled access.


THE FLAVOURS OF MOSCOW

Russia's culinary reputation centres on warming stews, full of wintery vegetables such as cabbage, beetroot and potatoes. Yet Moscow was once the capital of a vast empire stretching from Poland to the Pacific and this is reflected in the variety of food on offer in the city. Aubergines (eggplants) and tomatoes, imported from the Caucasus in the south, bring in the flavours of the Mediterranean, while spices from Central Asia lend an exotic touch. On the stalls of the city's Central Market, crayfish and caviar sit alongside honey from Siberia and melons and peaches from Georgia.

RUSSIAN COUNTRYSIDE

Many Muscovites have small country houses within easy reach of the city, and spend weekends from spring to early winter lovingly tending their immaculate vegetable gardens, or combing the countryside for wild berries and mushrooms. Much of this bountiful harvest is made into preserves and pickles. There is a refreshing soup, solianka, in which pickled cucumbers impart a delicious salty taste.
Pickled mushrooms in sour cream make a regular appearance on restaurant menus, as do a variety of fresh berry juices.
In a country where food shortages are a fairly recent memory, very little is wasted. Kvas, a popular, mildly alcoholic drink is frequently made at home by fermenting stale bread with sugar and a scattering of fruit. Summer visitors should make a point of trying the delicious cold soup okroshka, which is based on kvas.
Russia is also a land with hundreds of rivers and lakes, and has a long tradition of fish cookery. Dishes range from simple soups, such as ukha, to caviar and sturgeon, and salmon cooked in a bewildering variety of ways.

LOCAL DISHES AND SPECIALITIES

Borscht (beetroot soup) and blinis (buttery pancakes) with caviar are perhaps two of the most famous Russian dishes - one a peasant dish which varies with the availability of ingredients and the other a staple for the week leading up to Lent, when rich food would be eaten to fatten up before the fast. Much of Russia's Beetroot cuisine is designed to make use of what is readily to hand or is warming and filling. A popular main course is kulebiaka, a hearty fish pie, larded with eggs, rice, dill and onion and encased in a buttery crust. Another is beef stroganoff with its creamy mushroom sauce, created in 18th-century St Petersburg by the chef of the wealthy Stroganoff family.
Borscht Made with meat or vegetable stock, this beetroot soup is usually served with dill and soured cream.

THE CAUCASUS

The former Soviet states of the Caucasus - Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia - are renowned for their legendary banquets, where the tables are laden with an enormous quantity and variety of food and drink. These regions still supply Russia's cities with a tempting range of fine subtropical produce. Limes, lemons, oranges, walnuts, figs, pomegranates, peaches, beans, salty cheeses and herbs are all shipped in season to Moscow's markets and its many Georgian restaurants. The cuisine of Georgia, with its focus on freshly grilled meats, pulses, vegetables, yogurt, herbs and nut sauces - including the hallmark walnut sauce, satsivi - is famously healthy and Georgians are particularly known for their longevity.

CENTRAL ASIA

From the Central Asian republics of the old Soviet Union, which include Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, come a range of culinary traditions based on the nomadic lifestyles of Russia's one-time overlords, the Mongol or Tartar Hordes. The meat of fat-tailed sheep, which thrive in the desert air, is used to make communal piles of plov (pilaf) around which guests sit, eating in the traditional manner with their hands. Served in Moscow's Uzbek restaurants, it shares the menu with delicious flat breads, spicy noodle soups, manti (tasty dumplings reminiscent of Chinese cuisine) and a variety of melons and grapes, which proliferate in the desert oases, and apricots and nuts, grown in the mountains.

ZAKUSKI

A traditional Russian meal generally begins with zakuski, a selection of cold appetizers. These may include pickled mushrooms (gribi), gherkins (ogurtst), salted herrings (seliodka), an assortment of smoked fish, blinis topped with caviar, various vegetable pates (sometimes known as vegetable caviars), stuffed eggs (yaitsa farshirovanniye), spiced feta cheese (brinza), beetroot salad (salat iz svyokla) and small meat pies (pirozhki), accompanied by rye bread and washed down with shots of vodka. A bowl of steaming soup often follows, before the main course reaches the table.


WHAT TO DRINK IN MOSCOW

Russia is renowned for vodka, which has been manufactured there since the 14th or 15th century and was possibly originally invented by Muscovite monks. Vodka produced in Moscow has always been considered to be the finest. Peter the Great was particularly fond of pepper and anise vodkas and devised modifications to the distillation process which greatly improved the quality of the finished drink.
Tea is Russia's other national drink. Traditionally made using a samovar and served black, tea has been popular in Russia since the end of the 18th century when it began to be imported from China.

CLEAR VODKA

Russian vodka is produced from grain, usually wheat, although some rye is also used. Stolichnaya is made from wheat and rye and is slighly sweetened. Probably the best known of the Russian vodkas, its name means "from the capital city". Moskovskaya is a high-quality, slightly fizzy vodka, while Kubanskaya, originally produced by the Cossacks, is slightly bitter. The Cristall distillery in Moscow has been hailed as the finest in Russia and produces super-premium versions of several vodkas, including Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya, as well as its own vodka, Cristall. Vodka is almost always served with food in Russia, often with a traditional range of accompaniments called zakuski. These specialities are usually spicy or salty and their strong flavours complement vodka perfectly.

FLAVOURED VODKA

The practice of flavouring vodka has entirely practical origins. When vodka was first produced commercially in the Middle Ages, the techniques and equipment were so primitive that it was impossible to remove all the impurities. This left unpleasant aromas and flavours, which were disguised by adding honey together with aromatic oils and spices. As distillation techniques improved, flavoured vodkas became a speciality in their own right. Limonnaya, its taste deriving from lemon zest, is one of the most traditional, as is Pertsovka, flavoured with red chilli pepper pods. Okhotnichya (hunter's vodka) has a wider range of flavourings including juniper, ginger and cloves. Starka (old vodka) is a mixture of vodka, brandy, port and an infusion of apple and pear leaves, aged in oak barrels.

WINE

The former Soviet Union was one of the world's largest producers of wine (vino). Many of its major wine regions, however, are now within independent republics, but their vintages are still popular in Moscow. A wide range of indigenous grape varieties is cultivated in the different regions, along with many types found in other parts of the vine-growing world. Georgia and Crimea (in southeastern Ukraine) have traditionally produced the best wines. Georgian wines include those made from the rkatsiteli grape, characterized by a floral aroma and subtle, fruity flavour. Moldova produces white, sparkling wines in the south and central regions, and the south is also known for its red wines. Since 1799 Moldova has also produced vast amounts of a sweet, sparkling wine called shampanskoe.

OTHER ALCOHOLIC DRINKS

Originally a by-product of wine-making, brandy (konyak) only began to be made commercially in Russia in the 19th century. Among the ex-Soviet republics, Georgia and Armenia both produce brandy. Armenian is considered the finer, with a vanilla fragrance resulting from ageing it in barrels made of 70-100-year-old oak. Although beer (pivo) is becoming more popular, it is still served in relatively few restaurants and cafes. Good Russian beers include Zhigulevskoe, Baltika, Kolos and Moskovskoe. Various imported beers are also available.

OTHER DRINKS

Made from Barley and Rye, kvas is a sweet, mildly alcoholic drink consumed by adults and children alike. Russia has a huge range of mineral waters (mineralnaya voda), including many with unusually high mineral contents. Those from the Caucasus, Siberia and Georgia are especially prized. Also available are fruit juices (sok) sweetened drinks made by boiling fruit with sugar and water (kompot). The cranberry equivalent is called mors.

TEA

Russian tea is served black with a slice of lemon and is traditionally drunk from a tall glass, called a stakan, or a cup. The tea (chay) is often sweetened with jam (varenye) instead of sugar. The boiling water for making tea traditionally comes from a samovar. The water is used to brew a pot of strong tea, from which a little is poured into the glasses. This is then diluted with more boiling water.

THE SAMOVAR

Traditionally made from brass or copper, samovars were once used to provide boiling water for a ariety of domestic purposes. Nowadays they are often made of stainless steel and are used for boiling water to make tea. Occasionally eggs are put in the top of the samovar to cook in the boiling water. The word samovar comes from samo meaning "itself" and varit meaning "to boil".


LIGHT MEALS AND SNACKS

Moscow has plenty of cafes, bistros, restaurants, bars and fast-food outlets catering for every taste and budget. Russian food, particularly its traditional soups and salads, is perfect for a light meal. A tempting variety of patisserie-style confectionary is also a feature of Russian cuisine, and afternoon tea can be a real occasion, especially in traditional Russian and Central Asian cafes.
Pizza, pasta and sushi are in plentiful supply in a wide variety of environments, from bars and cafes to up-market restaurants. Many restaurants offer a good value "business lunch" or discount on their a la carte menu between 12pm and 4pm. For a quick bite, snacks such as pancakes and baked potatoes can be obtained from street vendors. The best stalls can be found in Moscow's busiest shopping streets, such as Tverskaya ulitsa and the Novyy Arbat.

RUSSIAN

Traditional Russian cafes and bistros are usually rustically decorated, but can be rather smoky. The menu consists of soups such as borscht, and hearty salads including silodka pod shuboi (pickled herring with shredded beetroot). Pirozhki, pastries stuffed with anything from cabbage to liver are good fillers. Excellent examples of such offerings can be ordered at Elki-Palki and Cafe Margarita, while Maki Cafe and Art Club Nostalgie offer both European and Russian food. For a quick meal, the chain restaurants Moo Moo and Russkoe Bistro serve fast food, Russian style. For Russian food on the move the best option are the blini stalls, which can be found all over the city serving buckwheat pancakes with a variety of sweet and savoury fillings.

GEORGIAN, ARMENIAN, UZBEK AND VEGETARIAN

Moscow's ethnic restaurants often have striking Central Asian decor. Guests may well find themselves sitting on cushions at low tables. The food tends to be simple, well-cooked and reasonably priced.
Staples from the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia and Uzbekistan, such as dolmas (meat and rice wrapped in vine leaves), shashlyk (shish kebabs) and lobio (a thick spicy bean soup), are well worth trying. Meals usually involve a soup, grilled meats and a fresh salad. Of the Uzbek restaurants, Kish Mish and Khodzha Nasreddin v Khive offer good value, tasty food. Shesh Besh serves generous portions of Azeri food, while Genatsvale has a superb range of Georgian favourites. Korchma Taras Bulba is an excellent place to sample Ukrainian cooking.
While vegetarians will find they are better provided for at ethnic restaurants than at Russian eateries, they may still find their options are limited. Jagannat is a wholly vegetarian restaurant, serving Indian, Japanese and Chinese meals.

FAST FOOD, PIZZA AND PASTA

Restaurant chains tend to predominate for pizza, pasta and fast food. II Patio serves tasty pizzas at a range of locations, while Propaganda has pasta and salad dishes. For American food, Starlight Diner and the American Bar and Grill both offer authentic burgers. Branches of Rosticks, a fried chicken chain, can be found in most shopping centres. Stalls selling warming baked potatoes with a variety of toppings are dotted around the city.

PASTRIES AND SWEETS

Russian restaurants and cafes usually have a good range of pastries and sweets, the best of which feature meringue and fruit. European style cafes such as Coffee House, Zen Coffee and Shokoladnitsa have more international offerings. Russian ice cream is sold in cafes and kiosks and is truly excellent. For picnic supplies, try the delicious cakes and pastries on offer from Yeliseev's Food Hall.

PUBS AND BARS

Moscow's pubs and bars offer a good range of light meals. So-called art cafes, often featuring live music, also have excellent menus. In the evening these cafes may be busy, with some form of art-happening taking centre stage, but at lunchtime they usually have a calmer atmosphere. Two good choices are Kult and Kitaiskiy Lyotchik Djao Da, which both serve good-value, bistro-style food. Durdin and Tinkoff stock their own micro-brewed beers, and have an excellent menu. These, along with The Real McCoy, offer "business lunches" for just $6. Rosie O'Grady's is Moscow's premier Irish bar and provides a range of wholesome pub food. The Albion Pub is also a good choice and benefits from a wider menu.

SUSHI

Sushi is readily available in Moscow, and can be enjoyed in Japanese restaurants, sushi bars, nightclubs and "art cafes". Despite being landlocked, the sushi on offer in the capital is generally fresh and well prepared, though it can sometimes be a little bland.
The Yakitoria chain has branches throughout the city. It has traditional Japanese decor and offers good sushi at reasonable prices. Yapona Mama is more minimalist in ambience and serves sushi along with a variety of hot dishes, including European ones. Both are reasonably priced. Some cafes and bars, such as the Maki Cafe and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, offer sushi on the menu alongside Italian and French dishes.