Russia's culinary traditions run from the daylong, table-crushing feasts of the 19th-century aristocracy to the cabbage soup and potatoes on which generations of ordinary Russians were raised. In today's Moscow you can find food to satisfy any palate, in marked contrast to the decades of Soviet shortages. The city's dining scene has evolved much faster than its hotel scene, fortunately, and there are now restaurants to suit any pocketbook or craving -- and at any time of day or night. Moscow seems to have more 24-hour restaurants than anywhere in Europe. The farther out of the center you venture, the more limited your overall choices, though that, too, is changing fast. All restaurants listed here offer menus in English unless noted.
Restaurants generally serve continuously from lunch through dinner, and few are open before noon. Though reliable American and European restaurants proliferate, try some that specialize in Russian or fusion Russian-European cuisine. An even better idea is to sample the cuisines from other countries in the neighborhood that you're much less likely to find at home: the Caucasus Mountains spices of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia; or the central Asian plov (a rice pilaf dish, usually with raisins, spices, and beef or lamb) of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. These cuisines have worked their way into Russian cooking over the centuries, and they boast a much richer selection of fruits, vegetables, and spices than Russia's cold climate can produce.
Russians themselves, who can get traditional pelmeni (meat ravioli) and buttery rye bliny (crepelike pancakes) at home, seem to prefer French or Japanese food when they eat out. Sushi in particular has experienced a boom in recent years that is rather disconcerting for such a landlocked city.
Top-end hotels offer elaborate, all-you-can-eat Sunday brunches, replete with caviar and Russian delicacies as well as an abundance of standard breakfast foods, salads, meats, and mouthwatering desserts. While not cheap, they're a worthwhile splurge on a bad-weather day for the atmosphere and thoroughly satisfying food. These hotels often offer pleasant afternoon tea service, good for an elegant pick-me-up that won't cost nearly as much as a meal.
International chain restaurants, hotel restaurants, and those in the top price categories all have nonsmoking sections; elsewhere it's hit-or-miss. The trend for nonsmoking sections is catching on fast, so call in advance to check on this if smoke is a major issue for you.
Menu prices can be confusing, since they're often pegged to either the dollar or the euro. Prices listed here are in rubles, since when the check comes you'll have to pay in rubles at the current exchange rate. Credit cards are catching on quickly but are rarely accepted in small or inexpensive cafes.
Restaurants are spread out around town, but a few streets have a high concentration of options for various wallet sizes any time of day: Arbat Street, Nikolskaya Ulitsa, and the upper end of Tverskaya are sure bets for hungry travelers.
A great midday meal bargain is the "biznes-lanch" now offered by many Russian restaurants at all ends of the spectrum. Aimed at Russia's thriving -- and busy -- business clientele, the lunches are served quickly and efficiently, and generally include appetizer, main course, and dessert for 200 to 600 rubles. This is a great way to check out the cuisine or atmosphere of popular restaurants or nightclubs that are too crowded or expensive at dinnertime.
Finding Vegetarian Food
Although vegetarianism remains a rarity in Russia, vegetarian restaurant-goers are getting a boost from a surprising source: the revived observance of Russian Orthodox traditions. The Orthodox calendar requires believers to abstain from meat and dairy products during several periods throughout the year, most notably during the 40 days of Lent preceding Orthodox Easter and the 40 days preceding Orthodox Christmas (Jan 7). Many Russian restaurants offer "Lenten menus" (post-no-ye men-yoo) during these periods, with carefully conceived variations on their house specialties sans the meat broth and lard. During non-Lenten periods, feel free to ask the cooks for meatless suggestions.
Making Restaurant Reservations
All high-end restaurants listed here have English-speaking staff, and most tour guides or concierges can help you reserve a restaurant table. But if you find yourself needing to make a reservation without help or Russian skills, here are a few useful phrases:
Mozh-na re-zer-vee-ro-vat stol na ... ? (May I reserve a table for ...?)
-se-vohd-nya ve-che-rom (tonight)
-zav-tra ve-che-rom (tomorrow night)
-v syem cha-sov (at 7pm)
-v voh-syem cha-sov (at 8pm)
-na ... che-loh-vek (for ... people)
Just because a restaurant brags about its sushi menu doesn't mean Japanese food is exclusively served. An inordinate number of not-at-all Japanese restaurants now include some sushi and sashimi on the menu, just to keep up with the Moscow obsession with raw fish on rice. My advice is to skip the sushi page and order whatever the restaurant does best. If you're a sushi fan, go to a real Japanese restaurant instead.
Planning a Picnic
Russians are not casual picnickers; when they eat outdoors it's usually a feast of meat grilled over a makeshift fire, plus homemade salads and generous servings of wine or vodka followed by tea boiled over the embers. Because this is hardly feasible if you're staying in a hotel, your picnic options are limited; sandwich shops are rare and not many restaurants offer meals to go. Your best bet is to go to a big supermarket and pick up ready-made salads, smoked meats, Russian cheeses, and loaf of rich brown or white bread. A bottle of kefir or ryazhenka (a yogurt-like drink), mors (a delicious forest berry nectar), or kvas (a strange yet refreshing drink made from fermented bread) adds to the Russian experience. You might have to ask for utensils from your hotel or buy something disposable. Some good picnic spots include Kolomenskoye, Victory Park, or any of the aristocratic estates outside central Moscow such as Kuskovo, Tsaritsino, or Ostankino.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.