Dining in Russia can be delectable or dangerous, dismal or divine. Caviar and vodka are readily available, as are melt-in-your-mouth bliny (similar to crepes), wild mushrooms, and succulent lamb dumplings. The range and number of restaurant options keeps expanding. Hotel dining, alas, has changed little from the bland Soviet era, except in the top-end spots, where luxurious brunches recall the decadence of pre-revolutionary aristocracy.
Breakfast is served from about 7 to 10am, and although Russians at home usually eat heartily in the morning, hotels often offer just rolls and jam with tea or coffee. Lunch has traditionally been the major meal of the day, and includes appetizer, soup, main course of meat or fish, and dessert. It can be eaten any time after noon. The pace of today's Moscow and St. Petersburg has popularized the smaller, quicker "business lunch," served around noon to 2pm. Dinner can be anything from a light sandwich to another four- or five-course meal, and is usually not eaten before 7 or 8pm. These are rough guidelines, since most restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg serve continuously.
Russia's lively restaurant scene is all the more impressive when you realize that the country had no casual restaurant culture before the 1990s. Dining out was reserved for special occasions, and always involved formalwear, endless courses, and some kind of entertainment.
It almost never included children, who were not considered mature enough for such an event. The food and service, especially in the Soviet era, were generally bleak. Even now, most Russians prefer to eat at home. If you're invited to someone's home, be prepared for an endless stream of food, most of it rich and well-salted. Alcohol will invariably be served, and to avoid offense it's a good idea to at least sip or sample everything, though you don't have to drain your glass. As a foreigner you will be the star of the show, doted upon and offered the best cuts of meat and the juiciest berries. And you will not be allowed to lift a finger to help; that would be an insult to your hosts, a suggestion that they are somehow inadequate at satisfying you.
Pelmeni, dumplings filled with ground beef, pork, or lamb and spices and boiled in broth (a bit like overstuffed ravioli), are a Siberian specialty. Vareniki are a larger, flatter version of these dumplings, filled with potatoes or berries. The Georgian version, khinkali, are larger and spicier; the central Asian version, manty, are steamed instead of boiled. Piroshki are small baked pies filled with ground meat, cabbage, or fruit, and are eaten with your hands; pirogi are large dessert pies. Buttery bliny, thin crepelike pancakes, are spread with jam or savory fillings such as ham and cheese and rolled up. Tiny round olady are the pancakes eaten with caviar. Russian soups done right are delightfully flavorful, such as the refreshing summer sorrel soup zelyoniye shchi or the hearty winter meat stew solyanka.
Vodka -- whose name means "little water" in Russian -- is ubiquitous and demands a complex ritual of imbibing if Russians are at your table. Local beers are improving rapidly; Baltika and Nevskoye are cheap and tasty choices. Russian-made versions of Belgium's Stella Artois and Czech pilsner are also available. French and Californian wines are quite expensive. Simpler wines from the former Soviet republic of Georgia were once a staple, but were banned amid a diplomatic dispute. At business meals, wine or even vodka is common at lunch or dinner. If you're feeling adventurous, try kvas, a thirst-quenching beverage made from fermented bread. Available only in summer, it's very mildly alcoholic, and Russians consider it something between a Coke and a beer.
Russians' drink of choice, however, is tea (chai), ideally served from a samovar: a small pot of strong tea base (zavarka) sits brewing on top and is diluted to taste with the hot water from the belly of the samovar (kipitok). Coffee (kofye) is often instant or resembles thick Turkish coffee, unless the menu specifically says espresso or cappuccino.
A service charge is usually included in the restaurant bill, but a nominal tip is welcome.
What Not to Eat
Russian restaurants now offer a choice unthinkable 10 years ago. Not all of it is worth paying for, however. While there are some outstanding restaurants at the top and bottom of the market, mid-range venues -- particularly the international offerings (French, Italian, Chinese, Thai) -- can be seriously disappointeing for the prices charged. When you've had your fill of the Russian staples, do what the locals do and head for the long-established Caucasian eateries. Here are a few terms you should know:
- Kutabi: thin, crepe-like bread filled with meat, herbs, or cheese.
- Kharcho; spicy beef soup.
- Khachapuri: oven-baked flatbread with cheese.
- Khashi: be careful here, it's a meat stew, made mainly from pig's trotters and offal; unbelievably, it's traditionally a breakfast dish.
- Khinkali: meat-filled dumplings.
- Lobio: a side dish of kidney beans.
- Lyulya kebab: minced beef with herbs and spices.
- Kazy: Another one to watch out for, horsemeat sausage.
- Manty: meat-filled dumplings but not, the texture is closer to pasta than to dough.
- Piti: a slow-cooked stew with lamb and chickpeas.
- Satsivi: chicken in a spicy sour cream with walnut sauce. If you only one Georgian dish, make it this one.
Russians call it a blessing and a curse. No Russian family is untouched by vodka, for better or for worse. Your trip to Russia will invariably involve at least a taste of the national drink. Even its name is fundamental: It's a diminutive of the Russian word for "water" (voda).
Evolution Of A Spirit -- Some credit (or blame) the Genoans for introducing the concept of distilled alcohol to Russia in the late 1300s, not long after western European alchemists discovered its wonders. Monks in Moscow's Kremlin were soon brewing "bread wine," using grain, which was ubiquitous in Russia, instead of grapes. Though it was initially intended as a medicine, the drink became so popular that Ivan III (The Great) introduced the first vodka monopoly soon afterward. His grandson Ivan IV (The Terrible) recognized its dangers as well as its power, and introduced the first of several unsuccessful attempts by Russian leaders to ban the drink.
Vodka was absorbed into Russian court ceremony, and by the 17th century, Russian merchants and nobles were exporting their vodkas across Europe. Recipes expanded to include vodkas scented with cherries, apples, pears, blackberries, acorns, caraway seeds, dill, and sage, and the drink gradually grew stronger. The Russian chemist Mendeleyev -- the author of chemistry's Periodic Table of Elements -- played a key role in establishing vodka standards used to this day. In his late-19th-century doctoral dissertation, he determined what he considered the scientifically ideal proportion of alcohol to water (40%). Most vodkas today are 40% alcohol (80 proof), twice as strong as the 40-proof vodkas of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Czar Nicholas II tried to ban alcohol during World War I to keep the troops clearheaded, and Lenin kept the ban in place after taking over in 1917. Stalin reversed this policy, expanding state-run vodka production and including a glass of low-quality vodka in the daily rations for construction workers, road workers, and dock workers. Reviving a tradition that dated back to Peter the Great's time, the military brass added vodka to Red Army rations in World War II. The pendulum swung back in the 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev, whose anti-alcohol campaign was disastrous to his reputation and to government coffers, which had enjoyed substantial revenues from state-run distilleries. Boris Yeltsin had no such distaste for vodka, personally or politically. His free-market reforms encouraged innovation and competition, but also flooded stores with cheap, poorly regulated, and often dangerous new spirits.
The Magic Beverage Today -- Today rules are tighter than in the 1990s, and rich Russians are demanding ever-purer and more innovative vodkas. Most vodkas are distilled from wheat, rye, or barley malt or some combination of the three, though village distillers prefer cheaper sources such as corn and potatoes. The traditional restaurant serving size is a ryumka (shot glass) of 50 grams (1.8 oz.). Rural Russians largely prefer the cheaper samogon, a milky homemade brew guaranteed to set your throat on fire. Bathtub distilleries are a common sight in villages, and are the butt of many a Russian joke, but the humor is tinged with tragedy. Making and drinking samogon is increasingly the only occupation available in Russian villages, with employment and opportunity nearly nonexistent outside the big cities. Alcohol poisoning is a leading cause of death.
Most Russians, however, know how to celebrate vodka without abusing it. To join in this national pastime, stick to the brands served in restaurants or sold in supermarkets. Stolichnaya, Russky Standart, and Flagman are safe and excellent choices. A 750-milliliter bottle of high-quality vodka purchased in a Russian store costs 30% to 50% less than it would abroad, though domestic Russian prices are rising rapidly. Other brands to try are the basic but good Zelyonaya Marka ("Green Brand"), and the wheat-based Pshenichnaya. Avoid purchasing from street kiosks -- in return for their rock-bottom prices you often get a liquid of dubious quality.
How To Drink Vodka -- If you want to appreciate a good vodka the way Russians do, follow these guidelines:
- Drink it well chilled and straight, preferably in 50-gram shots. No ice or vodka cocktails are allowed. Ignore anyone who tries to get you to mix it with beer.
- Down it in one gulp. No sipping allowed.
- Don't drink until someone proposes a toast. (If you're really eager, propose a toast yourself; your hosts will be stunned but impressed.)
- Always chase it with something to eat. Russians prefer pickles, a clove of garlic, marinated herring, or a slice of lard, but really, whatever's on the table will do. Connoisseurs can neutralize the vodka's power just by sniffing a slice of the rich, brown bread ubiquitous at Russian meals.
If you pace yourself, vodka can be like a good wine, a pleasant accompaniment to a rich table but not necessarily the prelude to a dreadful hangover. If you do go overboard, the Russians have a surefire, if noxious, morning-after cure: Drink a potful of cabbage brine. The dread of that should be enough to keep you in check the night before.
For a closer view at vodka's role in Russian history, visit the Vodka Museum in St. Petersburg, at 5 Konnogvardeisky Bulvar (tel. 812/312-9178; Metro: Nevsky Prospekt). The small exhibit includes paraphernalia for producing and imbibing, and they even offer you a free sample (Tues-Sun 11am-9pm).
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.