St. Petersburg's current dining scene reflects its seaside and river-crossed geography, with fresh- and saltwater fish on every menu. Its eye-on-Europe heritage means that traditional Russian dishes are often upstaged by French-inspired terrines and roasts, or by pastas and pizza. Cuisines from the former Soviet republics in central Asia and the Caucasus are well represented though less common than in Moscow. The sushi craze has definitely gripped the country's northern capital, too.
Round-the-clock cafes and restaurants of all genres and calibers abound in the center of town. The farther you venture from Nevsky Prospekt, the cheaper your options will be -- but they'll also be more limited and less likely to have menus in English. Exceptions are the ship-restaurants that line the north side of the Neva, most of which are gaudy and overpriced but very tourist-friendly. Overall, though, St. Petersburg restaurants have a very good quality-to-price ratio, with something for everyone on most menus. Keep an eye out for "business lunches," a good way to get a reasonably priced meal and quick service at midday. Also try a place in one of the surprising clutches of elegant restaurants on up-and-coming Vasilevsky Island.
Nonsmoking sections are becoming more and more common in St. Petersburg, but they are not yet a rule. Call ahead to check, if smoke concerns you. Hotel restaurants are spacious enough that you'll usually be able to find a table away from the smokers.
Menu prices can be confusing, since they're often pegged to either the dollar or the euro, though 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 at small or inexpensive cafes.
Street Smarts -- Most street food in St. Petersburg is either inedible or risky, with one notable exception: the food at the triangular wooden shacks labeled TEREMOK (which looks like TEPEMOK in Cyrillic, and means "little wooden house"). They sell Russian bliny, crepe-style pancakes made on the spot with a variety of fillings. Mushrooms with sour cream is a popular savory filling, and the numerous berry choices are winners for dessert. The huts are handy for satisfying midmeal cravings or snacks for energetic children for 100 rubles or less.
Best of the Buffets -- Eating in St. Petersburg can be hard on the wallet, particularly for families. If you can't stand McDonald's or yet another salat stolichny at Yolki Palki, head for the weekday buffet lunches at the Western hotels. The Holiday Club St. Petersburg's Sevilla Restaurant must be the city's best kept secret, offering soup, salads (including delicious antipasti), hot dishes, desserts, water, and coffee for a bargain 595 rubles. It's quite standard corporate catering fodder, but the Novotel's Cote Jardin serves up an impressive range of salads, soup, hot dishes, and desserts for 600 rubles. It's open until 4 pm, so dodge the queues with a late lunch. But the Bierstube at the Corinthia Nevskij Palace Hotel (880 rubles) has to be the best of the bunch: antipasti, smoked meats, salads, delicious main courses, and the best dessert selection by quite some margin.
Filling up on Zakuski -- You'll notice that many Russian menus have a full page or two for "zakuski," or appetizers, yet just a handful of main dishes. These appetite-awakeners are where Russian cuisine excels and star at Russian parties, where most guests are uncomfortably full even before the main course arrives. In a restaurant, a good way to savor a range of flavors without stripping your wallet clean is to skip the entrees altogether and choose three or four zakuski instead. You can cover any food group that way: fresh and marinated vegetables, caviar on toast, salmon-stuffed crepes, smoked meats, garlic-cheese or walnut-based salads, to name just a sampling of my personal favorites.
The best tea is drunk in St. Petersburg, and generally throughout Russia. Since China has a common border with Siberia, tea need not be transported by water to reach Moscow or St. Petersburg. Sea voyages are very bad for tea.
-Alexandre Dumas, Dictionary of Cuisine
Russian tea traditions date back to the 17th century, when Czar Mikhail I received a gift of tea leaves from the Mongol Khans. Herbal teas date back much farther, as Russians have long used drinks of boiled forest herbs to cure their ills. Today, tea -- chai in Russian -- remains Russians' hot drink of choice, and they're far more likely to quench thirst with a cup of tea than a glass of water. The tea bag and busier schedules have encroached on tradition, but tea -- and its attendant cakes and sandwiches -- is still the first thing you're offered upon entering any Russian home. In the countryside, the samovar remains as crucial a part of Russian kitchen culture as the tea it brews inside. If your time and budget allow it, take tea at a historic hotel while in Russia.
Because St. Petersburg children are usually fed at home by Babushka (Grandma) until adolescence, and few tourists come with small kids, few restaurants have been motivated to accommodate families. This is changing, thanks largely to international hotel and restaurant chains. The weekend brunch at Corinthia Nevsky Palace includes a playroom and kids' activities as well as many kid-palatable buffet options. Russkaya Rybalka has a children's play area and child's menu, and older kids may get a kick out of helping their parents fish off the pier. For quick food at all hours, Russian fast-food restaurant BlinDonalt's has a child's corner and familiar fare, with a focus on pancakes and mini-pies stuffed with jam, meat, or potatoes. McDonald's, KFC, and Sbarro are always safe bets for a highchair and baby-changing tables, though they don't generally have play equipment, and Americans will find them to be less spacious than their outlets in the U.S.
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.