Traveling in Russia is a fascinating and rewarding experience, but for food it would be better to take your own or stick to the Russian Tea Room in New York.
There is an exception: the Republic of Georgia. In Tblisi, the capital, food shops are well-stocked with fruit, vegetables and meats that are either unobtainable in Moscow or can be had only after a long wait. A corner cafe serves delicious fresh fruit drinks; downstairs there's a local specialty - hachapoori - a hot bread roll filled with a mixture of poached egg, melted butter and cheese.
At the hotel in Gori (birthplace of Stalin, whose presense is keenly felt) there's a garden restaurant with tables set into stone alcoves, each with an open hearth for chilly evenings. The hors d'oeuvres are a meal in themselves: zatsivi, bean paste, red cabbage, several salads, fresh herbs, pickled garlic; to follow are fried chicken and shashlik, with plum and chili sauces and gallons of local wine and brandy. Toast follows toast into the early morning.
Most of the Russians I met were prepared to concede that their restaurants left something to be desired. But Elizabeth Taylor, on location in Leningrad for the making of "The Bluebird," ruffled local sensibilities by demanding a regular weekend visa to Helsinki in order to get a decent steak.
To reserve a table in a popular restaurant requires a pesonal call on the manager the morning of the day you plan to eat.You arrive at the appointed time, go to the head of the line, present your credentials to the doorman, your compliments to the manager and - maybe - you'll get a table. Don't be in a hurry, no one else is. It's a mistake to order from the menu. Chances are that item is unavailable; the waiter will shrug and take off, and it will take another half hour before you can catch his attention.
The 6,000 room Hotel Rossilia has a ground-floor restaurant with a huge menu in four languages, but you soon discovered that what they actually served, night after night, was caviar or a rather peculiar salad; a tough pot-roast of beef, and ice cream. One night, the regular menu had vanished, and in its place was the tenth carbon of an all-Russian list. Feeling like an archeologist deciphering worn heiroglyphs, I made out the characters for "salad." The next section was totally obscure, and I was about to order blind when the waitress shyly enquired "Chicken?"
What makes such ordeals bearable is the admirable patience and friendliness of individual Russians confronted with surly waiters and mediocre food. It's humbling to realize, not only that they have to endure this treatment every day while we can fly back home, but that foreign visitors are given preferential treatment. Imagine a foreigner with no English being taken to the head of the line at a American restaurant, or a major hotel limiting its principal dining room to overseas tourists.
Eating out in Moscow is an experience that you'll never forget but may not care to repeat, like walking across Death Valley. The best guide on the subject is "The Moscow Gourmet," an entertaining paperback written two years ago by an American couple, Lynn and Wesley Fisher. The title is ironic of course, as a typical entry makes clear: "The Sokol Boat Restaurant is moored in a most uninteresting part of the Moscow River. You are on the water but facing factories. The food is poorly prepared - even the mushrooms in sour cream come burned. The service is nothing to write home about."
The Fishers, whose powers of endurances must rival those of Eastern ascetics, pursue their quest for the good meal from the Clean Ponds Restaurant to the Shockworkers' Cafe, from the Happy Kids' Cafe to the Warm Field-Camp, whose chief appeal is that you order your meal by telephone from the table. Over 120 establishments are evaluated.
The Chicago Daily News has reported that a tourist can visit about 12 restaurants in Moscow through a "National Tasting" plan. One reserves through In-tourist and plays in advance. This seems to guarantee a warm welcome ad "national" dishes and wines.
I found (even without the Fishers' guide) that it is possible to eat well in Moscow. The best meal I had was at the House of Literature - a club for writers and journalists. The smoked sturgeon, salads, field mushrooms in cream and steak were first-class. There are several similar professional clubs which also enjoy high gastronomic reputations; if you can meet a professional in one of these areas, it's worth trying for an invitation.
The Fishers list about 15 public restaurants, where, they claim, the food is of good quality, but since Moscow has 8 million inhabitants and almost as many visitors during the year, these restaurants are more crowded than Clyde's on Saturday night.
The Uzbekistan, which I tried twice, has a fairly attractive decor and plenty of local color in the form of waiters and customers wearing the native costume of that Central Asian republic. Dumpling soup, lamp risotto and shashlik are among the specialities, but you wait forever to get them. Aragavi, the leading Georgian restaurant, is much nicer. You eat in a high, frescoed marble hall. The service is brisk and charming - our waiter was eager to practice his English. Zatsivi (cold boned chicken with a walnut sauce), salguni (fried cheese) and shashlik are excellent.
The Baku is a legendary Azerbaidjanian restaurant, once given feature coverage in "Life" magazine, and a favorite hang-out of Stalin. It's currently in temporary quarters near Moscow University, but should soon move back to its original home on Gorki Street.