Stories in Sunday's Travel section gave incomplete information on exchange rates in the Soviet Union. The official exchange rate is 58 kopecks to the dollar, but there also is an exchange rate for tourists of 6 rubles (600 kopecks) to the dollar. (Published 8/9/90)
In preparation for a recent trip to the Soviet Union, my travel companions packed peanuts, marmalade and bottles of Evian. Looking back on my past stays in Moscow and Leningrad, I too remembered the inaccessible restaurants and the unpalatable food. But what effect might perestroika have had?
It used to be that eating out in the Soviet Union meant going to the restaurant a day in advance to set up a deal with the doorman or waiter. Then once you managed to get in, the service was, at best, lackadaisical. Since all restaurants were state-run, there was no incentive for the staff to provide service, let alone good service; chefs, waiters and doormen received their paycheck whether or not they fed anyone, so why should they bother working?
Perestroika, I learned in Leningrad, has introduced two new types of restaurants: cooperatives and self-financing establishments. Cooperatives are privately owned and run; the restaurateurs lease space from the state, set their own menu and prices, and pay themselves out of their earnings. Self-financing restaurants are state-owned, but the state has given the management over to the workers, who in turn keep any profits. As a result of this profit incentive, service is markedly improved. And the emergence of independent restaurants has made a good meal in Leningrad more accessible (at least to a privileged few and the Western tourist; Leningrad's better restaurants remain prohibitively expensive to the average Soviet citizen).
While getting a reservation still requires patience, foreign visitors do have certain advantages. Soviet maitre d's like to hear an accent, which to them carries the promise of a large order, perhaps hard currency and a tip of anything from cigarettes to makeup (which the men give to their girlfriends or wives). When you telephone the restaurant, state which country you are visiting from; you may then be given the chance to suggest a day and time when you would like to dine.
In this way, my companions and I were lucky enough to sample a number of Leningrad restaurants. Among those we tried for evening meals were:
Na Fontanke, a cooperative located on the Fontanka river embankment at Ulitsa Dzerzhinskaya. A small restaurant (about 12 tables), it is lavishly decorated with crystal chandeliers, silver fabric drooping from the ceiling and gold-sprayed wood framing the windows. The baroque, overly upholstered interior lends a subtle provincial atmosphere apparent in much of Leningrad.
We sat down to a table set with a cold salad of rice, peas and carrots, black and white bread, and platters of pork, pate', smoked chicken, peas, cabbage and marinated mushrooms. We had not brought our own wine -- few cooperative restaurants have a license to sell alcohol -- but when we mentioned it to our waiter, he led us into the back hall, where $5 U.S. produced a good bottle of French white wine. (Every meal we ate in Leningrad brought an encounter with the black market and the strange world of bartering; for details, see the related story on this page.) The main course consisted of a steak (beef, we decided) topped with a cheesy souffle and surrounded by sliced tomato, red cabbage, mashed potatoes shaped like small cupolas and a small flour pastry filled with canned peas. For dessert there was coffee, and a delicious mocha-almond shortbread tart.
At 9 p.m. the lights went down, and the pianist and violinist who had been playing softly were replaced by a lively gypsy band, followed by a tap dancer and then a quite sophisticated magic show. The show involved the enthusiastic audience, which was for the most part foreign. For five people, the dinner bill came to 175 rubles, plus $10 U.S. for two bottles of wine. (Translated into dollars, 175 rubles was about $275 U.S. at the official exchange rate of 64 kopecks to the dollar, or $17 at the black market rate of 10 rubles to the dollar.)
As we walked out of Na Fontanke, we noticed a policeman sitting in the front hall; whether he was protecting the restaurant against increasing attacks on cooperatives by local mobsters or monitoring the co-op's business dealings was unclear. In the small parking lot in front of the restaurant, a dozen men were hanging around. They begged to drive us home, take us on a tour of the city, take us anywhere for a small amount of hard currency. Not only were they willing to drive us anywhere, but also to provide us with black caviar, lacquer boxes, fur hats and army watches. All for hard currency, of course, and all in close proximity of the policeman. We, of course, declined.
Literaturnoye Kafe, a state-owned restaurant on Nevsky Prospekt, which should be visited not for gastronomic delights, but rather for its history: It occupies the former spot of the Volf and Beranzhe Confectionery frequented by St. Petersburg's literary elite -- among them Pushkin, Chadayev and Zhukovski. We had purchased cover charge tickets at 2 rubles per person a day in advance, and when we arrived we were seated immediately by a waiter sporting green wool tails. Literaturnoye Kafe displays a bright, airy, Madison Avenue chic interior, with high ceilings, parquet floors, wrought-iron trees with gold maple leaves and reverse chandeliers. The cafe has two floors -- the street level is reserved for foreigners, while the upstairs is used for poetry readings and other literary events.
The rather strange combination of fresh bananas and buns lay on the table. The menu was limited, and the food was not delicious. The cold appetizers consisted of a platter of very salty smoked salmon covered with lingonberries, green olives and a Russian salad of sliced boiled eggs, chopped pork, mayonnaise and again a few lingonberries. The hot appetizer of mushrooms baked in a sour cream sauce tasted rather like concentrated canned cream of mushroom soup. The chicken Kiev, breaded deep-fried rice balls and stale, canned peas and carrots in pastry cups were palatable. There were cakes and ice cream for dessert. To our waiter's chagrin, we paid the bill in rubles -- 150. However, when we gave him a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, his downcast face lifted, and he purred, "Ah, now you are welcome here."
Kavkazki, another state-owned restaurant on Nevsky Prospekt that serves a variety of ethnic food from the Caucasus. It was not hard to make a reservation over the phone at Kavkazki, but when we appeared at the restaurant doorstep, it was almost impossible to get past the doorman. After wedging my foot in the door, pushing my way in and then getting the door back open to let in my group, I asked the doorman why it was so hard to get in. "The tables are all full," he said. We proceeded upstairs to a stylish, sparse room decorated with folkloric paintings. The room was half empty, and it was another hour or so before more diners arrived.
We ate in grand style, with six different appetizer dishes: chicken in garlic and walnut sauce; a vegetable dish of red cabbage, tomato and green olives; crab in milk sauce; fried onions and pork in sour cream sauce; first-rate smoked salmon; and salt herring. Armenian wine and vodka dulled the taste buds, and the entree of lamb shish kebab and steak sauce, served with red cole slaw, olives, lingonberries and dried prunes, seemed rather ordinary after the first course. For dessert there was walnut fudge and candies, with good strong coffee. When it came time to pay the bill, the waiter whispered in my ear, "175 rubles -- 35 per person, or $50 U.S. for the whole table." At the official exchange rate, $50 was a bargain (about 32 rubles), but at the black-market rate it represented 500 rubles. We settled on $30 U.S. and left our waiter more than satisfied.
We also tested some luncheon menus at:
The Baku, a self-service restaurant at 12 Ulitsa Sadovaya that specializes in Azerbaijani food. The Baku serves pork shish kebab, some salads and no wine or champagne -- only cognac and cocktails. The doorman let us in after a 10-minute wait on the street, and we were the only foreigners in the restaurant, surrounded by Russian office workers. The shish kebab was fine, and the cognac was good. Prices were modest, and we paid in rubles.
Fortetsia, the only restaurant in Leningrad where we found the street door open and simply walked in. Located at 7 Ulitsa Kuibishev, only two blocks from the Peter and Paul Fortress, Fortetsia is a khozraschet (self-financing) restaurant. A constant stream of people flowed in, all of whom were Russian. Like the Baku, Fortetsia is self-service in that you place your order and pick up your food over a counter. The main dishes were a type of prosciutto for the appetizer, and smoked chicken for the entree. The food was good and plentiful. Again, there was no wine, only cognac or cocktails. Prices were modest, and only rubles were accepted.
Nevsky Bar and Grill, a state-run restaurant on Nevsky Prospekt that has remained completely untouched by perestroika and offers a uniquely Brezhnev-era Soviet experience: people lined up for tables, a long menu with nothing available in the kitchen and waiters who disappeared for hours at a time. The Nevsky Bar and Grill sports a high-class interior with fountains and plants. Although at lunch time there was a long line of people in the entry hall, the restaurant was practically empty. Other than good appetizers of salami, ham, canned peas, all sprinkled with the ever-present lingonberries, nothing on the menu was in the kitchen, and little attempt was made to serve what was finally ordered: Those who ordered chicken Kiev ate ground sausage and pork Kiev. Service was slow, lunch took a full two hours -- and the bill seemed padded at more than 200 rubles.
Near the end of our trip, we wanted an absolutely non-stressful, non-Russian outing. We went to Chaika, on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Griboyedov Canal, opposite Dom Knigi. A joint venture with the West German company Siemens, Chaika is a very comfortable Western-style bar, with booths, wood paneling, Western rock music and capitalist prices (all in hard currency).
Because Chaika is open only to those with hard currency, the clientele was exclusively Western except for two or three very attractive young Russian women who flitted back and forth from the young German sailors at the bar to the older, more established-looking men at tables. Chaika has a large and varied menu, serving hamburgers, Hungarian goulash, French onion soup, blini with caviar and a variety of beers. All the food, we were told, is brought in from Hamburg. The French onion soup and the goulash were first rate. Our bill for four came to $60. For more information on restaurants in Leningrad or elsewhere in the Soviet Union, contact Intourist, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 868, New York, N.Y. 10111, (212) 757-3884. It's also worth a stop at the Intourist bureau in your hotel; the attendants may look unapproachable, but persistence often yields a more interesting selection of restaurants than those available in the hotels.
Sarah C. Helmstadter works on Soviet affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.