In recent years Moscow has blossomed into a culinary capital. Foodies will be thrilled by the dining options, from old-fashioned haute-russe to contemporary 'author cuisine'. The ban on imported foodstuffs means that chefs are finding innovative ways to utilise local ingredients, rediscovering ancient cooking techniques and inventing new ones in the process. And Moscow diners are eating it up. Literally.

Local Specialities

Russian cuisine is strongly influenced by climate and class. Long winters and short growing seasons mean the cuisine is dependent on root vegetables such as potatoes and beets. Fresh produce has always been a rarity, so vegetables are often served pickled; fruit is frequently served in the form of compote. According to an old Russian proverb, 'shchi (cabbage soup) and kasha (porridge) is our nourishment'. This saying emphasises the important role played by soups and grains in sustaining generations of peasants through cold, dark winters.

Breakfast

Russians rarely skip breakfast, or zavtrak. Russian cuisine includes half a dozen kinds of kasha, or porridge, including buckwheat, millet, oat and semolina. Bliny are thin, crepe-like pancakes with sweet or savoury fillings. At the very least, you'll get bread (khleb) with butter and jam, alongside your tea.

Appetisers & Salads

Whether as the preamble to a meal, or something to snack on between vodka shots, zakuski (appetisers) are an important part of Russian cuisine. Back in the day, a good host always had a spread of zakuski on the table to welcome unexpected guests.

Most famously, ikra (caviar) is the snack of tsars and New Russians. The best caviar is black caviar, from osetra or beluga sturgeon. However, due to overfishing, sturgeon populations have declined drastically in recent years, driving up prices and threatening the fish with extinction. The much cheaper and saltier option is red salmon caviar. Russians spread it on buttered bread and wash it down with a slug of vodka or a toast of champagne.

Most traditional menus offer a multitude of salads, many with names that will leave you scratching your head. The universal favourite is salat olivye (Olivier salad), which is chopped chicken or ham, mixed with potatoes, eggs, peas and mayonnaise. Another classic is seld pod shuby, or 'herring in a fur coat' – a colourful conglomeration of herring, beets and potatoes.

Soups

Soups are perhaps the pinnacle of Russian cooking, with both hot and cold varieties turning up on menus and in local kitchens. The most famous is borsch, or beetroot soup, but other favourites include solyanka, a meat broth with salty vegetables and a hint of lemon, and okroshka, a cold soup made from kvas (fermented rye-bread water).

Soups are served as the first course of a Russian meal. As such, they often appear on the menu under the heading Pervaya, or 'first'.

Main Courses

Traditional Russian main courses are usually heavy, meat-based dishes. Fried cutlets (kotlet) and grilled kebabs (shashlyk) are popular preparations that often show up on the menu, listed under Glavnaya (main) or Vtoraya (second). Especially satisfying in winter, look for zharkoye (hot pot), an appropriately named meat stew served piping hot in a single-serving ceramic pot.

Pelmeni (dumplings) are the ultimate Russian comfort food. Traditionally from Siberia but now served everywhere, these bite-size dumplings are usually stuffed with pork or beef, then topped with sour cream. Variations such as salmon or mushroom pelmeni are also on the menus of modern Moscow restaurants.

Cook Like a Local

If you love Russian food, you can learn to make it yourself. Taste of Russia offers courses in English, as well as market tours, wine tastings and special children’s classes. Cooking courses take place in the evening, when you prepare the meal, then eat it together.

Need to Know

Opening Hours

Many eateries are open noon to midnight daily, sometimes with later hours on Friday and Saturday.

Business Lunch

Discounts of up to 25% are sometimes available for dining before 4pm. Alternatively, many places offer a fixed-price ‘business lunch’ during this time. This is a great time to sample some of the pricier restaurants around town.

Reservations

Most of the top-end restaurants require booking in advance for dinner, as well as for lunch or brunch on weekends.

Tipping

The standard for tipping in Moscow is 10%, while a slightly smaller percentage is acceptable at more casual restaurants. The service charge is occasionally included in the bill, in which case an additional tip isn’t necessary.

If you pay by credit card, you will not have an opportunity to add the tip onto the charge, so be prepared to leave the tip in cash.

Useful Websites

  • Moscow Times (https://themoscowtimes.com/places) Reviews for hundreds of restaurants in the capital.
  • Menu.ru (www.menu.ru) Listings (in Russian) of menus, maps and other logistical info for hundreds of restaurants, bars and clubs.