There has never been a better time to eat out in St Petersburg. The range and quality of food available seem to increase year on year, making stereotypes about Russian food now seem like bizarre anachronisms. Petersburgers have well and truly caught the foodie bug, and while little of good quality is cheap in this town, the choice is now bigger than ever.
Getting Serious About Food
St Petersburg has become a place where good food is prized and defined not by its high price tag but rather by the talents of the chef. Fresh, local ingredients, inventive combinations, the use of herbs and spices (other than the ubiquitous dill) and a wider range of flavours are a fixture on the city’s dining tables, and while there’s still plenty of mediocre food out there, visitors today are truly spoiled for choice. We’ve never had an easier time recommending restaurants. However, good places are rarely the most obvious and it's recommend to reserve for the very best.
Russian food, it’s fair to say, has an image problem – and if you’re not careful you can easily end up with dill-smothered soups, under-seasoned and over-cooked meats, and salads that are more mayonnaise than vegetable. But fret not: there is great Russian cooking to be had in St Petersburg now – both traditional and contemporary, and increasingly a combination of the two. Russian chefs have been rediscovering their own culinary history and have been slowly moving away from the dozen or so standard offerings that are ubiquitous on the country’s menus. They’re preparing rarer or even forgotten dishes, such as venison and duck cooked in subtle and interesting ways and combined with herbs and fresh, organic vegetables. Economic sanctions on food products from the EU have given a boost to local providers, with places such as Cococo and EM Restaurant making a virtue of farm-to-table dining principles.
St Petersburg has a number of home-grown restaurant and cafe chains that are well worth knowing about as they provide cheap and reliable eating options all over town. Chief among these is the now international pie chain Stolle (Штолле; www.stolle.ru), a near-ubiquitous cafe where delicious, moist savoury and sweet pies are available to eat in and take away. Similar and equally numerous is the chain of bakery cafes Bulochnye F. Volcheka (Булочные Ф. Вольчека; www.fvolchek.ru). A couple of other chains to look out for are coffee-and-cake specialists Bushe (Буше; www.bushe.ru) and Baltic Bread (Балтийский Хлеб; www.baltic-bread.ru), which does good sandwiches and pastries.
Long gone are the days when international cuisine in St Petersburg was limited to the odd Georgian or Italian place. As Russians have travelled more and experienced more foreign cuisines, their tastes have widened and there's a healthy mixture of non-Russian cuisine available in St Petersburg today, running from Thai and Indian to American and even Lithuanian. Gourmet burgers are hugely popular and there's plenty of excellent French, German, Italian and pan-Asian food on the city's menus – especially sushi (which is rarely that great). More common, however, is the international menu, where Russian dishes, pizza, sushi and noodles all compete side-by-side for your attention. In many cases this means that all four are pretty average, but increasingly there are places that know what they’re doing with multiple cuisines.
There is now a very respectable variety of vegetarian cuisine on offer, both at mainstream restaurants and at an increasing number of meat-free places. Look out for vegetarian chains Troitsky Most and Ukrop, as well as individual restaurants such as Botanika and Samadeva. Some non-vegetarian restaurants that offer plenty of choice for non-meat eaters include Marketplace, Zoom Café and Mamaliga. Fish is widely offered on menus, making an excellent alternative for pescatarians. During the 40 days before Orthodox Easter (veliky post in Russian), many restaurants also offer a Lent menu that is animal-free.
Like a Local
Locals still disappear to their local stolovaya (столовая; canteen) at lunchtime for a supremely cheap and social meal, albeit one that's rarely particularly exciting. These places, hangovers from the Soviet days, are usually signposted in Cyrillic and tend to be located in basements and courtyards, but if you stumble across one (look for the sign столовая), you're normally more than welcome to go in. Experiences don't come much more local than this, and you'll usually find yourself saving plenty of cash if you eat in such places. A sign of their enduring popularity is the recent reinvention of the stolovaya in such guises as Marketplace, Obed Bufet and the chain Stolovaya No 1 Kopeika. These modern, attractive spaces that have taken the essential idea of a stolovaya and translated it into something appealing for the contemporary St Petersburg diner.
Need to Know
Nearly all restaurants are open seven days a week, generally from around 11am or noon until at least 11pm. Many restaurants open 'until the last customer' – a fairly nonspecific term that means as long as someone is still ordering, they’ll keep serving.
The vast majority of restaurants don’t require reservations, though they can be handy on Friday or Saturday evening or for weekend breakfasts in popular places. Reservations are always recommended if you want to sit in a particular place, for example outside on the terrace.
Service has improved; at fancy places it often veers on the over-attentive. The main problem you’ll have is that most waiting staff’s English is limited.
In little cafes and cheap eats, tipping is not expected, though you can easily round up the amount you pay if you’re happy with the service. Anywhere more upmarket will usually expect a 10% tip and some add service to the bill.
These are a lifeline for non-Russian speakers and are available in nearly all good restaurants, though they’re often not available in cheaper cafes (and when they are, they are very badly translated). Bring along a sense of humour and adventure!