Eating typical Russian food on a budget in Moscow

So you are in Moscow and you want to eat. And because you are in Moscow, you want to eat authentic Russian food.

Luckily, you will be spoilt for choice.

Top of the range is White Rabbit, a Michelin starred restaurant consistently ranking in the top 50 restaurants in the world, which aims to blend fabulous views, traditional Russian cuisine and something a bit more continental. Other fabulous dining experiences are at the Cafe Pushkin, where gorgeous surroundings complement its borscht made with forty two varieties of cabbage, the special apples, and smoked goose breast.

Pushkin Cafe at New Year in Moscow

Then there’s Chemodan, with a Siberian vibe and bear on the menu. And Dr Zhivago in the National Hotel, which has the advantage of overlooking Red Square.

You can work your way down and around from there for some considerable time if you want to.

However, sightseeing in Moscow is likely to be a pretty full-on experience with much to do and see. Sometimes you just want to grab a quick, affordable meal before you move on to the next attraction. Here, I will set out some of the best places you can get such cheap eats in Moscow, but still avoid McDonald’s and eat local, trying typical Russian food.

Starting at the most basic, look out for signs to the various Cheburechnaya, both as fast food stalls or hole in the wall style cafes. They will serve fried dough pockets filled with (variously) cheese, meat, mushrooms and mashed potatoes. These cheburek were one of the most the most popular street foods of the Soviet Union. Really cheburek should be eaten in a cafe where you can only stand at the tables for the full experience. There’s one of these near metro station Sucharevskaya, called Cheburechnaya Drujba. 

Teremok is a chain of cheap fast food joints often found in shopping mall food halls, but also with their own cafes close to Red Square and on the Arbat. Teremok serves blini (Russian pancakes) with a wide range of fillings both sweet and savoury, and soups. Such as borscht! The blini will come made with little designs baked into them too, so you really can’t go wrong.

Teremok blini restaurant Russian food in Moscow

Look for the large cow outside Moo Moo, which has restaurants all over central Moscow. Moo Moo takes a cafeteria approach so you can pick and choose from the wide range of dishes on display. For a proper Russian food experience, choose a salad to go with your meat cutlet, a sort of fat burger patty which could be made of beef, pork, chicken or turkey, and add buckwheat kasha on the side. As a drink, choose mors, made by boiling fresh fruit in water, or compot, which is dried fruit boiled in water. There is also kvas, a lightly fermented small beer type drink, traditionally made from toasted black bread. Plus soup. Such as borscht!

Moo Moo Russian restaurant in Moscow

Grabli is another cafeteria service restaurant, which also tends to have a bit of a steam punk vibe going on, décor wise, and usually quite large dining areas. There is one in Detsky Mir, if you are planing to go therer . Or by the Nikulin Circus, among other locations.

Grabli restaurant complete with hot air balloon decoration in Moscow

There is also the Harvester-esque Yolki Polki, complete with rustic styling. This chain is harder to find these days, but they have an all-in-one buffet option which includes hot food and something sweeter, as well as a lot of salads, which will allow you to become acquainted with just how many different ways Russians can cover boiled vegetables with mayonnaise.

Famous salads to look out for both here and pretty much everywhere are olivier, which is a sort of potato salad with benefits, and ‘herrings under a fur coat’, which includes pickled herring, beetroot and boiled egg. If you must do without mayo, try vinigret, made of peas and beetroot and potato, or one of the slightly fiery, somewhat tart salads which in Russia are called ‘Korean’.

Russian food salads in Moscow

You can look out for Kroshka Kartoshka in the food halls in malls too. It dispenses jacket potatoes. Jacket potatoes are not particularly Russian, but along with all the usual fillings, you will also be able to get some of the more sour flavourings enjoyed by the Russians, such as the feta-esque brinza cheese, pickled mushrooms and salt cucumbers. And you can also get soup. Such as borscht!

The very popular Lapin i Varim serves pelmeni, a super traditional Russian dish, which nevertheless has a lot in common with tortellini. Lapim i Varim has a much expanded idea of what a pelmeni dish can be. Offerings include shrimp, potato, liver, cheese, and lamb, as well as the more traditional pork/ beef mix of the ‘Siberian’. We like it so much we wrote about it here.

Pelmeni at Lepim i Varim in Moscow

The mid range Varenchnaya No 1 cafes (of which there are at least 15) also serve a range of different pelmeni dishes, salads, snacks like dried toasted bread sticks to dip into sauces, blini, and a full menu of main course classics such as boiled meat wrapped in cabbage leaves (aka golupsi), chicken kiev, cutlets again and soup. Like borscht. Plus! The atmosphere of an old Soviet communal flat. So you really ought to try a different cabbage soup here, then. Called shchi, it is basically borscht without the beetroot.

Of course, you can always eat in the deliberately retro Soviet Style cafeteria, Stolovaya No 57, of the otherwise now very glam shopping emporium, GUM. There is also a retro toilet in GUM for your historical pleasure.

Do not ignore the foodie food courts either, although these won’t stick to Russian cuisine. There’s one very conveniently on the ground floor of Nikolsky Plaza on Nikolskaya Street, just off Red Square. If you fancy a bit of a trip out of the centre to a place which is an attraction in its own right, then check out Danilovsky Market. Danilovsky Market is Moscow’s answer to London’s Borough Market, and combines fresh fruit, veg and other raw food stuffs, with lots of stalls selling prepared dishes, both hot and cold.

Or you could go to the shop Yeleseivsky, which sells all your regular supermarket staples, but also has a deli counter for you to choose picnic items from. The salads are particularly good. And the fresh bread. Or the cakes. And the biscuits.

Of course, similar edibles are available in a number of the food shops up and down this street, Tverskaya, as it slopes gently down to Red Square. But Yeleseivsky is fabulously decorated inside, as befits the opulent pre-revolutionary food shopping experience it started out as.

The famous Yeliseyevsky shop in Moscow

And then there are the many restaurants and chains offering food from Central Asia and the Caucuses, which is what Russians eat when they want a break from their own ethnic cuisine but don’t want to go as exotic as French. Shashlik, barbequed meat, is a must. In addition, from Georgia look out for the soup kharcho, a warming spicy tomato and meat soup, and khachapuri, a flat bread pie with a variety of fillings. Try the one with oodles of melted cheese and a runny egg cooked in the middle. One of the more centrally located Georgian restaurants in Moscow is, in fact, called Khachapuri.

Khachapuri Georgian food and restaurant in Moscow

Uzbekistan is famous for its lagman noodles, thick homemade noodles which are often added to soup, and plov, a slow cooked meat and rice dish, which when done right is astonishingly flavourful. Plov is often found on outdoor food stalls as well as indoor restaurants. You can get it at Vernissage souvenir market for example.

Another Russian obsession is sushi. Yes, I do realise sushi is in no way Russian.  But just as Anglo-Indian culture made the dish chicken tikka masala its own, and General Tso’s chicken is much better known in Chinese-American cooking than elsewhere, so Russians have put their own unique twist on this classic Japanese food, and that is to serve it with pizza. Go on, you know you want to try sushi and pizza. We tell you what it is like at La Gatta, but it’s pretty inescapable. Even the most lavish expensive dining experience in Moscow, the Turandot Palace, happily combines sushi with Russian, Chinese and French food, so clearly this sort of fusion cannot be wrong.

Sushi and Pizza at La Gatta Restaurant in Moscow

If you don’t eat meat, do not despair. Visit Moscow during Orthodox Lent or the run up to Christmas (both of which will be slightly different in timing to Catholic and Protestant Lent/ Christmas, so keep an eye on it) and you will discover that many cafes and restaurants offer a fasting menu which is effectively vegan. The word for ‘fasting’ in Russian is ‘post’ (пост), so you want items labeled that or a separate ‘postnoe menu’ (постное меню). Luckily, fasting happens a lot in the Orthodox church calendar, so you may well find these meat-free and dairy-free dishes are on regular sale throughout the year, even if you come at a different time.

Coffee-wise, there are lots and lots of cafes. The home-grown answer to Starbucks is Shokoladnitsa. While their standalone coffees are not particularly cheap, they do breakfast and lunch deals which are good value and include a number of Russian items. Look out for the sea buckthorn tea as a very Russian alternative to coffee. And if you are looking for a morning meal, try the sirniki, a sort of drop scone made from curd cheese and served with jam and sour cream.

In fact, offering budget menus around lunchtime is common throughout Moscow, and it is worth looking out for signs saying ‘biznes lanch’ (бизнес ланч), which will get you a salad or soup and a main course plus a drink for a reasonable price in all sorts of cafes and restaurants, not just the ones offering traditional Russian food.

To go with your coffee, you could also try cake. Russian cakes are pretty fabulous, although not for those without a sweet tooth or a willingness to take a lot of calories on board. Most of the more cafe-like eateries mentioned so far will serve classics like Prague cake (chocolate), polyot (meringue and cream), ptichye moloko (souffle and chocolate) or medovik (honey and nuts).

Russian cakes in Moscow

But ice cream is also something of a national obsession. You should have some while walking around either GUM or the former Detsky Mir, the Central Children’s Store on Lubyanka (or both), just like all the Russian visitors to the capital will be doing.

However, you can also go to the cafe of Chistaya Liniya, one of the Russian ice cream brand names, on Tverskaya Street, about five minutes away from Red Square. In the summer months they serve cones from out the front, but there is also a sit-down cafe, and the range of ice cream deserts (and savoury snacks, lunch items and crafting opportunities for kids at the weekend) is extensive and frequently gorgeous-looking.

Chistaya Liniya ice cream cafe in Moscow

Particularly fun (and affordable) is the option to watch them make you a choc ice in front of you. For this, you want the ‘eskimo’. You choose the flavour of ice cream and the flavour of chocolate you want it covered with, and then watch while they dip the ice cream in the warm melted chocolate, which then hardens before your very eyes.

It’s the simple pleasures.

Hopefully, you will now be able to find the best places to eat budget Russian food in Moscow. Let us know how you get on, if you liked the borscht, or if we have missed a hidden gem of a cheap Russian restaurant or cafe from this list.

Read for some sightseeing now? Read THE guide to Moscow for first time visitors.

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Lepim i Varim: eating at a pelmeni restaurant in Moscow

What is the best food to eat while you are on a visit to Russia? I expect is a question constantly on everybody’s lips.

Perhaps it’s the cabbagey beetroot soup borscht? Beef stroganoff? Blini and caviar? Chicken kiev?

Or does everyone just drink vodka for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

And there is always the ambitious combination of pizza and sushi we wrote about earlier.

Well.

One of the most ubiquitous Russian dishes you’ve probably never heard of is pelmeni. You’ve probably never heard of it because it generally gets translated a ‘dumplings’ which doesn’t sound very appetising. Although in fact they are much more like ravioli.

Or the Polish pierogi, except that the difference between pierogi and pelmeni is that instead of boiling and frying them, you just boil them. The pelmeni dough is also thinner, each individual pelmen is smaller, and the filling is usually raw, and minced meat based, before you cook it.

It’s a convenience food, but a convenience food which originated in Siberia (possibly by way of China), where it is quite easy to keep a little bag of pastry encased meat balls frozen while you schlep through the forest looking for something to kill and turn back into more pelmeni. The name may, in fact, come from one of the indigenous Siberian languages, and in its original form sounded like ‘dough ears’. And they do look rather like pasty looking severed ears, all ready to eat.

Pelmeni Lepim i Varim Moscow

Tasty ears though. Mmmmmmmmm.

Pelmeni are cheap and sold in every kind of food shop in Russia. All you have to do at home is pull a bag out of the freezer and dump them straight in boiling hot water for 15 minutes, drain them and add sour cream, and maybe a knob of butter. Some people like to serve them with a lot of the broth produced by the cooking process too. And Papa will probably sprinkle over dill if Mama isn’t there to stop him.

Of course, homemade pelmeni are a thing, but it’s a lot like making your own sausages. A lot more bother than is really worth it when the packet from Sainsbury’s is so close and so tasty. The only time Mama and Papa ever did it was when their supply dried up in the UK. It was fun, but took a lot of kitchen space, time and everyone got covered in flour. And then we’d polished the results of all our labours off within a week or so.

We do have a handy pelmeni making implement though. Somewhere. Shame Mama doesn’t know where it is right now as it would make a fabulously obscure picture for your next pub quiz.

Anyway, now we are in Moscow, we eat them fairly regularly for tea.

So you might be wondering why we would bother going to a restaurant which specialises in pelmeni recently. It’s not like Mama spends a lot of her time sampling the local foodie restaurant scene. Couldn’t she have chosen something a bit more exotic when she had the chance?

Ah but you see, this restaurant chain, Lepim i Varim (‘mould and boil’), touted as the best pelmeni restaurant in Moscow, also consistently tops Trip Advisor’s rankings for all restaurants and cafes in Moscow. Someone as curious as Mama can’t but want to find out why, given that the place is actually within her price range, otherwise known as ‘not much more expensive than McDonald’s’.

Lepim i Varim pelmeni restaurant Moscow

Which is particularly true as children under seven (that’s me!) eat for free. The children’s menu is a bit abbreviated and the portions are smaller, but since what I wanted anyway were the classic Siberian pork and beef pelmeni, and I could only eat five of the six in my bowl, Mama calls that a win. Everyone else just gets free bread and sweeties. You do have to pay for coffee though.

Of course, the Lepim i Varim menu goes a bit further than just your basic meat mix. You can get lamb, crab, salmon, mashed potato, beef and mushroom, cottage cheese, chicken or cherry filled ones, to name a few of the options, all with their own differently shaped or coloured dough surround. Technically, this variety would make some of the offerings vareniki rather than pelmeni, but you can go too far in trying to distinguish between the all the variations of stuffed dough pockets in my opinion.

We added to my choice the lamb and coriander pelmeni, which Mama highly recommends, and the ones with mushrooms in, because Mama, inexplicably, really likes mushrooms. Next time she thinks we should go for the potato ones because they come with crispy onions. Or the cheese ones. Or the salmon. Or perhaps… I think we might be returning to Lepim i Varim regularly.

To add a further twist you can choose to add not only the traditional sour cream, but all sorts of other sauces and a salad accompaniment from the display case next to the counter. They also offer cold drinks here too, or you can order tea, coffee or broth with you pelmeni.

Lepim i Varim pelmeni restaurant in Moscow

Yes, Lepim i Varim is an order at the counter and wait till they call your name sort of place. In compensation, my Hungry Big Brother was very amused by the names of the dishes that were yelled out, which are slightly whimsical in nature: ‘say “cheeeeeeese”‘ (cheese), or ‘rich inner world’ (offal) anyone? And if the servers are feeling particularly gung-ho they might give an amusing twist to the customer’s name they are calling too.

Other items on offer include soup. Borscht! Or for my Hungry Big Brother, chicken noodle soup.

Chicken noodle soup Lepim i Varim Moscow

In fact, there was even a bar at one end of the restaurant Mama took us to at Prospect Mira. I have no idea if there is a bar in every Lepim i Varim, but I daresay this mix of hearty uncomplicated food, the easy going atmoshpere, the comfortable seating, the very reasonable prices, the welcoming attitude towards young children, the easily available booze and the free bread contributed to the mix of families and people in their teens and twenties who were occupying the tables when we were there.

Other attractions include the retro styling, complete with obligatory Soviet pot plants, and the opportunity to watch some of Lepim i Varim’s expert pelmeni makers at work through the glass wall into the kitchen.

How to make pelmeni at Lepim i Varim Moscow

Big up to the ladies at the Prospect Mira branch for their good-humoured tolerance of Mama sashaying back and forth in front of them taking All The Pictures. We never put up with that sort of behaviour.

Clearly if you are in Moscow you have to eat pelmeni and Lapim i Varim is a pelmeni restaurant in Moscow you can trust to provide you with a good introduction to this typical Russian food. Three locations in the capital and one in Tula and counting!

More information

Lepim i Varim’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about chicken noodle soup.

Address: We went to Prospect Mira 26/1, Moscow, 129090. Metro: Prospect Mira (brown and orange lines). There is also one in the central location of Stoleshnikov Pereulok 9/1, Moscow, 107031. Metro: between Okhotny Ryad/ Tverskaya/Ploshard Revolutsii (red/ green/ dark blue lines) or Kusnetsky Most (purple line). And another at Leninskaya Sloboda, 26, StrEAT in Roomer, Moscow, 115280. Metro: Avtozovodskaya (green line).

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Lepim i Varim is a pelmeni restaurant in Moscow and frequently the top rated restaurant on Trip Advisor for the capital

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What to order in an Italian restaurant in Moscow, Russia

Mama would not like you to think that she doesn’t like Russian cakes – they have one which is layers of meringue sandwiched together with cream and covered with peanuts which is her most favourite thing to eat ever – but for some time she was itching to introduce Papa to the glory that is a proper British sponge cake, because sponge cakes in Russia are made largely without the help of baking powder and invariably tasted a bit stale to Mama’s refined sponge palate.

So it was a bit of a shock when she finally triumphantly served him a slice of moist, light, spongy goodness and Papa was unimpressed. It all goes to show that food is one of those things that can cause someone to go into a tailspin of culture shock like nothing else.

Which brings me to a restaurant called La Gatta.

La Gatta Italian Restaurant Moscow

‘La gatta’ means ‘cat’ in Italian. I know this because the restaurant is covered in funny cat pictures, something that definitely makes it a good place for our family to eat out as just the wall art keeps us amused while we wait for our food to arrive.

Cats at La Gatta restaurant Moscow

And I know the La Gatta restaurant is Italian because pizza features highly on the menu, along with pasta. And very nice pizza it is too, although because we are in Russia, it is often liberally sprinkled with dill.

Pizza at La Gatta restaurant Moscow

Mind you, La Gatta also serves sushi.

Sushi and Pizza at La Gatta Restaurant in Moscow

Because we are in Moscow.

And in Moscow, sushi and pizza are the two most popular carryout food items, if you don’t count street food from the Caucuses. Many takeaways, cafes and restaurants may have started out serving one but have long since shrugged and decided to offer the other as well.

This is one of those things that strikes expats as extremely bizarre, wrong and demonstrative of a fundamental something or other about their host nation. Much hilarity generally ensues the first time someone pins a flyer for the local sushi’n’pizza place next to the lift of their new flat.

Mama, however, having recently eaten in not one but two separate restaurant chains in the UK whose menus cheerfully combine burritos, curry, koftas, burgers, pies, lasagna and jerk chicken as well as steak and fish and chips, decided recently to just go with it and order the damn fish rolls if she didn’t feel like a bread overload.

So she did. Nice huh? Go on, you know you are secretly thinking that this sounds like a good idea.

Sushi at La Gatta Restaurant Moscow

She has no idea if warm tempura-battered fried rice rolls with cream cheese inside are authentically Japanese, but they were very nice so she just does not care.

And if you don’t fancy either the Italian or the Japanese food then you can get the German-inspired sausage platter instead.

German Sausage Platter at La Gatta Restaurant Moscow

While ordering from the extensive beer menu. Because in this Italian restaurant they don’t serve wine.

Beer at La Gatta restaurant Moscow

Sorted.

More information

The restaurant’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about pizzaburgers with spam – a culinary treat from the school cafeteria.

Address: At least three locations in Moscow for La Gatta and every fifty feet for a sushi, pizza or sush’n’pizza place.

Opening: As you would expect for a restaurant.

Getting there: No need to take the car, they will bring a selection of sushi rolls and pizzas to you if you don’t fancy leaving your flat.

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What to order when you dine at an Italian restaurant in Moscow, Russia - pizza, sushi, sausages, beer and pasta.

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