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.
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.
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!
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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