Moscow is a large, fast-paced city that offers lots of cheap, fast, filling options for grabbing a bite to eat. While you will find big name western fast food all over the city, there are a number of local options you should try as well. These include chains that specialize in local comfort foods like Russian pies and blini, as well as quite fast-and-healthy cafeteria-style or deli-style places that serve a range of foods, and even a few “nostalgia” places that you should try as “museum eating” – fast food joints that have survived the last few decades of Moscow’s recent tumultuous history and offer insights to how Soviet fast food seekers would have dined! Below is a sizeable menu to familiarize you with some of the great possibilities!
A. Specialty Chains
If you are studying at the Higher School of Economics through SRAS, there is a restaurant that you’ve probably missed on the way to the classroom building on Staraya Basmannaya. On the outside, the faded purple sign that says”Nikolai” may lead you to believe that it is an abandoned establishment. However, in the inside, the interior is beautiful. They serve pirogi, which are thick, dense pies, that are beautifully laid out on the counter. They offer unique combinations of savory fillings, such as chicken and apple, or turkey and plum. Nikolai Cafe also serves amazing fruit pirogi, such as raspberry, lingonberry, and apple with cinnamon. When you order, they just slice off a piece of a giant offering and serve it to you. They have a handful of salads, soups, sides that rotate through the week. They are also sitting, ready to be served, when you order but are also quite fresh.
According to an announcement posted indoors, Monday nights from 20:00-21:00 are improv saxophone nights. Sundays at 9 pm are movie nights.
Nikolai Cafe is also pleasantly quirky. In homage to the name of the cafe, there are photos on the wall of famous people with “Nic” in their names. This includes old Russian writers named Nikolai and even Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman. For some reason, there is also a cute shower in the restroom.
If you still don’t feel compelled to come here, the owner’s two cats wander around inside. Imagine my surprise when I walked in and saw a cat lounging on one of the couches. Of course, one of these cats is named Nikolai. I saw customers take a break from working on their laptops to pick up and snuggle with the cats.
Kroshka Kartoshka was one of Russia’s first successful fast food establishments. The name translates to “Little Spud” and they specialize in stuffed baked potatoes: simple, cheap and filling. They have since expanded their offerings to toasted sandwiches, soup, and other menu items.
They are set up a bit like a Subway, with all the fixins on the front counter in plain view of the customer. There are meat assortments, various sauces of the dairy variety, veggie mixes, fried onions, and more. You automatically get a healthy slab of butter and a scoop of cheese with every potato, and on top of that I added a veggie mix of sauteed mushrooms and diced peppers, a thick cream sauce, and the little fried onion chips. You pay for the basic potato and then a bit more for each toping, but they are worth it.
I also asked for the Tost Myasny (toasted mean sandwich), such a sandwich being my usual staple. The bread is toasted to golden perfection, with two small meat patties and a cream sauce constituting the substance of the sandwich. The “tost” offerings are a good six to seven inches long – a hefty hunk of food considering the price.
This is definitely my guilty pleasure. I’m really not a fast food type of guy, but I can’t think of anywhere in the states (at least in California) where you can get a baked potato with those delightful Russian fixings. Wendy’s has potatoes of course, but they never really fit my fancy. The Russia version is so much more filling and the topping more diverse. So on a chilly day when you’re hungry and want to take something home, Koshka Kartoshka is a wonderful choice…but you may want to space out your visits as it’s a meal your taste buds will greatly appreciate, while your heart may not.
The Teremok location on Arbat has a quite attractive character. In the summer, a tent covers an outside eating area through which you go to enter the restaurant. On the inside, the floor is made of clean ruby-red tiles, and decorative white stucco arches cover both the right and left walls. In the middle of it all stands the counter at which a few cashiers take continuous orders from the patrons endlessly pouring into the place. After you order, they simply turn around and tell the cooks what to make. It’s a refreshing (and fun) experience to see your meal being made right in front of you. The cashier was also really nice and spoke slowly, yet not condescendingly, as she quickly realized I wasn’t Russian. This is probably because she’s so used to working with the tourists that flock to this historic area.
As I stood in line, gazing ravenously at the various pictures of Russian blini on the menu, I found it pretty difficult to decide. There are blini with cheese, mushrooms, chicken, beef, caviar, or fruit filling or cream. They also offer salads, soups, and, most importantly, Balitica beer, the Bud of Russia – omnipresent and marketed as a national brand with patriotic-tinged commercials.
I ended up choosing the blin advertised on a big banner behind the cash register: the Blin Caesar. While I realize it’s hardly a classic dish, it was absolutely delicious: basically a blin wrapped around a good portion of Caesar salad. It was bursting at the seems with chicken, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes simmering in Caesar dressing. It was the very essence of savory and, washed down with a Baltica, I could not have asked for a better meal that wasn’t hard on the wallet.
I had eaten at Teremok before and had been a bit disappointed with blin with sautéed mushrooms that, while very cheap at 58 rubles or so, had left me kind of cold. However, I’m told that the Blin E-mail, a strangely-branded food that comes with mushrooms and cheese is, while a few rubles more, simple and savory and very Russian, especially when you ask them to add “зелень”– basically a bit of chopped dill and cilantro thrown inside.
If you get tired of blini, Teremok also has a range of “kasha” (porridge-based foods) which are sweet and filling at the same time. All in all, this is a recommended experience.
B. Cafeteria and Deli Options
Believe it or not, but the cheap, filling, and fast bovine-themed Mu Mu chain is owned and operated by the same man that owns the iconic gourmet Pushkin and Turandot restaurants.
Mu Mu is a cafeteria-style chain that specializes mostly in Russian staples. You can almost always find shashlik, plov, grechka, blini, and borscht on offer. Other popular staples like the Caesar salad and sushi are also fairly common finds on the food line. There are also at least a few things you might not expect – like steaks or turkey in lingonberry sauce. One just takes a tray and moves through salads, soups, mains, sides, deserts, and drinks on the way to the register.
Mu Mu locations are plentiful in Moscow and generally have ample seating (although often located in a basement under the main level). It provides some of the best value of any chain in Moscow and is particularly good for those that don’t speak Russian well, as all the food is on display in front of you and you can just point and grunt at what you want. Perhaps for this reason, the chain is popular with tourist groups and locals alike seeking a quick, filling, and all-around tasty bite.
A trip to the dacha, or countryside home, is a quintessential Russian experience—some fresh air, a little sweat in the garden, and a huge meal of freshly grown produce in the evening. For many Muscovites, however, this opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of the city doesn’t come often enough. Grabli (the name “грабли” means “rake” in Russian) is a restaurant intended to mimic that experience. The interior is decorated with fake greenery and the employees wear gimmicky straw hats, but the traditional Russian fare this buffet serves is the real deal.
Grabli is a chain of cafeteria-style, large restaurants with several locations throughout Moscow. Each location is slightly different in atmosphere, but all are based on same concept – large, airy, comfortable establishments with fast service and a wide selection.
The location we visited is located about a minute’s walk from the Novokuznetskaya metro station on Pyatnitskaya ulitsa. I went with fellow student Whitney, who had just arrived to Russia a few days ago and was eager to try some traditional dishes. The buffet is organized very logically—first cold drinks, then side dishes, and then main courses. After this, however, are a few more side dishes, then soups, deserts, hot drinks, savory pirozhki (Russian pies) and finally bread. Everything is laid out openly and nearly everything looks delicious. While everything is quite reasonably priced and comes in good-sized portions, it is very easy to allow your eyes to overtake your stomach and to order way too much. We found this out first-hand.
Whitney had black currant mors and a carrot salad. I picked out a mushroom salad and decided to try the strawberry compote. We both settled on ham cutlets with fried potatoes and mushrooms for our main course, and added a mini-pirozhok filled with cabbage. I must have been somewhat nostalgic for the time I spent at my host family’s dacha because I also grabbed a pickled tomato and a cucumber.
To be honest, the mushroom salad was disappointing—it reminded me of a bland American potato salad. The pickled vegetables were also a disappointment – not quite living up to my memory of home-pickled grub. However, the meal as a whole was quite satisfying. The cutlets were very tender and not too greasy, and, along with the potatoes, almost made up a complete meal in itself—it was a large, filling portion. I had never had strawberry compote before and now find myself wishing that it was served more often—it is a much more logical fruit to make a drink out of than apricots, in my opinion. We had added the cabbage pirozhok as almost an afterthought, but it was very tasty – moist and flavorful.
The atmosphere was also remarkable. There were plenty of places to sit—three stories, in fact, and so the overall atmosphere felt calm and unrushed even though the place is frequented by the people who are there to take advantage of the fast service. The staff was no more polite nor rude than is typically found in Russia. Perhaps they would be happier if they didn’t have to wear those ridiculous hats. In any case, Grabli provides an excellent chance to get a taste of down-home Russian cooking for a decent price.
One of the unique features of the Karavaev Brothers is their international take on buffet-style dining. While they have tried-and-true Russian favorites like винегрет (Vinegret) and сельдь под шубой (Herring under a Fur Coat) the Karavaev Brothers serve a rotating smattering of international dishes along with the more standard Russian fare.
The options tend to change out from time to time, but when I was there, the chicken curry, schezuan beef, some very good sandwiches, and aromatic basmati rice would fill anyone’s desire to add some spice (other than dill) to their life. If you have a few more rubles to spare and a craving for steak, they also had thick slices of medium-rare tenderloin. Fresh-squeezed drinks, including морс made from the omnipresent, bright-orange облепиховый berry, are also delicious.
Another huge perk of the Karavaev chain is their after-7 p.m. discount of 20% on everything. If you’re having a few friends over or know that you won’t have time to cook for a few days, Karavaev is a great place to stop by and load up on tomato-and-mozarella salad, wraps, and one of their artfully-packaged small наполеон (Napoleon) or птичье молоко (Bird’s Milk) cakes.
GUM, Linia 3, 3rd Floor.
This popular cafeteria attracts Moscovites and visitors not only with its good prices, broad menu and tasty food, but also by its Soviet-era aesthetics. Dishes which are familiar to any Russian from the Soviet times are prepared following the recipes of the iconic Soviet cookbook The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food (this was basically the Betty Crocker Cookbook of the USSR).
Everything in this chain is delicious and tastes like homemade. They also have a large assortment of desserts, and make cakes to order. It’s set up in deli fashion, where you can see the food behind the glass and tell the clerk what you want. Although some things will be reheated in a microwave for you, everything is inexpenisve and fresh. They have both Russian classics and international fare and make a particularly good breakfast location as most locations are open in the morning.
C. Nostalgia Options
Krasina 27, str. 1
The cheburek is a fried turnover, traditionally stuffed with meat, that is said to have originated among the Crimean Tatars. During the Soviet era the delightfully greasy pastry became a street-food staple all over the USSR.
Sovetskaya Cheburechnaya’s commitment to Socialist kitsch is serious—hammer and sickles adorn the windows and doors, drinks are served in thick glass tumblers, and Soviet posters line the walls. Best of all, most likely, is the full-length mural of a Soviet dirigible floating over a Central Asian city.
Both the menu and the overall atmosphere are distinctly proletarian. Chebureki are available with a variety of fillings, like mushrooms, beef, or cheese. I went with the traditional lamb option. As a side I ordered some borsch and a vegetable salad. I washed it all down with a bottle of Zhiguli beer, known as the “mother of all Russian beers.” It was founded in 1881 as one of the first large-scale brewing operations in Russia, and, when nationalized by the Soviets, became THE Soviet beer — well-known as a substandard beverage that could be easily found almost anywhere in the USSR.
The cheburek was as delicious as it sounds—minced lamb meat and spices cooked into fried dough. In my opinion it could have used a bit more meat, however. The borsch, unfortunately, was thin and didn’t have enough beets—I would have been better off just ordering another cheburek for the same price. The salad was a simple affair consisting of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions topped with dill and soaked in a briny dressing. It was quite refreshing. I’m not an expert on beer, so I’ll just say that Zhiguli, despite its recent rebranding campaign, is a beer that should not have survived the transition to a capitalist economy.
If you find yourself near Mayakovskaya metro station and have a craving for something unhealthy, you should definitely check out Sovetskaya Cheburechnaya. The chebureki are cheap and delicious, and the décor alone is worth a trip. And if you’re feeling like a real Soviet proletarian, you can finish off your meal with a plate of herring with onions and a shot of vodka.
Traveling down Borontsovkaya ulitsa, one sees expensive looking, elaborately themed restaurants… but Блины has an unassuming facade with only a small red sign. It was opened in the later soviet era and essentially hasn’t changed much since. It’s obvious that the tables are likely original – as is the golden samovar at the counter. Today, it has the sort of small home-town diner – the type that manages to stay open due its devoted clientele. Thus, seated around you will be working-class locals, grabbing a cheap, quick bite to eat and often chatting and laughing among themselves before heading on their way.
The restaurant offers a variety of drinks, soups, salads, sides, and small meat plates. They also have, as the not-so-creative name might scream, blini, the traditional Russian thin pancake. I decided on the chicken cutlet, a bowl of salad, black bread, and a juice box.
Upon first glance at my food and tiny bill, I thought perhaps I should have ordered more. Yet afterward I was surprisingly and delightfully satiated (this coming from one who can put it away like no other). The salad was crisp and the fresh bread was great when dipped in the left over dressing (and bread just seems more real in Russia). The piece of chicken, more of a little pocket of juicy, tender goodness, hit my stomach like Thanksgiving turkey.
All in all, this is a great place with prices that can compete with fast food kiosks. Perhaps the main reason to schlep out here, though, is for the peak-in-the-keyhole experience back into Soviet daily life. The place is nearly a museum, showing you how some late Soviet-era diners dined. I would definitely recommend this place and plan to return when I go for a more thorough exploration of the area.
Pankratyevskiy per., 2
This place opened in the the 1980s and has survived largely thanks to a cult following by a devoted clientelle. The low prices and tastey, simple food probably have something to do with that. The interior is clean, but has not changed much throughout its history. The clientelle also tends to be distinctly local and working class. If you are interested in museum-piece dining, this is a great place to go.