Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.
So here’s something I would have never guessed – cafeteria-style restaurants are a thing in Russia! It’s not just a trend either, cafeterias are ubiquitous on almost every street in both St Petersburg and Moscow. They seem to be popular with both locals and tourists – the former because of their well-priced set lunch menus, and for the latter as it means you don’t have to worry about deciphering a menu in Cyrillic, and can simply pick your meal out of the many options available in the cafeteria line.
This style of dining became very popular for K and I during our stay in Russia for both the above reasons – it helped us save a bit of money when we chose the very cheap set lunch options, and it also meant that we could pick our lunch easily without needing to labour over slowly sounding out each Russian word on a menu with our cursory knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Our first lunch in St Petersburg was at a cafeteria-style restaurant called Marketplace on Nevskiy Prospekt, suggested by our free walking tour guide who spoke well of their set lunch menu (business lunch as she called it) and what a bargain it was. At 200 Rubles ($4 AUD) for the set business lunch, it certainly was a good deal!
The set lunches change everyday depending on what produce the restaurant has available that day, but it always consists of a soup, a salad, a main, and a free ‘summer drink’ which is essentially just like a fruit cordial. We skipped the summer drink (I was quite wary of drinking anything not directly out of a bottle because of the unreliability of Russian tap water!), but had the other lunch items.
On the day we went, the business lunch consisted of a mixed diced vegetable salad, a chicken and vegetable soup, and a turkey meatball with boiled potatoes. Both the salad and the soup had a surprisingly good amount of vegetables to keep us healthy, albeit with a bit too much potato but this is Russia we’re talking about! I really liked the turkey meatball as well with its smoky grilled exterior and surprisingly yummy herbed mince mix. Close-up photos of individual dishes in the gallery below.
Marketplace is located at 24 Nevskiy Prospekt, St Petersburg.
The second cafeteria lunch we had was at Frikadelki, a chain restaurant with branches everywhere. It’s very similar in style and process to Marketplace, with with a slightly cheaper set business lunch at about 190 Rubles – you have to stay competitive in this market of course!
The business lunch on that day was a vegetable soup, a vinaigrette salad with beetroot, potato mash and another turkey meatball – this time stuffed with spinach and cheese. As you can tell, it’s very similar in style to the Marketplace set menu. After eating this though, I think I’d rather pay the extra 10 Rubles and eat at Marketplace as the food is of a slightly higher quality. Everything was just a little bit off at Frikadelki – the soup was oilier, the salad was blander, the turkey meatball was drier, and the potato seemed more plasticky. Close-up photos of individual dishes in the gallery below.
On the bright side, Frikadelki has a much more relaxed attitude to the species of their diners – we encountered these two gorgeous Capuchin monkeys dressed in fur coats on another table in the restaurant! While obviously adorable, I felt sorry for them as they’re definitely not accustomed to surviving in a Russian winter – they must have been suffering quite a bit. It seems to be the case that people like to keep exotic animals in Russia though, as we walked out of the restaurant only to encounter another person with a pet raccoon on their shoulder!
Frikadelki is located at 8 Griboyedov Canal Embankment, St Petersburg.
Moving onto Moscow, the guide on our free walking tour suggested that we visit Stolovoya 57 on the third floor of the GUM shopping mall. She said to us, “Even though all the shops in GUM are very expensive, you can get a very cheap meal at Stolovoya. I go there all the time for coffee and cake, and have full meals as well.” It’s certainly a popular choice with a long queue going out the door – primarily of locals looking for a break from a full day of shopping!
We decided to move away from the set business lunch here (in fact, I’m not sure if it’s even offered), and went all out with a big lunch which included: two soups – one borsch, one pea and ham; one Russian salad; one cold stuffed aubergine; one stuffed chicken breast with rice; one grilled chicken breast with beef stroganoff on rice; and a slice of honey cake. What a feast! This was obviously quite a bit more expensive, costing us around 1000 Rubles ($20 AUD) for the two of us, rather than 400 Rubles ($8 AUD).
The food is a bit hit and miss here though – the chicken breast was dry and the stuffed aubergine a bit tasteless. They really excel with their soups and dessert though, so I would suggest ordering a bowl of soup and bread for a light lunch before indulging in a slice or two of their many different cakes for dessert! Close-up photos of individual dishes in the gallery below.
Stolovaya 57 is located inside GUM shopping centre off Red Square in Moscow.
The last cafeteria lunch we had in Moscow was at Mu-Mu/Moo-Moo (or My-My if you’re using Cyrillic characters!), another cafeteria restaurant with branches all over the city. We went to the branch located opposite the Kremlin, sub-street level. While I believe Mu-Mu offer a set business lunch, we found it too hard to navigate and feeling lazy, decided to just pick random dishes again.
The dishes we chose here were: two salads, a garden salad and a vinaigrette salad; a chicken noodle soup; cheese covered mushrooms on a steak with potato wedges; a fish cake with buckwheat; and a slice of honey cake. Again, this cost us around 1000 Rubles, or $20 AUD. Close-up photos of individual dishes in the gallery below.
The quality of the main meals at Mu-Mu was definitely the best of all the different cafeteria restaurants we went to – the mushrooms on steak and the fish cake were both delicious, and the wedges were crispy and crunchy. The salads were well-dressed, and the chicken noodle soup was savoury and hearty. The only downside is that the honey cake wasn’t quite as nicely spiced as the cake we’d had at Stolovaya 57.
Mu-Mu is located at Manezhnaya Square, opposite the Kremlin in Moscow.
The whole concept of the cafeteria-style restaurant is interesting to me as it’s really not something that you encounter in Australia outside of the Ikea cafeteria. From what I understand, it’s a holdover from the Soviet period when workers for the state would be fed every day at state-run cafeterias. Fifteen years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, cafeterias are still the place that Russian workers go for a reliable lunch that ticks all the major food groups – even though they now have to pay for their meal.
The Russian cafeterias are particularly tourist-friendly, particularly for those unable to decipher a Cyrillic menu, so no doubt I’ll be looking out for them again the next time I’m in Russia!