Cafeteria Dining in Russia

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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

Review: Stolle, St Petersburg Russia

It’s a bit embarrassing to admit that during our stay in St Petersburg, we hardly ventured outside of a 2km radius of our incredibly centrally-located apartment, a mere five minutes from the Hermitage Museum and two minutes from the main thoroughfare Nevsky Prospekt. To be fair, there was so much to see and do (and eat!) close to home that we hardly needed to go much further than our doorstep.

One of the restaurants that we dropped into after a heavy snowstorm was Stolle. Though it’s technically a ‘chain’ restaurant with multiple branches throughout the city, our free walking tour guide suggested it as a fantastic place to go to try authentic Russian pies. A recommendation for a good pie always gets me excited, so to Stolle for lunch!

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We went to the Stolle branch on Nevsky Prospekt on a cold and wet wintry day in St Petersburg, where we experienced our first real snowstorm. Since then we’ve experienced the soft feathery snowfall that makes you feel like you’re in a winter wonderland – but this was no magical wonderland, it was a torrential downpour of cold wet snow that trickles down your neck! I was in dire need of a warm, cosy cafe to help me dry off, and Stolle was the perfect place to go.

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The system at Stolle is simple – you can either eat in, or order your pie to go at the counter. It seems to be a popular choice for feeding large groups as well, as I saw a number of people walking out with large boxes filled with enough slices of pie to feed a dozen people or more.

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While they have other items available on the menu for eat-in diners including other Russian specialities such as borscht soup, we decided to stick with what was recommended by our guide – their large varieties of pies. We started off with three half-serves of savoury pies. You can order in either half or full serves, depending how hungry you’re feeling. A full serve with a half serve of dessert pie is just right for lunch for one person!

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We started with a half serve of the Salmon Pie for 130 Rubles, or around $2.50 AUD. I was extremely surprised when I had my first mouthful of Russian pie – I didn’t expect a sweet, almost bread-like doughy pastry that managed to caramelise on top with a sweet glaze. It almost reminded me in taste, though not texture, of the Asian Breadtop-esque bread. A sweet surprise, as it goes well with both savoury fillings like the salmon, and sweet pies as well.

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The second pie was a Green Onion and Egg Pie (70 Rubles, or $1.40 AUD) – a mistaken order on my part as I peered at all the pies at the counter, as I’d been hoping for a more common combination like spinach and ricotta. For that reason I was a little disappointed in the onion and egg combination as it didn’t have much flavour to it, deriving most of its flavour from the pastry itself.

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The third savoury pie we ordered was the Kulyebyaka with Meat (90 Rubles to $1.80 AUD), filled with a surprisingly dry and gristly mince mix, very unlike the gravy-filled meat pies you become used to as an Aussie. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a nice pie as the mince was well-spiced however as it was quite dry, it was quite difficult to eat with a knife and fork as the mince mix just fell out all over the plate.

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We sat for a while after we had our first three slices of pie, trying to decide if we wanted more or not. Gluttony soon won out, and we chose one more savoury pie – a Cabbage Pie With Egg (50 Rubles, or $1 AUD). Interestingly the cabbage and the egg weren’t integrated in the mix and was layered inside instead. It could have been very plain pie, but it worked surprisingly well with the fresh, flavourful dill.

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You can’t go into a pie shop and not order a dessert pie. I had a half serve of the Apple Pie (50 Rubles, $1 AUD). As deliciously cinnamony as the apple mix was (though the base was a bit too crispy and well-cooked), I found myself wishing for something more….a scoop of vanilla ice-cream on the side maybe? It’s not a very Russian thing to wish for unfortunately, and I think the staff would have frowned at me if I’d requested it!

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K opted for a slice of the Blackberry Pie (75 Rubles, $1.50 AUD), which is a seasonal offering. At other times of the year, they’ll offer a strawberry pie, or perhaps a lingonberry pie. The blackberry mix tasted extremely sweet, as though they’d added a lot of sugar to counteract the natural tartness of the blackberries. It made the filling taste like blackberry jam – not a bad thing!

Russian pies are interestingly and certainly not like the Aussie meat pie – instead they’re baked in large rectangular or square pie tins, and slices are cut out of them on request. The fillings are a lot more interesting than meat and gravy or chicken and vegetable, and there’s a lot of variety to choose from. There are over a dozen at Stolle including an interesting rabbit pie or a herring pie. There’s something for everyone at Stolle…and don’t forget to finish your meal with a slice of dessert pie!

Stolle is located at 11 Nevsky Prospect in Saint Petersburg, Russia.