I visited Moscow in July 1991–just a few weeks before the conservative coup attempt against Gorbachev and a few months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. I had not been there for over five years. Things had changed.
One change was that Muscovites had enthusiastically adopted the Washington practice of “doing lunch,” especially with visitors from America. But doing lunch, or dinner, in Moscow was a vastly different experience from doing it in Washington. Though it can no longer serve as the guide for visiting Americans that it was originally intended to be, the following account serves as a reminder of the peculiarities of the late Gorbachev era:
There are two important distinctions among Soviet restaurants. First, there are the old state run enterprises and the new private cooperatives. Service at the co-ops tends to be relatively efficient. The staff understands that the sooner you finish your meal, the sooner other paying customers can be seated.
At the state run restaurants, the service is usually very slow. Serving more customers gains the staff nothing but additional work. And since they don’t want to work, they provide what seems like slow-motion service.
The second distinction is that there are restaurants which accept payment in rubles and others which demand hard currency. Although the food is often better at the hard currency restaurants, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, some restaurants, such as the Peking, have a ruble section and a hard currency section. The food is the same in both. In the hard currency section, though, there are fewer diners and the service is better.
People in Moscow do lunch for many of the same reasons as people in Washington. It is a good way for people to meet and discuss plans for mutual collaboration.
In Moscow, though, Soviet citizens have another incentive for doing lunch or dinner with a foreigner: they simply want a decent meal. I took one elderly gentleman to dinner at the Ukraine Hotel’s foreign currency restaurant. For both of us, the cost was $80. I paid, of course, since my Russian friend did not have dollars.
While the meal was good, I thought it was overpriced. I was about to say so when my friend thanked me profusely for the dinner, claiming that it was one of the best meals he had ever had in the USSR. I decided it was worth the $80 after all.
The price of a meal, though, is not necessarily related to the quantity or quality of the food being served. You can pay a lot for a relatively mediocre meal at some restaurants. Perhaps this isn’t so different from Washington. But at other Moscow establishments you can get an excellent meal of enormous proportions for virtually nothing.
How can you find the bargains and avoid the rip-offs? Your Soviet colleagues know which is which. In fact, asking them to select the restaurant where you will treat them can provide important insight into their character. If you are meeting to discuss some potential joint project, their behavior at the restaurant can reveal something about how they view collaborating with you.
I invited one fellow to lunch. He suggested dinner. When we met, his wife was with him, wearing the Soviet equivalent of a little black cocktail dress.
He had booked us a table at Casino Royale, a foreign currency restaurant overlooking a horse-racing track which the aristocracy frequented before the revolution.
The prices on the menu were fairly steep. When the waiter came to our table, my friend immediately ordered two appetizers each for him and his wife, plus expensive cocktails, entrees, and wine. I pointedly ordered something more modest for myself.
My friend was not in the least embarrassed by his extravagance at my expense, but the waiter was. He totaled up the bill so far; it was $150. He said that if I was going to pay with a credit card, I would have to present my passport. Otherwise, I would have to pay cash.
I told him I didn’t have my passport. The organization sponsoring my visit was getting it registered with the authorities. The waiter became nervous, “Well, do you have the cash?” I checked my wallet. Fearing my friend would continue to order more otherwise, I said that I had exactly $150.
At this point my “friend” piped up. “But he doesn’t need his passport to pay with a credit card!” He had clearly hoped to order dessert, after-dinner drinks, and who knows what else. The waiter checked with the manager. Fortunately for me, the manager was firm: no passport, no credit card.
Despite this setback, my guests enjoyed themselves. When we were leaving, my friend said, “We’ll have to do this again before you leave Moscow.” He obviously anticipated I would get my passport back first.
In the best Washington tradition, I replied, “I’ll call you.”
Not all Russians behaved like this. One woman booked us a table in the dollar section of the Peking Restaurant. The food, which was served in gargantuan proportions, was delicious. The check amounted to only $33. Noting my surprise, my dinner partner explained that she always steered foreigners to inexpensive foreign currency restaurants. “I know how to get invited out a second time,” she added slyly.
While there are some Soviets who will not hesitate to shake you down for every dollar they think you have, there are others who are concerned that you enjoy meeting with them. There are still others who will overwhelm you with generosity which they can ill afford. One last thing. The food in Moscow restaurants can be very different from the food in their Washington counterparts. You should expect the unexpected.
A friend who took me to lunch at a ruble co-op one hot day ordered chilled soup for both of us. When it came, it looked to me like vegetables in broth of some sort.
I took a spoonful. I was puzzled. I told my friend, “This tastes like soda pop.”
“It is soda pop,” he said. “This restaurant makes its soups with soda pop.”
I’ll bet they haven’t thought of that yet down on K Street.
Earlier version published as “When Moscow Does Lunch,” The Washington Post (Outlook section), November 24, 1991.