Secret bars & bar culture revival
Wandering around Moscow in the snow and hail, there is something about the bland and cold communist era urban design in this city which has found itself completely suited to a handful of the most cherished and longstanding jewels in the country’s ever-growing, highly evolved and still semi-disposable bar scene.
It may have a lot to do with the fact that there isn’t much of a ‘high street’ culture in Moscow. To the unfamiliar, bars and restaurants are seemingly randomly positioned - found isolated in business centres, hotels or residential blocks.
Behind the sometimes stark and imposing exteriors on these Amazonionally wide streets, lie mazes of courtyards and small back entrances where you can’t help but be excited by a sense of discovery and Le Carrée-esque adventure. Combine this with the fact that in such a demanding economic and social environment, there is always huge demand from the well-off savvy drinker for the next cool spot and it starts to make sense. Of course, as any New Yorker will tell you, the more difficult to find, the better it is, right? And what do most young wealthy Moscovites want to be? You got it - New Yorkers.
Or perhaps it’s simply the dark and impenetrable winter weather at this time of year.
The concept of the ‘Speakeasy’ has found itself so wholly suited to the Russian cocktail scene that it deserves to be heralded. That’s what I’m musing about. Three or four world-class secret little joints that the international travelling bartender should know and pay a visit to.
Tip: It can really pay to pick up a local sim with a data and text package from someone like MTC(s). Download the Get Taxi app and add the numbers and addresses of the bars below into your contacts! Write down the name and address of your hotel in both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets so no matter how plastered you accidentally get you’ll be fine to find your way home.
First stop, Chainaya. My local and one of my favourite places in the world! Roman Milostivy and his team took over the basement of a Chinese restaurant on Beloyusskaya and turned it into this unique oriental teahouse. It boasts a prominent location off the main square (a short distance from other popular bartender hangouts Time Out, NOOR & Main Bar) nicely muffled by the fact that the entrance is behind the building, down an alley and a flight of stairs. It feels like the kind of back streets you find in Guangzhou or Hong Kong when you take a wrong turn (albeit significantly colder). Air-con units pump out waves of hot air in the summer and supplement the arctic bite in the winter. But on the left is a little red light, a small iron-clad door, a heater and an intercom.
There's small team of two or three at Chainaya and even when packed to the rafters, they make an effort to come to the door to welcome each guest personally. As you are ushered down the stairs to leave your coats, the walls are lined with tea-stained and faded Chinese newspapers and the waft of incense and cooked oriental spices linger. You pass the bathrooms and a cloakroom before peeling back the curtain to reveal a small kitchen on the left and right in front of you, a glorious little one-station bar with a decorated low roof reminiscent of an old Kung Fu movie. The bar top is glass, covering a display of teas; the coasters are thick, well used and piled up nonchalantly in front of you, the stirrers and picks are all quirky and different; and the bamboo work stations brings (me especially) a sense of home (we used them at Mahiki for years). These are the small touches that only a small, cosy and familiar kind of place could get away with. No ice wells (like Quo Vadis), just a freezer with shaking and swizzling ice and a few blocks and a small backbar with a larger shelf of collected bottles form around the world.
The rest of the bar is made up of two main rooms with three or four secluded adjoining alcoves, where the smiley-bearded bohemian bartender-types lounge on cushions, drink and laugh the night away.
Chaiyana closes when the last people leave which for a place as popular with the Russian bar trade, means that more often than not, the joint is open. Except on Mondays.
In the North West of Moscow city centre towards the the centre of town is the world famous Delicatessen. It’s just off Sadovaya-Karetnaya, the first of the circular ring-roads engulfing the city, at about the figurative 11 o’clock. There is a small archway leading to what looks like apartments. On the left is a barrier. Go under, over or around that and turn right. On the left there will be a wall with flood lights protecting the car park from the prying eyes across the way and a sign which reads ‘Thank You for Finding Us’. It all feels very secretive.
It’s a wonderfully warm and cosy bohemian space in the sub-basement of the apartment building. No background music (although there is a piano in the corner which is occasionally played), just the murmur of chatter and the stomp of boots coming in from outside on the sawdust-laden wooden floors. It boasts a beautiful, art deco bar with brass detailing and above the backbar sits an old copper mirror with the words ‘booze & food’ emblazoned on it. The entire rear walls are wallpapered in menus (all in English text) and a library of well-thumbed books from Trader Vic to Momofoko and the Hawksmoor at Home all bringing the influences of the venue to life. The food is epic, the service is faultless and the atmosphere of an early 20th Century Parisian Deli/Café is palpable.
Home to Lizzy Evdokimova, winner of Bacardi Legacy and operated by perfect host Slava Lankin - king of the Cheeky-Pucky - a shot of limoncello, blackberry and maybe Jaegermeister, I think. Without a drinks list, their skilful team will mix you up something undoubtedly delicious and unique to your preference.
There is something about the Russian bar industry hospitality which is genuinely (and sometimes overindulgently)…hospitable. As a friend of a friend of the bar you are immediately the most important person in the room, you’re sucked into the bosom of the family, plied with drinks, then hugged and kissed by the owner before you eventually persuade them that you have to leave. It’s a small community of bar owners and managers who inhabit the cosiest and most secluded venues in town. Marat, Roman, Slava, Bek, Dima to name a few. They are the old guard (Dima was the first person to open a new style cocktail bar in Moscow). In a town where without the help of this gang of ‘Bartender Brothers’ or as part of the Russian Cocktail Club, you are resigned to teach and push yourself. This small network of established 40-something bartenders are proving the inspiration to a generation of hero-less bartenders. They're a group of bar mentors worth championing.
Notably, the exception to this is Mendeleev. It’s full of youngsters. Max is the bar manager and (with the upmost respect) looks no older than 17! The place is as fantastic a Speakeasy-style venue as would ever have been in the previous hey day of the genre. The secret opulent splendour of the downstairs interiors could not be further away from the shabby exterior upstairs. The balance of this symbiotic venue too is done just right. I’ve been told that this is a Novikov venue, which would make sense, because the noodles from the battered old shop upstairs, made by an old Chinese guy in a minicab style booth, are up there with the best I have ever had.
Serving absinthe laced cocktails and pumping out live jazz, it transports you to a different era. Despite the similarity in the theme of these bars who's craze has rippled across the world to an inevitable sound of mockery and perpetual overkill, it's done so well here that if you were to transplant them next to PDT, it'd completely hold its own.
All these bars are proof that the Russian cocktail scene is mobile as well as fast moving. These guys have travelled to further afield than most of the bartenders in London or New York. They absorb ideas, they learn, they continue to learn, they are not embarrassed to ask questions or to take what they have seen and learnt and make it their own - or to fail doing so and when they succeed, they are immensely proud of what they achieve.
Take Gin & Tonic bar or Imbibe in Saint Petersburg for example. The latter through a courtyard towards the double bluff of a noisy nightclub to the right through a hole in the brick wall up a flight or two of stairs, through another hole you find a red-brick homage to simple classic cocktails with a hip hop twist. The mix is in short, Honey Old-Fashioneds, Bees Knees, El Presidentes are all listed and served to perfection. The staff are accomplished, stylish yet relaxed, the music is cool but not at all commercial (a rare treat in popular Saint Pete bars) and the guests are all having one amazing time.
The result? Well it all feels as London’s Soho, and in particular the The Player did a decade ago when the Match Bar Group was there leading the world in the business of turning out fine bars - and if you can do that, well you know you’re onto a winner.