Moscow, Russia: Aristocratic Eats at Café Pushkin

Moscow, Moscow, Russia

Party like it’s the 19th century - dine the Russian gentry way, as if the revolution never happened.

Don’t be lulled by the seemingly-casual ‘café’ prefix - Cafe Pushkin is really a 5* star restaurant that operates the ‘face-control’ standard of upmarket Moscow establishments ie. ladies in heels and dresses, gentlemen get away with casual clothing if they wear elegant shoes. That’s no reason to dismiss Cafe Pushkin as snooty and elitist, even if the premise is that this elegant Moscow café, with its gorgeously presented Russian-French dishes served by staff who beautifully speak pre-Sovietized Russian, is the place to dine in 19th century style. This restaurant never sleeps, and like Duck & Waffle in London, is the refined watering hole for night-owls and party people who want their haute bites at silly o’clock. The service is impeccable, the surroundings are sumptuous, the food is exquisite (and has the prices to match, but you say potato, I say poh-tah-toe).

I slipped out of my car, pulled up to the salmon pink-hued facade of the restaurant and glided through the front doors of Cafe Pushkin to be greeted by what looked to be an old pharmacy, decorated with vintage apothecary paraphernalia - an absolute dream for an antique lover such as myself. I had to be shaken out of my admiring stupor by the staff gently reminding me that my table was ready in the upstairs library.

I gave the old-fashioned elevator a miss, preferring to climb the stairs so as not to miss any detail. Cafe Pushkin is renovated and decorated painstakingly to look exactly like a Russian aristocrat's home circa 1825. 


Digressing, how gorgeous is this ground-floor conservatory? All that natural light, filtered through those vine-covered skylights must be every food-blogger's idea of a perfect dining room. 

Myself, I wouldn't have minded dining in this conservatory but the room wasn't big enough to accommodate my party. And also because I couldn't pass up the chance for languid repose on the more exclusive second-floor.

The dining room on the second floor is an eclectic, richly decorated, yet serene library. 

The atmosphere is decidedly intellectual (albeit a touch savant, ala Wilde) with harps, globes, telescopes dotted innocuously about as though casually abandoned in the midst of study by their students who've decamped to the drawing room for drinks.

Soaring to the high ceilings painted in frescoes, carved beams and handsome bookcases laden with more than three thousand vintage tomes as old as the 18th century support a cozy mezzanine area with few tables - which it makes up for (or rather, improves upon) by having its own bar.

This little hidden pocket of tranquility, so far removed from the bustle (although relatively quiet, as befitting the noble spirit of Cafe Pushkin) of the ground floor, was the perfect place for me to take my afternoon lunch.

As well as English, the menu is also in French, alluding to the cuisine. Dish after dish arrived, all beautifully presented and happily with the substance to match the style - not a single substandard bite passed our lips.

I started with beef tartare - would you expect any different from me? It was all I ate in Russia - right now I'm more bovine than human. I ate so much raw meat in Moscow and St Petersburg that I'm going vegetarian for a while - detox!

Chicken caesar salad, to cleanse my palate between courses.

Beef stroganoff, a traditional dish that I'm ashamed to admit I only recently learnt to be Russian!

Even a humble, hearty dish like lamp chops is styled to be as visually-arresting as any haute-cuisine.

Mushroom pie, one of the few vegetarian-friendly dishes. Traditionally, the aristocracy tended to be salad-dodgers, thinking vegetables 'dirty' as they grew from the ground. And they wondered why so many of them ended up fat and unhealthy? Happily, today we now know better - say yes to your greens, boys and girls. (Although I can't talk really, the only thing green about this dish is the chives)

Three dishes I can't remember the names of, I only snapped photos of them quickly over their diner's shoulders because I though they looked pretty. I'm not going to pretend they're mine, I don't think there's anything aspirational about going to great lengths to making oneself appear gluttonous.

The story behind the legendary Café Pushkin

More than 50 years ago, the legendary French chansonnier Gilbert Bécaud performed in Moscow. When he returned to Paris he wrote the song “Natalie” and dedicated it to his Russian guide. The song goes: “We are walking around Moscow, visiting Red Square, and you are telling me learned things about Lenin and the Revolution, but I’m thinking, ‘I wish we were at Café Pushkin, looking at the snow outside the windows. We’d drink hot chocolate, and talk about something completely different…’ The song became incredibly popular in France, and it is no wonder that French visitors to Moscow tried to find “Café Pushkin.” They couldn’t find it as it existed only as a poetic fantasy in Bécaud’s song. But it was the song that inspired Andrei Dellos, an artist and restaurateur with Franco-Russian roots, to create “Café Pushkin.” On June 4, 1999, “Café Pushkin” opened in a Baroque mansion on Tverskoy Boulevard. At the grand opening, Gilbert Bécaud performed his world-famous song “Natalie.” - read more about the restaurant legend

The rest, as they say, is history - Cafe Pushkin is now one of Moscow's legends, and its only apt that the restaurant is too named after a Russian legend. Alexander Pushkin, the curly-haired poet, playwright, and father of Russian literature (Russia's answer to Shakespeare, Byron, and Wilde all rolled into one) was 'notoriously touchy' about his honour and fought as many as 29 duels, until he was fatally wounded at the young age of 37 in his last ever duel with his brother-in-law, who Pushkin accused of trying to seduce his wife. 

As the legend goes, his brother-in-law, French officer Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d'Anthès, married the sister of Mrs. Natalya Pushkina only to be closer to Pushkin's lovely wife. After killing Pushkin, who was so beloved in Russia, the Frenchie and his long-suffering spouse (who accepted her position in her husband's eyes as a 'consolation prize' to her more coveted sister) had to flee and take up in Paris where they lived in social exile for fear of retribution from Pushkin's family. Meanwhile, Pushkin's widow honoured her late husband's last request - she took herself and her children to the St Petersburg countryside and set up a town in his honour where she spent two years in secluded mourning - all at the tender age of 24. Upon her return to society, Pushkin's widow, her beauty not at all marred by her strict commitment to mourning her  husband, quickly remarried. Isn't it so incredibly tragic and romantic? I'm surprised Hollywood hasn't tried to make a movie out of this, yet!

TL;DR: Café Pushkin is a legendary Moscow restaurant, named after a Russian legend, inspired by a song of a legendary French chansonnier. 

It's the place to dine if you want to be treated like a member of the landed gentry, expect service at its finest, want to experience how the extinct Russian aristocracy dined, and hear the language spoken pre-Soviet days. Prices aren't cheap, but you get what you pay for, which is to say, a lot. Reservations recommended, or you can just rock up dressed smartly and ask nicely for a table. 


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