I am struggling to keep up with restaurateur Alexei Zimin as he shows us around a Tsarist mansion annexed in Soviet times to serve as the dining hall for the Central House of Writers. The beam of his flashlight skitters over dusty parquet floors where Tolstoy’s characters once danced and Bulgakov’s Devil dined; as we rush underneath, he points to the crystal chandelier Stalin gave to Maxim Gorkiy. We only stop once, on a staircase, so Zimin can explain a door. The U.S. Secret Service, he says, required staff to cut the door into the wall as an emergency exit, just in case, for Ronald Reagan when he dined here with Mikhail Gorbachev. But we are still a month or more from the grand reopening of this space (which finally happened earlier this April), so the door is closed, as is everything else, while Zimin recasts the mansion as a bright new welcoming restaurant.
The waiters were all rumored to be on the payroll of the KGB
It’s worth pointing out how little the word “welcoming” typically belongs in the same paragraph as “Central House of Writers.” Context: the waiters were all rumored to be on the payroll of the KGB. Context: in 1978, dissident writer Yury Dombrovsky was beaten so badly just for walking into the lobby here that he died six weeks later. Context: the restaurant only opened to the public in the 1990s as a blingy New Russian joint, and then managed by aristocratic Disneyland-builder Andrey Dellos, who filled it with white-gloved waiters and red damask tablecloths before he inexplicably walked away and left the building to its fate.
Our tour through ЦДЛ (the Cyrillic acronym TzDL that the place is known by) is rushed, but not because Zimin is nervous about the daunting task before him. I suspect it’s because we’ve already ordered appetizers and he doesn’t want them to get cold.
Zimin edits Afisha-Eda, arguably the first decent food magazine in the former Soviet Union. Readers turn to him for everything from wisdom on making plain omelets to 58 ways to prepare borscht. After training briefly as a chef in London, he started a mini-empire of casual restaurants in Moscow. He has done something that almost no one else has managed to do: serve food that is fresh, unpretentious, and also Russian. Not faux-French, not faux-Japanese, not Georgian or Central Asian, but Russian—a cuisine battered for 70 years by a command economy, war, food shortages, communal kitchens, school and worker cafeterias, and unspeakable rivers of cheap mayonnaise.