The Only Place in Minsk More Popular Than the Restroom at McDonald’s
Beer in Minsk
The place to meet up post-work in Minsk is the first floor of a communist-era grocery store called Centralnaya, or Central. There’s no bouncer, no bartender, no pretension here. The long hallway is lined with individual kiosks, where attendants in bland uniforms sell bottles of beer or cognac shots for about $1. At least one of the kiosks has local draft beer. Chandeliers dangle from the ceiling and socialist murals on the wall depict Belarusian collective farm workers stoically pulling in their harvest.
The Oscar is Centralnaya’s signature cocktail. It’s a mixture of coffee, cognac, and a raw egg whipped until it’s foamy, served in a paper cup.
A Formica countertop lines the other side of the hallway across from the row of kiosks, where customers rest their beverages, look out the floor-to-ceiling windows onto Independence Street and hash out the news of the day. Don’t expect a lot of bashing of the current president, Alexander Lukashenko, whom the George W. Bush administration once called “Europe’s last dictator.” After 22 years of Lukashenko’s autocratic reign, Belarusians have learned how to speak of him without actually naming him. Instead, they use terms like He, the Man in the Big Office, the Guy in Charge.
“You guys in the West have different political parties to debate about,” my friend Viktar Kontar says. “We don’t have real political parties. You either support him or you don’t.”
Kontar, 29, is known as the mayor of Centralnaya, a title he was given a few years ago when Foursquare was a popular social media sport in Minsk. He and his group of friends explained why they return to this unlikely stop, instead of one of Minsk’s more hyped-up venues.
“There’s chandeliers! Is that not luxury?” he says, pointing up to the ceiling, where the glass chandelier glimmers. “The thing is, you can show up here without any prior arrangements and always run into someone you know. It’s convenient, hassle free.”
Centralnaya opened in 1954 as Store No. 13, a grocery store German soldiers started when they were forced to rebuild Minsk after the Second World War. In 1977, the city government renovated the store and built the second floor. Groceries were moved upstairs, and first floor became a café area frequented by all walks of Minsk’s life. By the late 70s and into the 80s, the space was the hangout for Minsk’s alternative scene in a strictly controlled Soviet society: beatniks, hippies, artists, musicians, and writers.
Today, the nostalgic drinking hall is frequently a pre-gaming spot for some of Minsk’s young IT crowd. They gather here for a few hours before hitting the bigger clubs and bars. The software designers drink imported beer and rub elbows with pensioners drinking vodka out of plastic cups.
Later in the evening, talk briefly turned to making a move to another bar. Everyone agreed to stay for a few more beers. At 8 p.m. on a Friday, Centralnaya was packed with a cross section of Minsk society taking a load off.
“There’s only one bad thing about our Centralnaya: There’s no bathroom,” says Veronica, 26, who is chatting with Viktar and a few engineers and marketing strategists from Wargaming, the multimillion-dollar, Belarus-based company that designed the World of Tanks video game. “Luckily, McDonald’s has bathrooms next door, so we use theirs. So, it’s sort of the second most popular place, after Centralnaya.”