Inside Moscow’s Secret Supper Clubs

While supper clubs have become a familiar novelty—a punch line, even—in American cities, in Russia secret drinking and dining groups nod to an evolving culinary movement and a restrictive past. Rachel Barth on Moscow's Stay Hungry.

“Press one and someone will buzz you up.” I reread the encrypted instructions from my phone, carefully ensuring the Cyrillic address on the door matches the one sent to my inbox just hours before.

I push the cold, metal number and the door buzzes open, unveiling several flights of cinderblock stairs. At the first break, a girl scurries past me, dressed in torn stockings and a white pea coat buttoned up to her chin. She offers a sly smile and a flip of her curly bob. I follow a few steps behind, reaching a door cracked open like a Cheshire grin.

Outside, it’s a predictably cold, gray, Moscow winter day. Inside, at Stay Hungry—an invite-only Moscow-based dining collective—the world is in color. The crowd dresses where Williamsburg meets Paris: There are thin cigarettes tucked in purses, bouffants, over-sized sweaters, wood-framed glasses and plenty of attitude. But most importantly, there is food and drink—delicious food and drink made by local chefs with local ingredients, and anything but local techniques.

While secret supper clubs in any U.S. metropolis have become a familiar novelty—even a punch line, of late—in Russia the appropriation of secret, eclectic drinking and dining nods to both an evolving culinary movement and a restrictive past, wherein social gatherings often took place in private spaces out of necessity.

Stay Hungry was founded in 2012 by friends Aliona Ermakova, 28, Anna Bichevskaya, 36, and Liya Mur, 29—a stunning trio whose style reflects the vintage nouveau decor of the room, designed by Bichevskaya’s husband. The weekly feasts take place at a Moscow apartment, and for 2000 rubles per person ($32 USD), groups of 20 join a palatial table of strangers and friends, tasting the creations of a revolving chef whose identity and is also kept secret until the event.

Though traditional fare remains popular in Russia, and vodka has by no means evaporated, Stay Hungry is helping rebuild Russia’s culinary identity to fit the contemporary landscape—one that reflects a generation of twenty and thirty-somethings who’ve grown up without the restrictions of the Soviet Union.

It’s a concept borne of a post-Cold War generation of Muscovites who dine for flavor, rather than sustenance. Behind an iron curtain that kept imports and exports strictly regulated, Soviet food and drink were characterized by simplicity and availability. Vodka was often the only available spirit, and heartily consumed. And while there were a handful of very expensive restaurants reserved for aristocrats, meals for the rest of the population primarily took place in homes, with traditional dishes like potatoes and pelmeni or varenyky (meat-stuffed dumplings) and, yes, vodka.

Though traditional fare remains popular in Russia, and vodka has by no means evaporated, Stay Hungry is helping rebuild Russia’s culinary identity to fit the contemporary landscape—one that reflects a generation of twenty and thirty-somethings who’ve grown up without the restrictions of the Soviet Union. At these gatherings guests might have all-vegetarian Indian one week and Odessa-style Jewish the next, served alongside an inventive cocktail, wine or craft beer.

Now with over 4,300 members on their private Facebook group, Stay Hungry has proved a popular mission. Of late, they’ve been joined by other supper clubs like Moscow’s Soul Kitchen with Kremlin view, and the St. Petersburg-based In Your Plate. This trend of bringing dining back into the home with Soviet-era nostalgia is part of a larger trend that’s clearly reflected in the city’s bars and restaurants via both design and concept.

Proper restaurants often resemble the interior of homes (Mari Vanna, Eco-bar D’ivan), while some of the city’s finest dining venues mimic, in an almost kitschy fashion, aristocratic and peasant times past. Speakeasy-style bars have become common as well, hidden or with password-entry and hidden bars across the city—like east-influenced gin and whiskey bar Chainaya, and Bar Mendeleev, which is named for the Russian man who, according to lore, perfected vodka. It’s a bar genre common enough on a global scale, but one that also—consciously or otherwise—recollects shadowed times in Moscow.

While Bichevskaya, founder of travel guide projects Friendly Cities and Friendly Moscow!, and Mur, who also runs her own catering company, saw Stay Hungry as a natural blend of their culinary passions and their practical skills, to Ermakova, the club was about challenging Russians to engage with each other and their surroundings in a different way.

“The idea of going to your friend’s place to have dinner and talk was once popular in Russia,” says Ermakova. “It’s just been forgotten within a rhythm of big city where it’s now easier to meet your friend in a restaurant. And we’re trying to solve this problem.”

Back at Stay Hungry, after sipping elderflower and sparkling wine spritzes and cappuccinos from their “friend and coffee guru Anastasia Godunova,” as Ermakova calls her, the group is seated along an expansive table, brimming with movement. There is an Italian economist named Marco across from me and a Russian model and entrepreneur to my left. We eat savory waffles with smoked salmon and crème fraiche, rhubarb crumble and a pork potato dumpling and okra dish that the chef has named Yasson’s Temptation Casserole.

It’s an atmosphere built on admiration for food, drink, for Russian past and Russian future—and, perhaps most importantly, for the vibrant individuals redefining what it means today to eat, drink and be “Russian.”

Stay Hungry runs monthly brunches, weekly dinners, and backyard festivals during warmer months. Meals cost 2,000 rubles ($32). Request entry via the closed Stay Hungry Facebook group.

Rachel Barth is a writer and filmmaker from San Francisco, California. Her work has appeared on CNN, VICE News, Draft Magazine, Drink Me and more. She's a graduate from UC Berkeley's Mass Communications and Creative Writing programs, and a former fellow with the International Center for Journalists. When she's not busy being professional, she can be found in dark basements performing stand up comedy, being very unprofessional.

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