Margarita’s Classic Delights
The very simple recipe for how a down-to-earth cafe stays full for 17 years in a city of glitz and caprice.
By Jillian Ong, Photographs by Alexander Litkin
At first glance, the scrawled Russian words woven into blue, green and pink fluorescent swirls at the entrance to Cafe Margarita appeared to be graffiti. The more literary-minded would have recognized the stylized, avant-garde paintings as scenes and quotations from the cafe’s namesake, Mikhail Bulgakov’s allegorical modern classic, The Master and Margarita. I, ashamedly, did not.
As we passed through the door we were greeted by a jolly, bustling mix of people and objects. The walls are covered with an eclectic range of books – an ancient History of Russia perched alongside A Complete Guide to Pathology next to tomes of Lev Tolstoy – and redwood paneling that gives the place a warm and cozy feel. The two violinists and pianist squashed into the far corner of the tiny cafe merrily played Sinatra, adding jauntiness to the already informal atmosphere.
Sitting in the lively cafe, it was bizarre to imagine that back in 1987 Margarita’s owner, Irina Raeva, planned to turn this little corner of Patriarch’s Ponds into a psychologist’s clinic specializing in the treatment of memory loss. But instead of opening one of the first private psychological practices in the country, Irina took the advice of a friend that the space was better suited for a restaurant and opened Moscow’s first co-operative cafe.
Business conditions were tough during Gorbachev’s perestroika. Irina had to deal with second-hand kitchen equipment that often broke down and a frequent lack of food supplies. She compensated for these difficulties and her lack of experience with creativity and cheerful resourcefulness. “I went to a government baking plant and found three girls who could think like me. We made crazy, crazy cakes with no recipes! From the first day, people were curious and lined up all the way to the Garden Ring.” But were her cakes good? “I don’t know,” she laughs, “but people had nothing to compare them to!”
After two years in business, Irina decided her cafe needed music, and hired a local rock ‘n’ roll band to provide entertainment as well as serve the customers. One day, one of her musicians didn’t show up for work. “I took a car and went to the Conservatory,” Irina recalls. “It was a Sunday, so there were not many people there. I heard a violin coming from a room. There was a 17-year-old boy playing the violin, practicing for his exams. I asked him to play at the cafe and he turned out to be a real virtuoso – our first violinist.” That launched Cafe Margarita’s 15-year tradition of classically trained musicians playing jazzy upbeat tunes every night. Today seven professional violinists and three pianists take turns entertaining the cafe’s guests throughout the week.
The food has also evolved, from pastries and coffee to a full dining menu, although it retains its philosophy of basic ingredients prepared simply. You’ll find home-style Russian cuisine with European influences, featuring perennial favorites like blini with cheese (230 rubles) alongside tomatoes and mozzarella (240 rubles). Portions are generous and the presentation, like the place, is refreshingly unpretentious. The borsch (130 rubles) is hearty yet delicately flavored with a fragrant chicken stock. The Greek salad (240 rubles) is fresh – no limp, tired leaves here – with a good balance of feta and olives.
The mains, which arrive on cheerful blue, orange and red plates, include succulent salmon steak with white wine and red caviar sauce (390 rubles), veal medallions (390 rubles) and beef in a spicy wine sauce.
Like its owner, Cafe Margarita simultaneously manages to be laidback and infectiously exuberant. As our evening at Margarita drew on, and fuelled by the extra-dry gin martinis (170 rubles) strong enough to put hairs on anyone’s chest, we grabbed the home-made maracas (old juice bottles filled with lentils) that had been handed to guests, and bopped along with the musicians. Around us, some of the other diners joined in, while the rest remained content looking on in amusement.
This is definitely not the place for a romantic rendezvous or a formal business dinner. People come to Cafe Margarita to relax with close friends or family and to have a good laugh accompanied by simple food and drink. It’s a delightfully welcome alternative in a city flooded with stuffy, formal fine dining establishments.
In Moscow, where most new restaurants close their doors within a year of opening, this 17-year-old survivor keeps going, underpinned by Irina’s simple philosophy. “In my business, you only have today. But you have to love what you are doing and just have fun.” And fun, my friends, is exactly what Cafe Margarita is all about.
Dinner reservations recommended