I’ve mentioned the revelation that was -and is- Stolovaya before, but as the holiday season is getting closer, it’s worth revisiting this great resource again. Especially if you wish to save some cash whilst visiting principle Russian cities. The word simply means “canteen” in Russian and sometimes simple is all that you need.
These canteens are a leftover, in ideal at least, from the Communist ethos of providing an “adequate” level of care and provision for the population in all areas of their lives. Some may argue about just what “adequate” meant and what is was like to live “adequately” – and with good reason. Today, Communist rule is just a memory for most, whilst the legacy of the good, bad and indifferent remains. Something that is nonetheless a fact, whatever you moral view of it – is that the staff seem predominantly “not from here“, but often from Mongolia or other ex-Soviet territories. It reminds me of the UK, where those from elsewhere often get the menial work.
Stolovaya, as you’d find it today, is decidedly “good”, for the thrifty tourist – as it allows your supercharged Western currency to stretch even further. With financial insecurity rampant; that’s a bonus when planning a trip abroad. In fact, I’d say that the food is so good that even if you have money to waste, you still may want to eat there by choice – rather than necessity.
The plethora of these utilitarian eating establishments extends throughout St.Petersburg, Moscow, and beyond (the concept has even travelled to the USA), providing budget-priced, good-quality food 24 hours a day (in most cases). My nearest Metro in St.Petersburg was Narvskaya, about 20 minutes walk from my apartment. After a late evening on Nevsky Prospect I could take a short Metro ride back to my part of town and on the way home drop in for a nightcap and a bowl of soup. That’s not a recommendation to wander around an alien city by yourself at night, incidentally.
The most familiar point of reference that we all have to Stolovaya is the school dinner system where we pushed trays around on rails in front of an array of glass-fronted cabinets. Inside lay hot metal containers of various meats, vegetables, desserts on small plates and more. We chose what we wanted and the helpful staff behind the cabinets obligingly handed over the goods. That’s Stolovaya today, with the experience ratcheted up considerably.
The food on offer stands out – not only for the low cost, but even more so for the variety and the size of the portions. Something equivalent to 1 GBP bought me a bowl of soup and a coffee. 3 GBP furnished me with a tray full of crockery containing: soup, rice, fruit juice, coffee, vinaigrette, and a fried, sliced potato and mushroom combo.
Aside from the price (and the food itself), another appealing factor is in the “real” nature of the clientele. The informal turnaround of customers reveals a cross section of regular folk on their lunch breaks, just dropping by for a snack, meeting friends over a coffee and more. All everyday activities that make us – as outsiders – feel a little closer to the culture that we are temporarily dropping into.
At this level (or at any, really), it also pays to know at least a small amount of Russian, especially if you have specific dietary requirements, -but a little language practice is no great hardship, all things considered. I’m talking about communication on the level of “meat?”, “vegetarian?”, “fish”? I’m sure that you can manage that. C’mon!
I’ve also read that occasionally you may have a bad meal in a Stolovaya (I haven’t) -but that could be said for most establishments, occasionally.
The – slightly odd – piece of advice that I’d give is: choose the plastic seats, as the soft cushioned ones looked, frankly, rather stained with “something”. They are of course, a lot harder to keep clean than a sheer, plastic surface.
“Stolovaya” is not a brand name, so they may be run by a variety of owners, but there are also chains, as Jessica on the Liden & Denz site points out:
“The most popular stolovaya chains in Saint Petersburg are “Столовая № 1 Копейка” (Stolovaya n.1 Kopeika) and “Тарелка Столовая” (Tarelka Stolovaya).” You may find your own favourite off course; I frequented the “No 1” establishment.
You’ll have little trouble finding a Stolovaya; just a wander around the city centre is usually enough, but they’re everywhere.
Title photo By Yahontov CC BY-SA 3.0