Can you get a good cup of coffee in this town?
Text Linda Lippners
I have heard that Russia in the old days used to be a tea-drinking nation. At least all those images of samovars in Russian paintings and literature would lead you to believe that tea is the pickme- up of national choice. I, on the other hand, prefer something a little bit stronger.
Coffee — the magic elixir of my mornings! I take mine black with no sugar. I also do not partake of other additives — no whipped cream, caramel, syrup, Bailey’s Irish Cream (at least not in the am...), cinnamon, powdered chocolate, etc. for me. And phoo on decaf. (A good thing, too, because it’s near impossible to persuade a Moscow barista to put together a decaf cappuccino.)
Being out and about in the city quite a lot, I have noticed that — wonder of wonders — there seems to be a coffeehouse (in Russian, kofeinya) on almost every block, at least in the city center. In comparison to a few years ago, Moscow is filled with places to sit and sip some coffee. (I emphasize the sitting part as Moscow is not much for grabbing a cup of joe in a sturdy paper cup with a white plastic lid, sheathed in a corrugated cardboard sleeve so you don’t scald your hand, although ”to-go” signs are popping up more and more.)
While many Westerners carry their java fix away with them to gulp on the run along with a muffin or scone, Russians seem to favor the sit-down approach to coffee-drinking. Even the term ”coffeehouse” sounds a little strange to me, since where I come from the morning cup of coffee means a detour through Starbucks on the way to work.
My search for a good cup of coffee in Moscow is ongoing. Having heard that two illustrious European chains have recently set up shop here, I set out to do a bit of taste testing. Costa’s from the UK has arrived in Pushkin Square. According to a press release, the chain plans to open more stores in the near future, and, happily, not just in Moscow but spread across Russia. In contrast, the Vienna-based Julius Meinl, which just opened a shop on Ulitsa Myasnitskaya, is taking a different tack: Meinl plans to supply other Moscow coffee shops with its delicious Viennese coffee labeled as house brands.
And this leads me to my final thoughts on finding a good cup of coffee in Moscow. Where I buy my coffee must have friendly service, good ventilation (especially if the management insists on allowing smoking), and clean bathrooms. It must be conveniently located, have comfortable and plentiful seating, and allow me to sit forever at my little table. And, of course, it must offer me a cup of strong, flavorful coffee. Free wi-fi wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.
The Caffeine Scene
This spring has seen a couple of additions to the pantheon of Moscow coffeehouse chains. Costa, shacked up with a bunch of Rosinter restaurants (Planeta Sushchi, Rostiks, Kafe 1-2-3, Il Patio, etc.) in the Izvestia building on Pushkin Square, offers comfortable seating with huge windows and a nice view (which will be even nicer when the scaffolding outside the building comes down).
It seems 1971 was a banner year for coffee chains: That’s when Costa was founded, according to the oddly familiar round logo hanging in its window. Creepily, Starbucks traces its origins to the same year. But before you call the chains fraternal twins, there are some important differences to note: Where Starbucks is green, Costa is burgundy. And if you don’t score an armchair, it’s OK: All the chairs at Costa have upholstered seats.
There is unobtrusive music and fast, friendly, English-speaking staff. Just steps from the metro, Costa is smoke-free, despite an impressive-looking system of air vents (that and the ice coffee on the menu bode well for summer). Plus there are several tables near electrical outlets.
Let’s forget the anodyne selection of panini and pastry and get down to brass tacks: Costa has good coffee, they have it in large quantities, and they have it to go. And if you get the largest size to stay, it’ll come in an Alice-in-Wonderland-sized cup. A cappuccino will run you 140, 165, and 180 rubles for a primo (340 ml), medio (450 ml), and Massimo (560 ml), respectively. It’s a little hard to find at first, but they’ve installed a Jumbotron screen above the building’s entrance to address this. So look for it — it’s worth it.
On the other hand, Julius Meinl, located in a 19th-century robin’s-egg blue building near Chistiye Prudy, has a different feel entirely. Far from trading on cool, long-haired early 1970s origins, this venerable chain traces its lineage all the way back to 1862 Vienna. The elegant red-and-brown color scheme and marbletopped tables lend a sophisticated yet intimate charm. Traditional Viennese fare (including fancy pastries) is on offer. Perhaps in keeping with its more traditional Habsburg feel, Meinl doesn’t open until 11:00 on weekends. The coffee is delish, but the to-go crowd is not their audience. You might feel uncomfortable whipping out your laptop when you visit this lovely Viennese cafe, but do plan to stay for a bit (at least an analytic hour). — Eds.