Moscow's fancy bars and restaurants battle rising import prices and exodus of wealthy clientele

Moscow's fancy bars and restaurants battle rising import prices and exodus of wealthy clientele
/ bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews April 5, 2023

Before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s affluent Patriarch Ponds district was regularly packed with the capital’s movers and shakers. One year on, with the exodus of the country’s rich and famous, its lavish bars and restaurants are stuck treading water and gasping for air. 

Affectionately known as ‘Patriki,’ Patriarch Ponds is the centre of Moscow’s high society, and the spot where the intelligentsia mingles with oligarchs, celebrities and affluent ex-pats. This area is known countrywide for its exorbitant prices and its literary heritage, primarily as the former neighbourhood of acclaimed writer Mikhail Bulgakov.

Before the war, its pricey bars and restaurants were invariably teeming with patrons more than happy to loosen their purse strings and pay through the nose for a high-class experience. Since then, the steady weekday hum of foot traffic has dwindled significantly, and Patriarch Ponds’ establishments are almost entirely reliant on the ever-bustling Friday and Saturday nights.

While the majority of bars, restaurants and nightclubs have managed to stay open, the war means that many of the district’s most loyal patrons have fled the country, cutting off a vital source of income. Growing costs for imports have also put the squeeze on proprietors, forcing them to increase prices even further, excluding many of the relatively affluent but price-sensitive Russians.

“I used to come here every weekend, but the vibe has worsened in the last year,” Daria Nazarova, a Muscovite nursing an Aperol Spritz in the popular Kianu bar, lamented to BNE

“It’s not because I can’t afford it. I’m lucky, I can, but most people don’t want to go out as regularly as before. Many of my friends are cutting back on expenses, and lots of them now live abroad – mainly in Dubai.”

Daria isn’t the only one with an overwhelming feeling that something has changed. Nestled among the other patrons of the Kianu bar sat a cadre of IT professionals who had fled the country in September 2022, escaping Putin’s order to mobilise hundreds of thousands of men to fight in Ukraine. A few short weeks later, they opted to return to Moscow.

“I’m against the war, but I love Russia, and especially Moscow,” one of the men, aged 24, said. “However, I can’t deny that my life in Moscow has gotten significantly worse in the last year.”

A brief walk down Malaya Bronnaya, the main street in Patriarch Ponds, tells the tale of the district's fortunes. Come Friday or Saturday night, the streets pulsate with the energy of well-dressed couples and groups of 20-somethings, all eager to partake in the district's famous food, drink and party scene. On a Wednesday night, however, even the most popular places are suffering. 

At one bar – where the evening shift manager asked to remain unnamed – there have been cuts in staffing, and even fears of closure.

“To put it bluntly, the war really fucked us,” she said. “We managed to weather the COVID-19 storm by pivoting to takeout orders and opening our summer veranda. The invasion came just as we were close to a full recovery.”

Even before the war, the soaring prices in Patriarch Ponds' swanky restaurants had already placed them firmly out of reach for the average Muscovite. But, with the sudden and brutal hike in the cost of importing foreign food and food, establishments have been forced to turn to Russian sources, whose logistics are not as robust or efficient as international food conglomerates. 

Expenses have further been fuelled by the district’s sky-high rents, which show no sign of falling. On Avito, a popular website for buying and renting real estate, one small lot on Malaya Bronnaya street is on offer for RUB1.5mn ($20,000) per month.

In addition to high rents and growing prices, business owners have been grappling with a host of other mounting expenses, including importing high-quality kitchen equipment and sourcing spare parts to fix appliances made by companies that have now fled the Russian market.

“Despite the downturn, things have improved significantly when compared to the initial drop in business in March and April 2022,” the shift manager continued. “Furthermore, after a year of sanctions, we have managed to find alternative, local sources for a lot of our food.”

Despite the hardships, Patriarch Ponds still has very few empty buildings. Restaurants and bars that go bust are quickly replaced with newer, trendier spots. Those include ‘Alice,’ a restaurant that was included in the MICHELIN Guide in 2022 – the first to include Russian establishments. In its place sits ‘Amy,’ a spot that has rapidly become known for celebrity spotting.

Other openings include a new location of Coffeemania, a wildly popular yet ludicrously overpriced coffee shop chain that has become a staple of the city’s wealthy.

And, despite the downbeat perspective of almost everyone working in the area’s hospitality industry, there is also a glimmer of hope that the tide may soon turn with the changing of the seasons and as the winter comes to an end.