Familiar food has a mysterious ability to comfort people. Whether it’s immigrants searching new cities for old ingredients or grown adults coming back to Mum and Dad’s house for dinner, forgotten recipes can transport us to a simpler time and trigger memories with a force that dusty photographs cannot match. The people of St. Petersburg succumb to this power every evening, forming a monstrous queue that stretches from the counter to the door inside Pyshki (Пышки), near Nevskiy Prospekt. Dinnertime is approaching and locals have flocked here not just to fill their stomachs, but also to satisfy a much deeper hunger.
The sixty people waiting in line are here to eat pyshki, the traditional St. Petersburg doughnut. The café doesn’t sell anything else, using the same recipe since 1958. While other Russian cafés renovate and refurbish over time, Pyshki remains gloriously unaltered: the walls are still decorated with mint and white stripes while a 60s-era Pepsi fridge chugs away behind the counter. As the female staff serve an endless stream of patrons, everyone seems blissfully unaware that communism has long since fallen in the world outside these four walls.
Pyshki are lighter and crispier than your standard Western doughnut, fried and coated in powder sugar instead of cinnamon. All pyshki are created equal, with no choice of flavours, sprinkles or toppings for the masses. It’s customary to order four or five of them huddled together on the same plate with a coffee on the side, and better still to eat them quickly while they’re hot. Perhaps less popular now in Russia than they once were, pyshki are a food of the past, but a delicious introduction to Soviet pastimes for the tourists.
Once you’ve braved the line and got your food, the real fun begins: the few tables provided are almost always occupied, and there’s barely anywhere to stand. If you’re lucky enough to find a place, you can enjoy your food and take in the commotion going on around you. A morbidly obese ginger cat named Ryzhik can be seen waddling through the sea of legs and seeking refuge, disconcertingly, in the kitchen. A famous resident pet for the past decade, his body shape is an ominous warning for those tempted to make Pyshki their daily treat. Meanwhile, one of the ladies brings a bucket full of brown liquid from out the back and dumps it inside the coffee urn on the counter.
The coffee, it must be said, is practically undrinkable. It’s an essential part of the experience, though, and the patrons glug it down without complaint. “This coffee is with condensed milk, it was in every soviet canteen. It’s not the best but it feels good to know that I’m drinking the exact same coffee as my parents did,” said Svetlana, a regular patron.
Pyshki is now a St. Petersburg institution, with its fair share of tourists accompanying the locals in the queue, especially in summertime. Not only is it a fascinating relic of soviet culture, it’s also extremely cheap. A single pyshka is yours for only 12 roubles (€0.22), a coffee for 18 (€0.33). If that price seems absurdly low, compare it with the 5 kopecks (€0.001) that one elderly customer, Dmitri, remembers paying here in his younger years.
Dmitri came here every day in the 1960s, but now lives an hour away and can only come now and then. He says he was in the line at McDonald’s when it first opened in St. Petersburg in 1996, but after his curiosity subsided, he returned to Pyshki. “This is the only place where the food tastes exactly as it always did,” he said.
Many of the patrons in the line first came here as children and are now here with their own families. These new faces are 21st Century youngsters who associate food queues with popularity and anticipation, not shortages and misery. Either way, a line’s members must wait patiently, the moments before the first bite are full of expectation and the memories last for years. Now that the government has protected Pyshki as a historical landmark, it’s safe to assume this cycle of anticipation and nostalgia will continue for years to come.
Pyshki: Bolshoy Konyushennaya Ulitsa. 25, near Nevskiy Prospekt Metro.
Opening hours: 09:00-20:00