Forget the tourist traps on Nevsky Prospekt : discover the real Soviet dive bars of St Petersburg

(Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

Prospekt has spent the cold winter months intensively searching for the best traditional Russian watering holes, or ryumochnayas. Here is a guide to the most authentic spots in town

Unchanged, unpretentious, undecorated, and as far as one could imagine from the hipster coffeeshops on Nevsky Prospekt or the touristy bars of Dumskaya. Possibly the least likely places to visit, if you are not a local, a middle-aged man with a beer belly, or an alcoholic. Ryumochnayas are like the Russian take on Italian espresso culture: you come for a shot of vodka, which you take plainly standing at the bar and you leave. Here you will find the cheapest drinks in town, and the most interesting stories from locals and occasional visitors.

Ryumochnayas and buterbrod

(Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

Ryumochnayas owe their name to ryumka, the Russian word for a vodka shot glass. You can recognise them by their sterile interiors, occasionally decorated with a TV screening grainy images of old-fashioned shows, their lack of any places to sit, and typically one or two babushkas wearing skeptical looks, installed behind the counter where a desolate fridge exhibits traditional buterbrod (Russian open-faced sandwiches). Ryumochnayas appeared in St Petersburg during the 19th century as a more civilised alternative to drinking on the street and are meant to provide a quick fix of alcohol to workers and passers-by throughout the day. Due to numerous anti-drinking campaigns, especially during the Perestroika period, many of them were forced to close their doors, destined to be replaced by modern burger bars and trendy anti-cafes. Nowadays, traditional ryumochnayas in St Petersburg are hard to find, and most of them have changed considerably, even if retaining the name. The enduring characteristic of the traditional ryumochnayas is their opening times, generally from 8am to 8pm, offering early shots to labourers on their way to work, during their lunch break, or on their way home. An internet search for ryumochnayas results in about twenty entries, half of which have ceased to exist in the past couple of years. But do not despair, Prospekt has spent the cold winter months searching for the best ryumochnayas left in town, to guide you through an immersion in the most authentic dive bars of St Petersburg.

Mayak
Address: 20 Mayakovskogo Street, 191014

(Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

Mayak (lighthouse) is where our ryumochnaya quest began. Although considerably fancier and better looking than many of the other ryumochnayas in town, it is probably the best place to start to delving into ryumochnaya culture. Located in the centre of Mayakosgovo Street, Mayak tends to attract tormented intelligentsia and local artists. Lenin’s bust displayed proudly in the front window effectively deters the numerous tourists and students storming the street, who rarely dare to stop in. The inside exhibits a dubious collection of portraits ranging from Soviet leaders and communist bigwigs to more recent images of president Vladimir Putin and offers wide wooden tables which, on busy nights, you will most likely have to share with a bunch of chatty locals. The bartenders are notorious for their surliness and their dislike for silly questions. A request for any sort of suggestion can quickly get on their nerves because of the absurd implication that they might know your taste, so better look at the menu, cross your fingers, and stick to a random order.

Ryumchnaya na Vastanya
Address: 28 Zhukovskogo Street, St Petersburg, 191014

(Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

Ryumochnaya na Vastanya is a natural second step to ease into Soviet bar culture before diving into the deeply unglamorous options. The bar is hardly able to host more than ten people, making interaction with the locals almost inevitable and carrying on a private conversation nearly impossible. A distinctive feature that proves its authenticity over Mayak is the near total lack of tables, excepting a small wooden one with four chairs which seems to be permanently occupied by regulars. The atmosphere is rather familiar and beside the classic buterbrod with sausages and salami, here you can order a steaming plate of pelmeni for only 70 roubles (€ 1,10).

Pervaya Ryumochnaya
Address: 16 Komsomola Ulitsa, 16, St Petersburg, 195009

(Photo credit: Francesca Visser)

Pervaya Ryumochnaya (literally the first ryumochnaya) is located just a few steps from one of the main train stations of St Petersburg, Finlyandsky Railway Station, famous as the site where crowds cheered Lenin’s return from exile in Switzerland in 1917. Because of its strategic location, the ryumochnaya seems to be mostly trafficked by travellers attracted by the large sign visible from the station which is in itself a guarantee for cheap drinks. The interior is a celebration of the glorious old times, with black and white pictures of St Petersburg decorating the walls and a corner reserved for antiquities, like a Soviet camera and a typing machine, which the customers are gently urged to keep their hands off. What makes Pervaya Ryumochnaya a must-see is its vast range of vodka: the bar offers more than 20 different varieties, suited to every palate and most importantly every pocket.

Ryumochnaya at Stremyannaya
Address: 22 Stremyannaya Street, St Petersburg, 191025

(Photo credit: Francesca Visser)

The ryumochnaya in Stremyannaya Street is thought to be one of the oldest in town. Here there are no chairs to sit on and the drinkers lean on wall-mounted tables around the room to consume their vodka shots and engage in some quick chats. The wall proudly displays a copy of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the USSR, with an article written by Stalin. In spite of its impressive longevity, active for more than 30 years, the bar has not been immune to the recent economic downturn, which according to the bartender has pushed more people to drink at home in order to save some money. Despite the crisis, the bartender doesn’t hesitate to offer a warm drink to Oleg, a hitchhiker from Vladivostok who, as we learn later, has been living in the streets for the past couple of weeks after a two-month trip to reach St Petersburg in search of a job.

Na Finskom
Address: 7 Finsky Pereulok, St Petersburg, 195009

(Photo credit: Francesca Visser)

Visiting a ryumochnya seems to be only a small step away from becoming a proper alcoholic and some of them have blurred that thin line between social drinking and securing a desperately needed fix of booze. Ryumochnaya Na Finskom is one of those. Located just a five-minute walk from Finlyandsky Station, this bar is a mix between a liquor store and a ryumochnaya. Here a continuous queue of middle-aged men wait patiently for their shot of vodka which under the strong recommendation of the bartender/cashier, is to be washed down with a rather appetising buterbrod. The atmosphere is clearly less festive than the neighbouring Pervaya Ryumochnaya. Here the walls are adorned with pictures of questionable taste, featuring still lifes of vodka bottles and buterbrod. The customers hardly talk with one another, at least not before their third shot.

Zakusochnaya
Address: 9 Degtyarnaya Street, St Petersburg, 191024

(Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

Zakusochnaya (literally snack-bar) is one of the least likely places you are to bump into. Although not far from the city centre, it seems to be completely surrounded by “the nothing” and it is exclusively visited by locals. Here a solitary Christmas bauble is the only ornament in the bar, but this doesn’t seem to deter the customers. The cheap prices (50 roubles [€ 0,79] for 100 gr of vodka) surely attract lots of passing visitors who enter only for a quick fix. The “locals”, despite their loyalty to the bar, don’t seem to be equally loyal to the bartender whose brief visit to the kitchen promptly affords them a chance to swiftly top up their glasses with a labelless vodka bottle hidden in their coats.

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