Dine Like A Soviet Spy: Old KGB Haunt Opens Its Doors Again

Jul 6, 2016
Originally published on July 6, 2016 8:31 am

If you were a Soviet spy, chances are you knew your way around the menu at the restaurant Aragvi, in Moscow. That's where Stalin's security chief held court, and where KGB spooks met for power lunches. Movie stars ate there, too, as did cosmonauts. It was the place to be seen for Moscow's elite.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Aragvi shut down. It stayed shuttered for many years. But it's just reopened.

Aragvi sits on the edge of a tiny park, in the pedestrianized zone of a ritzy neighborhood. Across the street is the mayor's office. As I walk up to the restaurant, men in exquisitely tailored suits weave past me on the pavement, as do women, staggering in the 5-inch heels favored by (literally) well-heeled Moscow women.

Inside, the restaurant is a maze of cream and frescoes, polished mirrors and hushed elegance.

The place holds lots of memories, says Yury Kobaladze, who spent three decades spying for the KGB. "Aragvi was very famous," he says. "Rumors said that it was built and designed by Beria himself." Lavrentiy Beria was Stalin's secret police chief. Beria and Stalin's son, Vasily, were known to drop by Aragvi for the Georgian wine.

And it wasn't just Russian spies who came here. Aragvi was a favorite of the most famous double agent in the history of MI6, says Kobaladze, whose KGB career included a tour in London. "[Kim] Philby used to go there," Kobaladze says. Philby defected from Britain to the Soviet Union in 1963, after years of selling secrets to Moscow. "He liked Georgian food. That's what he told me. He loved Aragvi."

When it first opened in 1938, Aragvi was the only restaurant in Moscow serving food from the Republic of Georgia.

Today, that's still what people want, according to the head chef, a friendly, balding man named Alexi. He says the most popular dish on the new menu is chicken tabaka, a Georgian classic that involves pan-frying the bird, flattened out and pressed down by a weight.

He's happy to demonstrate how he cooks it, but when asked for the recipe, Alexi responds with laughter, and a resounding "Nyet."

"Is it a secret?" I ask.

"Maybe," he says in English, still laughing.

Devotees of the old Aragvi cuisine will recognize another favorite: the fat Georgian dumplings known as khinkali. Stuffed with either spiced lamb or beef and pork, they are meant to be devoured with your fingers. Slurping the broth inside is fine; using a knife and fork is a definite faux pas.

Despite the excellent khinkali, and Alexi's clandestine chicken, Aragvi was quiet the day we visited — only one table booked for lunch. In its heyday, there wasn't much competition. Today, the restaurant scene in Moscow rivals that in Paris or New York. There's no dearth of options for good Georgian food.

And Aragvi faces another challenge — how to recapture the cloak-and-dagger glamour of its past, says Kobaladze.

Was the place bugged in the old days? I ask him.

"Hopefully!" He chuckles. "Everything was bugged, you know? But everybody knew that if you were in Aragvi: don't talk, keep quiet. The rumor was that all [the] tables had microphones."

As Kobaladze stands to leave, he mentions that he is glad we met this day, because he isn't free the following night. He has a party to go to — at Aragvi.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. Now we have a restaurant recommendation - if you happen to be visiting Moscow and if you like going to a place famous as a Soviet spy hangout. The restaurant is called Aragvi. It is where Stalin's security chief held court and where KGB spooks worked their sources. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the restaurant shut down, stayed shuttered for many years. Today, it has just reopened. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly paid a visit.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Here we go. We've just turned the corner, and I'm spotting the awning of Aragvi, the restaurant where the KGB was known to power lunch. It's actually just across the street from the mayor's office, the mayor of Moscow. Maybe he power lunches there as well. We're about to find out.

Inside, it's all cream and frescoes, polished mirrors and hushed elegance and memories, lots of memories, says Yury Kobaladze, who spent three decades spying for the KGB.

YURY KOBALADZE: Aragvi was very famous because, you know, it was rumors said that it was built (laughter) - designed by Beria himself.

KELLY: Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin's secret police chief - he and Stalin's son, Vasily, were known to drop by Aragvi for the Georgian wine. Movie stars came here, too - and cosmonauts, all the Moscow elite. And as for spies, it wasn't just Russians. Kobaladze, whose KGB career included a tour in London, says Aragvi was a favorite of the most famous double agent in the history of MI6.

KOBALADZE: Philby, he used to go there. And he liked Georgian food. That's what he told me, you know. I don't know. He loved Aragvi.

KELLY: When it first opened in 1938, Aragvi was the only restaurant in Moscow serving food from the Republic of Georgia. Today, that is still what people want, says Alexei the head chef.

ALEXEI ZENIN: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: He's describing the most popular dish on the new menu, the chicken tabaka.

Got a big cast iron pot coming out. All right.

ZENIN: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: Alexei graciously shows me how you pan fry the chicken, flattened out and pressed down by a weight. But he will not tell me what spices make it taste so good.

ZENIN: (Laughter) Nyet. (Laughter).

KELLY: it's a secret?

ZENIN: (Speaking Russian). Maybe (laughter).

KELLY: I think that's a yes.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Despite the excellent clandestine chicken, Aragvi was quiet the day we visited, only one table booked for lunch. In its heyday, there wasn't much competition. Today, the restaurant scene in Moscow rivals that of Paris or New York. And Yury Kobaladze, the ex-KGB officer, says Aragvi faces another challenge, how to recapture the cloak-and-dagger glamour of its past. I asked Kobaladze - in the old days, was it bugged?

KOBALADZE: Hopefully (laughter). Everything was bugged, you know. But everybody knew anyway that if you are in Aragvi don't talk, you know. Just keep quiet. The rumor was that everything - you know, all tables had microphones.

KELLY: As Kobaladze and I wrapped up and he stood to leave, he mentioned he was glad we'd talked when we did because he wasn't free the following night. He was headed to a party at - where else? - Aragvi. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.