Reminiscing in Cuba’s Retro-Soviet Cafe
Havana’s new Nazdarovie restaurant gives nod to nostalgia for the island’s Soviet ties during the Cold War.
Published: August 27, 2014 (Issue # 1826)
HAVANA — There’s no rice, beans or fried plantains at Havana’s newest private restaurant. You can order a minty mojito, but it’ll come mixed with vodka instead of the traditional white rum.
The waiters speak Russian and patrons are expected to order in that language if they want to get served. But don’t worry, the menus at this retro-Soviet restaurant come with translations and pronunciation guides for the non-initiated.
Nazdarovie, which is named for the popular Russian toast and opened Aug. 22, is all about Slavic fare like bowls of blood-red borscht and stuffed Ukrainian varenyky dumplings, hand-rolled in the back by “babushkas” who were born in the former Soviet Union but have long called Cuba home.
It’s a nod to nostalgia for the island’s Soviet ties during the Cold War, a time when Moscow was Havana’s main source of trade and aid and hundreds of thousands of Cubans traveled to the Soviet bloc as diplomats, artists and students.
“For most of them it was the first time they ever left this island. They have nostalgia about their time there, about the flavors they experienced for the first time,” said Gregory Biniowsky, a 45-year-old Canadian of Ukrainian descent who dreamed up Nazdarovie and launched it with three Cuban partners.
“The idea with Nazdarovie is really to celebrate a unique social and cultural link that existed and to a certain degree still exists today between Cuba of 2014 and what was once the Soviet Union,” said Biniowsky, a lawyer and consultant who has lived in Havana for two decades.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc largely ended the Havana-Moscow connection and sent Cuba into an economic tailspin. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has talked recently of renewing the relationship. He made a state visit last month, Russian navy ships periodically dock in Havana’s harbor and Cuba has backed Russia in its dispute over Ukraine.
Occupying the third story of a historic building on the seafront Malecon boulevard, Nazdarovie is an homage to the old country.
Behind the bar, Russian nesting dolls and a bust of Lenin perch next to bottles of high-end vodka. Reproductions of Soviet propaganda posters line one wall in an attempt to spark conversation among customers sitting at a long communal table. About the only sign of the tropics is the million-dollar terrace view of Havana’s skyline and the Straits of Florida.
At a pre-launch dress rehearsal, smartly dressed young waiters set steaming bowls of solyanka, a meaty Russian soup, before about 20 invited guests.
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