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Cool Jazz and Art on the Menu at Moscow Cafe

February 21, 1988|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — If it's Tuesday, it's poets' evening at a new 24-hour cafe that its owners hope will attract Moscow's night owls and eggheads with modern art, cool jazz and a cozy atmosphere.

Half a dozen intellectuals, among them a mathematician, a physicist and a professor of literature, are the prime movers in a cooperative that opened the restaurant on New Year's Eve.

It is called the "44 Cafe," after its street number on the Leningradsky Shosse, and it has special nights set aside for writers, photographers, film makers, jazz musicians and guitar-strumming poets.

Customers may recite a poem or offer a song, and every month the cafe's patrons decide on the winners of cash prizes for the most popular performances.

"This is not only a business--we want to promote culture, too," said Mark Portnoy, director of the cooperative.

The 44 Cafe is just one dramatic example of the variety of alternative eating places that have sprung up in Moscow since Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev encouraged a trend away from state-run dining rooms, not only in Moscow but throughout the country.

Long Lines, Haughty Waiters

Most government cafes usually have a long line outside. Their waiters have a reputation for haughtiness and poor service that discourages some patrons.

Even in the restaurants that cater to the Soviet elite, the food is usually mediocre, the ever-present band usually ear-splitting, and the bill usually more than most Soviets, with their average 200-ruble-a-month wage ($350), can afford.

The cooperatives, which tend to buy their food at more expensive private markets, are not inexpensive. But as a rule they offer a more pleasant atmosphere and friendly service.

At lunchtime in the 44 Cafe recently, a guitarist and a bass player improvised on "Sunny Side of the Street," creating a mellow mood but not interfering with the customers' conversation.

Ada Kotliar, the administrator, said that at this point she cannot offer alcoholic beverages, although she has applied for a license. But the cafe's menu that day did offer a winter rarity in Moscow--a green salad that might be even more attractive than beer or wine to some vitamin-starved Muscovites.

One of the satisfied customers was Natalia Ivanova, 36, a music teacher who had heard about the 44 Cafe from a friend living nearby.

"My impressions are very good," she said. "As far as I know, this is the only place in the city which is open all night."

Dmitri Ushkov, a 16-year-old student, was more equivocal.

"We were just walking by and dropped in," he said. "It's a little expensive, but nice. I wouldn't eat here every day."

On a recent evening, Yelena Matveeva, 28, was one of the few customers in the 44 Cafe in the wee hours after midnight. Even so, she was not disappointed.

"This is probably the most elegant cafe in Moscow," she said. "I particularly like the selection of art because it adds so much bright color to the atmosphere."

Abstract paintings, splashed with reds and yellows and blues, were on display at the cafe on loan from artists who are friends of members of the cooperative.

Cooperative cafes, with their bright signs, colorful interiors and eagerness to please, have popped up all over the city. There are already more than 75 of them. One, the Myikhua, is run by a Chinese family of seven that moved to the Soviet Union 15 years ago. It offers such exotic dishes as trepangi-- in English, sea slugs--a standard delicacy at Beijing banquets.

'Neither Fish Nor Meat'

"It's neither fish nor meat," a waiter explained to a group of Western diners before producing a dish of chunky, somewhat gelatinous slices bathed in a spicy sauce.

At eight rubles a serving, about $13.60 at the official exchange rate, trepangi is the most expensive dish on the menu, which also includes chicken fritters, meatballs and the traditional noodles.

The manager, Igor Chan, said that many of his customers have come in because they want to try the only alternative in town to the state-run Peking restaurant.

Another of the new cooperatives, called Meeting, offers hearty Georgian food, including a peppery soup, at prices that compare favorably with the state-run dining rooms'.

Another, two blocks from the Kremlin, serves Uzbek food in elaborately furnished rooms that recall Central Asia. Strolling violinists entertain the diners, who can see the Kremlin's towers from the restaurant's picture windows. The bill can be sobering. For dinner, a party of four can expect to pay as much as 80 rubles (about $136), and this puts the place beyond the reach of most Muscovites.

Across the street, a Crimean Tatar cafeteria is open--during the day, at least--for anyone seeking a change from the less-adventurous Russian cuisine.

Moscow's first cooperative restaurant, which opened last year with much fanfare in what had been a private residence on Kropotkinskaya Street, no longer has a line outside. It has expanded its capacity and, besides, it has competition.

The managers of some cooperatives say privately that they are getting pressure from the authorities, who are uneasy about high profits. Newspapers have printed letters attacking "money-grabbing" as anathema to socialism, despite Gorbachev's urging that Russians perform better and earn more.

Pioneers in the cooperative movement are well aware that they could become the victims of a conservative backlash, that they could be forced to close their doors.

In the meantime, cynics who once joked that the "Moscow Gourmet Guide" was one of the world's thinnest books may have to eat their words. Under the influence of Gorbachev, new pages are being added at an unprecedented rate.

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