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.