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High spirits: what’s fuelling St Petersburg’s bar renaissance?

High spirits: what's fuelling St Petersburg's bar renaissance?

A new generation of St Petersburg bars is shunning elitism in favour of an open-door policy. Well, kind of

6 February 2013
Image Igor Simkin

Roman Burtsev is a man who knows nightlife. He made his name — and a lot of friends — with Solyanka, a restaurant, bar and nightclub he launched in Moscow in 2007 that found fame as a hipster mecca. In 2010 Burtsev relocated to St Petersburg to make his mark on his city of birth. His diagnosis of the local scene was grim. “There is a marked division in the city,” he says. “There’s a certain percentage of pretentious, glitzy kitsch or there’s these completely underground places.”

If you don’t have the stomach for smoky back-alley boozers like Blue Pushkin, or the wallet for swanky good-taste-vacuums like Buddha Bar or Blesk (literally, Gloss), a night on the sofa looks like the best option. But, Burtsev insists, there are reasons to be cheerful. “This division is starting to crumble,” he says. “There’s a certain landscape now and I hope that more and more ordinary people are going to open up places where people can enjoy spending time.”

Leading the way is Burtsev himself. Despite a passing resemblance in beard and build to Gladiator-era Russell Crowe, he is the epitome of hipster-lite elegance: ankle boots, beige chinos and a checked Barbour shirt. We meet at his most recent project Dom Byta, a sleek cafe-cum-bar-cum-restaurant-cum-club housed in a former laundry-cum-cobbler-cum-watchmender in central St Petersburg.

“When we opened Solyanka six or seven years ago we were really influenced by places in London, in Shoreditch”

After returning to his hometown, says Burtsev, it wasn’t long before he felt the need to create a bar where he himself would like to hang out. He didn’t have to go far. “I live just over there, through that archway,” he gestures. “One day I walked out and realised that this place here would be ideal.” Tucked away on the elegant streets of Vladimirskaya, Dostoevsky’s old neighbourhood and at a safe distance from the tack and tourism of Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main drag, Dom Byta seeks to occupy the middle ground between the diamonds-and-chinchilla set and the spit-and-samovars vibe of the city’s dive bars.

Burtsev stripped out the space and filled it with vintage furniture, an imposing tiled bar and custom light-fittings. The emphasis is on good music (their website refers to the venue as Dom Beata), unshowy design touches and a relaxed atmosphere (the staff have a bespoke uniform, but no one seems to bother wearing it). The aim is to attract a varied crowd, united only by attitude and taste. But can Burtsev really steer Dom Byta through the Scylla and Charybdis of unwarranted aggression and snobbish pretension typical in Russia?

The polarisation of Russian nightlife is undoubtedly tied to the polarisation of wealth in Russian society. Is the arrival of places like Dom Byta — that shun the glitzy veneer that has been the hallmark aesthetic of Russian affluence since the Nineties — evidence of the emergence of a new middle class? Burtsev certainly thinks so. “A new generation has arrived that can travel, that can do projects, and the people remaining from the old generation are also willing to give things a go. They’ve made it possible to create this sort of good community.” For Burtsev, this change is starting to have a real impact on city life. “This young generation has already created its own space online,” he says. “They work in jobs like design, in a space beyond the reach of the government. And now we’re seeing people moving gradually, very gradually, to doing projects in real, concrete spaces.”

The transformation of Russia’s entertainment scene is dependent on two factors: time and travel. During the Soviet period, isolation, centralisation and a certain puritanism pushed Russian food culture to the brink of extinction: as a result foreign imports, like the ubiquitous sushi, have dominated the restaurant scene for the past two decades. But open borders have also allowed young Russian chefs, barmen and entrepreneurs to pick up best practice in Europe and America. Frequent trips to Paris, Madrid and Rome have also educated their potential audience. Along with new infrastructure such as better farms, catering schools and supply networks, which all take time to bear fruit, it’s this cosmopolitanism that has laid the foundation for the current renaissance in Russian food and drink.

An avowed Anglophile — Dom Byta has English beer on tap — Burtsev, who is just shy of 40, exemplifies the impact of Russia’s new-found wanderlust. “When we opened Solyanka six or seven years ago we were really influenced by places in London, in Shoreditch,” he says. “We would look at the people, at little details, at the general atmosphere.” His establishments meet the needs of a more educated audience: “The more people travel the more they get used to things: in London or elsewhere in Europe you can just pop in somewhere nice and get a bite to eat, or sit down and work with your laptop and feel relaxed about it.”

Not everyone is a fan. Burtsev’s detractors have accused him of creating an exotic enclave of western hipsterism, with all things Russian ending at the front door. It’s an age-old criticism, and Burtsev is untroubled by it. “It’s a question of mentality,” he says. “I take it as a compliment — what have we got to be ashamed of? It’s a typical story of people going to different countries and finding something they like.” Nonetheless, the naysayers have a point: when the chalkboard in a Russian bar has the drinks menu written only in English, and when the sofas have been shipped from Shoreditch, homage starts to become pastiche.

In fact, the criticism is a little outdated. In Moscow and St Petersburg, a certain kind of revisionist Russianness is all the rage. Among the capital’s twentysomethings, the hottest bar in town is Kamchatka, a carefully curated theme park celebrating the forgotten pleasures of Soviet consumer culture, complete with mayonnaise-rich salads and old pop songs. Up the road from Dom Byta in St Petersburg is Kompot, another small cafe-bar. While less modish than its rival, it too aims to attract the same in-between market: when I go there, the muted TV screen (which remains a blight of nearly all Russian bars – Dom Byta is an exception) is playing the nonpareil of cheesy Soviet comedies, The Irony of Fate. Following the same trend is restaurant chain Mari Vanna, which trades on its upmarket Russian home cooking and artful Soviet eclecticism.

Dom Byta expresses its Russianness in a more oblique, and frankly more delicious, way — their own-brand shots. The biggest hits are the Beryozka, a refreshing blend of vodka and birch sap, and the Forest [sic] Gump, which, despite its name, owes more to Arkhangelsk than Alabama, combining vodka with sorrel, honey, and raspberry. The hearty, woodland connotations of these ingredients point to a particular St Petersburg variation on the return to Russianness, which emphasises the Baltic city’s aspirations to a Scandinavian identity. Places like Kopen take these Nordic notes to an extreme, recreating the cosy feel of a Copenhagen cafe with genuine Danish artefacts and styling. Others, like The Clean Plates Society, hint at it with simple, minimalist furniture and plenty of pine. They even have waitresses with dragon tattoos. More than Williamsburg and Shoreditch, its Södermalm and Vesterbro that are inspiring St Petersburg’s turn to a more laidback Saturday night.

Burtsev relishes the variety, both of foreign influences and of different establishments opening up. “Competition is good. Considering the difficult weather in St Petersburg, we’re not fighting against each other, but against the TV.” It’s a battle they seem to be winning — Dom Byta’s queues are known to stretch round the block — but does the make-up of the crowd match the easygoing eclecticism of Burtsev’s philosophy? He insists it does. “There are regulars, but there’s no ideal audience. It’s very varied,” he says. “In all my places I like to keep a mixture: in Solyanka, for instance, you’ll get brutal football fans alongside models, even Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova. But the core is interesting people of all different types.”

He’s right, up to a point. Although Solyanka on a Saturday night is home to more than its fair share of beards, bobble hats and semi-professional photographers, it somehow still maintains an aura of “come one, come all” hospitality, and certainly hosts more sociological and anthropological variety than Moscow’s more gilt-edged venues. However, this sense of inclusiveness is maintained by a strict policy of exclusion.

The Russian language contains many English expressions that are alien to the native speaker — the most dreaded of these is “face control”, the policy of turning away prospective punters with no stated reason, but most likely something pertaining to the arrangement of your cheekbones or the price of your jacket. Burtsev insists it is a necessity. “I realise that elsewhere in the world clubbing has different possibilities. But you have to have face control in Russia, to avoid aggression. There is still a section of the population who have this culture of aggression,” he explains. Burtsev is, to be sure, no different from his colleagues all around the world, but the open, relaxed and bullshit-free atmosphere projected by Dom Byta and its ilk remains predicated on what you might call the Dick Cheney approach to nightclub management: aggressive defence of your borders is necessary to ensure the liberty of your population. The democratic feel of Dom Byta is not a lie, but it does come at a price.

But then again, maybe, like Dom Byta’s draught beers, I’m just bitter. Come Saturday night, when a friend and I, perhaps not in the most fashionable attire, attempted to gain entry to Dom Byta, Captain Crewcut at passport control curtly sent us on our way. But, as Burtsev says, going to the same place every night is boring; plus, there’s always another bar round the corner.

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