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The New Face of Moscow

After an hour in the park one Saturday morning, my feet are frozen solid. My friend Anna Ivanov, a documentary producer, makes me take off my boots and put an extra set of gloves over my socks. Then we head back to town, unable to decide if we want lobster bisque at Café Alexandria or a fast, good, cheap meal at Yolki-Palki. Until recently there were plenty of fast-food chains, but they were mostly American: Pizza Hut, McDonald's. (I had my first Big Mac in Pushkin Square in 1990. I know this is hard to believe, but until Moscow brought me down to earth, I was a bit of a food snob.) Yolki-Palki is a Russian chain that serves Russian food—a real sign of the times. The restaurants resemble ersatz country inns, with fake sunflowers in pots. They're clean, the workers are friendly, and you can have a big lunch for 10 bucks. (A friend tells me the hot lunch is mediocre, so it's best to stick to the salad bar.)

"That's what makes the new Moscow really different," Ivanov says. "Now ordinary people can afford to eat out. Unlike the old new Moscow—in the early and mid nineties—it's not just for the rich anymore."

Still, no matter how many modern restaurants, no matter how many discos, the nostalgia for the past is everywhere. "It's thick on the ground here," Ivanov says as we stroll into Moscow's Latin Quarter. Along the twisting streets are the former houses of two of Russia's most famous writers, Gorky and Chekhov. At its heart is Patriarch's Ponds; in the satirical novel The Master and Margarita, it's where Satan makes his first appearance. (The author, Mikhail Bulgakov, lived at 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya Street from 1921 to 1924.)

Evening falls. We head to Chistiye Ponds and chase after a little tram that runs around the water. Inside is a small bar with a few tables, where we sit and drink vodka and watch kids skate on the pond under a string of lights. It could be a scene from the 19th century.

The new Moscow loves looking back over its shoulder at pre-Revolution Russia. Like Café Pushkin, the restaurant Oblomov plays off this mood. Oblomov is one of Russia's most celebrated novels, written in 1859 by Ivan Goncharov. The protagonist is Ilya Oblomov, a Russian nobleman who has come upon hard times but is still loving, kind, humble, honest, and humane. A romantic, he loathes the new generation of go-getters (this is the 1860's) taking over the country. Though his heart is in the right place, he can't get anything done. He spends hours lying on his couch in a bathrobe thinking about what the world has come to. He is destined to fail.

Oblomov, the restaurant, is a theme park devoted to the literary figure. It sits in a row of restaurants opposite Moscow's World Trade Center and is owned by Anton Tabakov, a Moscow entrepreneur, who also runs Mao, an Asian restaurant downstairs, and Antonio, an Italian restaurant on the same block. (Think Epcot on the Moskva.) At Oblomov, you sit on sofas and armchairs, like Oblomov himself, around communal tables. You're served the dish of the day—from pelmeni (dumplings) to pork neck.

You may giggle, but when you eat at Oblomov, you catch the spirit. Suddenly you forget the traffic outside, the businessmen streaming into the karaoke joint down the street, and you're at a table with Oblomov himself. You're in the new Moscow, surrounded by the comforts of the new capitalist world, but you feel yourself in the Old Russia, a long-gone fantasy world of philosophers and poets.

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