Turgenev and Gilyarovsky’s favourite place: Menu of the legendary Hermitage Restaurant

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Turgenev and Gilyarovsky’s favourite place: Menu of the legendary Hermitage Restaurant
In this article, we expand on the Parisian chic-style restaurant in central Moscow that used to be modestly referred to as a tavern, plus we reveal the secrets about its founder, who gave Russian cuisine the Olivier salad.

Open in the middle of the 19th century, the Hermitage Restaurant attracted gourmets from the first to its very last day. Every evening, groups of those into tasty and trendy cuisine would descend in crowds upon the luxurious three-storey building on the corner of Petrovsky Boulevard and Neglinny Proyezd (now Neglinnaya Street). At that time, hardly a day went by when the founder of the restaurant the legendary chef Lucien Olivier would not present yet another selection of delicious masterpieces that he had conjured up for his faithful clientele. The same Olivier who invented the Olivier salad, which almost instantly became associated with Moscow and, subsequently, Russia in its entirety, was years later transformed from a haute cuisine delicacy into an irreplaceable part of an everyday menu to say nothing of how important it has always been for the festive table.

The Museum of Moscow’s archives have a Hermitage Restaurant menu dating back to 16 November, 1913. How about a little look at it? On that day, restaurant clients were offered fresh caviar, consommé, fried langoustines, poulet a la broche (chicken spit roasted over charcoal), marinated artichokes, champagne and flambe cherries Jubilee. According to various rumours there were female and male menus but it seems this didn’t have to do with the ingredients of the food being served so much as how it was presented.

In the middle of the 19th century, most people in Moscow had heard of Frenchman Lucien Olivier and had even sampled the masterpieces created by this skillful chef. Young merchant Yakov Pegov became the co-founder of the Hermitage Restaurant. Legend has it, the place came into being as a result of the two sharing an addiction to snuff: Olivier and Pegov met each other for the first time outside a tobacco shop on Trubnaya Square, and had a chat.

The Hermitage Restaurant menu for ladies and gentlemen, in French. 16 November 1913. From Museum of Moscow’s collection.

In the early 1860s, this building, which dates back to 1816, was reconstructed. This was something both Olivier and Pegov wanted done. The two commissioned the famous Moscow architect Dmitry Chichagov to do the job and so the Hermitage Restaurant project was handed over to him. The building became a local landmark as soon as the scaffolding came down and the three-storey building was often photographed for series of postcards which depicted some Moscow’s best views.

Inside the building, there was a lot to see and photograph as well. Vladimir Gilyarovsky, who witnessed these events, once wrote that the Hermitage Restaurant building impressed its visitors with “its white columns in the halls, private offices, mirrors, chandeliers and luxurious interior decorations and furnishing worthy of a palace”.

Despite being modestly referred to as a tavern, this place was, in fact, a Parisian-style restaurant. The only difference was that the waiters, according to the Moscow traditions, were called servers, and wore white shirts made from fine Holland cloth and silk belts rather than tuxedos.

“The main attraction of the Hermitage Restaurant’s cuisine was the incredibly exquisite salad invented by the owner – the Olivier salad, the recipe of which was kept secret,” Gilyarovsky wrote. “Many chefs tried copying it, but none came close.” The first recipes of this “French salad” in print date back to the late 19th century. Initially, it recommended using grouse, but then different recipes started emerging; they listed veal, chicken, partridge and even caviar as possible ingredients.

Very soon, the restaurant achieved a cult status in pre-revolutionary Moscow. It remained popular even after Olivier’s death, when the place was acquired by the Hermitage merchant association. At the restaurant, one could meet merchants, traders, industrialists and artists, while at the entrance, one could spot the carriages of the Russian royalty, guests of the Russian emperor and Moscow’s governor-general. This place was popular among many cultural figures, too including Ivan Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoyevsky who celebrated their birthdays there. On 25 January, Moscow students, teachers and professors would celebrate Tatiana Day at the restaurant.

After the October Revolution of 1917, the restaurant was closed down. Soon, the building housed the American Relief Administration’s famine relief mission. In 1923, the building became the House of Peasants, which had a dormitory and Trud cinema with 450 seats. After World War II, the building was handed over to the Vysshaya Shkola publishing house, while in 1989, it was given to the School of Modern Drama Theatre.

The Museum of Moscow has a large collection of various exhibits showcasing Moscow’s gastronomic life – from an ancient pot with porridge leftovers discovered in the course of excavations to prints and photos depicting the abundance of food on refreshment stands, 1970s menus and special ration cards dating back to 1920-1940s.