By  on November 19, 2007

Restaurateur Arkady Novikov cooks up a new way of dining in Moscow.

The biggest hurdle facing budding restaurateur Arkady Novikov back in 1992 was convincing Russians to eat out. He opened his first restaurant, Sirena, in Moscow across the street from the then-drab Hotel Volga in that year, at a time when a five-star meal in the Soviet Union consisted mainly of fried potatoes, a slab of meat and a shot of vodka—at home.

So having nowhere else to sup, hotel guests tended to come over to Sirena to enjoy first-rate seafood in a city hardly renowned for fine dining. “They didn’t have a lot of choices,” he says, laughing. And Sirena soon became the talk of the town.

Two years later, Novikov opened Club T (later renamed China Club), and two years after that, Tsar’s Hunt.

Today, there are roughly 40 Novikov cafes, restaurants, bars and brasseries in Moscow, including top-tier eateries such as Aist, Galleria, Ju Ju, Next Door, Vogue Café and GQ Bar. (Novikov, who has the exclusive rights to the Condé Nast name brand in Moscow, says more magazine-themed restaurants “may be” en route.)

Everyone eats at one of Novikov’s joints. Bold-faced names are no surprise in his restaurants nowadays. Vladimir Putin favors Tsar’s Hunt, which is down the road from his compound west of the city. Boris Yeltsin was also a fan. GQ Bar, Market, Aist and China Club have all hosted government ministers, movie stars and oligarchs. Vogue Café is a magnet for models, including Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss.

It would not be quite accurate to say Novikov, 45, transformed Moscow’s restaurant scene. “Actually,” he boasts, “I created it.”

He did this, he says, by bringing a new level of service to the city. “We’re very meticulous about everything we do. We try to train the staff as well to be very aware of everything,” he says. In a country where customer service hovers between poor and abominable, the Novikov style has come to mean unparalleled attention to detail.

Novikov is sitting in Vesna, one of his haunts, which is situated on the neon-lit boulevard known as the Novy Arbat. The street once symbolized post-Soviet tacky: casinos, strip clubs, communist-era apartment blocks, leather-bound thugs, oligarchs, bulletproof Mercedes—all the trappings of the Yeltsin-era Wild East—but has now morphed into something more serious. Here, as everywhere in the city, there is a new confidence born of booming oil prices and a long-simmering hope that Russia is on the cusp of reclaiming its former greatness.

Vesna is part of the new cool with its black leather chairs, hardwood floors and street-side patio with sprawling, ecru umbrellas and space heaters and strategically situated potted plants. It is expensive, sleek, contemporary—and Novikov’s favorite word—international. Novikov says this word many times: international. His restaurants, his style, transcend national borders. He has created a new species of comfort, design and class that customers might just as well find in New York, London or São Paulo, Brazil.

Of course, people pay for feeling like they’re in New York when they’re really in the middle of Moscow. Vesna’s salad with crabmeat and rucola runs just south of $35; a glass of 2005 Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis, $22. Like most of his restaurants, it is not warm or homey. The point is not to unwind, the point is to get a good table, one of those two-seaters with the little “reserved” placard next to the hand-carved ashtray, and spend money. Novikov’s dining experience is more about making an economic statement—separating the haves from the have-nots. This is the Novikov feeling: Everyone else wishes they were you right now.

“It’s a question of understanding what’s happening, what’s going on,” Novikov says, as he tries to explain his remarkable trajectory. “It’s like a puzzle.”

Equally puzzling is Novikov’s rise. Like so many Russians at the top of the food chain, he is vague about his path to riches.

From 1989 to 1991, Novikov was a chef at the Victoria restaurant in Gorky Park. Then, in December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. A few months later, he says, a friend, a patron from Victoria named “Sergei,” gave him $50,000; Novikov threw in $10,000 of his own money—it’s unclear how a 30-year-old Soviet chef stumbled on $10,000—and after scraping up another $10,000, he opened Sirena. He didn’t have enough money for a vacuum cleaner or silverware, but he served great fish.

That was only the beginning. While delighting diners, Novikov’s success also attracted the attention of the mafia. He recalls one incident at Sirena: Two thugs walked in—one short; the other, not so short. The short one placed a gun on the table and told him he’d have to start forking over 1 percent of his revenue and hire one of their people as the restaurant’s manager. Novikov balked and suddenly found himself being strangled by the beefy, tall one. Eventually, they let him go, and gave him a little more time to think things over.

He immediately called friends at the KGB. “I have people there who helped me,” he says, “and actually, there was a fight between these KGB guys and these mafia guys.” Happily for Novikov, his KGB friends had bigger guns than the mafiosi did—not always the case in the Soviet Union—and his problem with the mafia soon disappeared.

It’s a typical post-Soviet “biznez” story. Moscow now teems with oligarchs, “minigarchs” and small-time business owners who fought, paid, bribed, extorted and, in many cases, killed to survive the Nineties. What Novikov did to stay afloat—he’s quick to say business back then was “tougher” than it is now—is unclear.

What is clear is that Novikov’s business model hasn’t changed much in the past 15 years. “Our goal,” Novikov says simply, “is to put more soul into this business.”

And he couldn’t have picked a better moment, given the Russian boom. When the GQ Bar opened in March—featuring multiple dining rooms; a piano bar; an upstairs lounge with regular art exhibits; a plush, black-brown-beige interior; a world-class, Asian-fusion menu, and a sommelier who picks wines better than anyone in the city—it cost him $4 million to $5 million because of Moscow’s skyrocketing property prices, expensive chef and luxurious interior. And it is just down the block from another hotel: this time, the five-star Baltschug Kempinski, where rooms start at about $600 a night.

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