A chic restaurant where spies exchange secrets and plans under the cover of shady lighting seems like something out of a spy novel but apparently it is not too far away from the truth. The Aragvi restaurant in Moscow’s Tverskaya street opened at the height of Stalin’s bloody reign way back in 1938, and was a high-end eatery frequented by the KGB and other well heeled Soviet Comrades, including cosmonauts, filmmakers, and chess champions. Although it closed down in 2003, the restaurant is now being relaunched under its original name after a hefty $20 million restoration.
Aragvi opened on the initiative of Stalin’s notorious security chief Lavrenty Beria for the use of officials from his NKVD agency, the Soviet secret service later renamed the KGB. It specialized in Georgian dishes (Stalin himself was an ethnic Georgian) that soon became the talk of the town. This came at quite a cost though in the tightly controlled economy of the Soviet Union, as diners had to pay one-tenth of the average monthly wage to have the opportunity to eat alongside the usual suspects who broke bread there.
“In the Soviet Union, dropping a mention of the famous Aragvi chicken — which was grilled with nuts and garlic — gained you entry into the creme de la creme of society,” said one former diner, Nelli Maximova, an 83-year-old retired translator.
The KGB used the spot as a hangout to recruit agents and wired the place up with hidden microphones. Mikhail Lyubimov, who headed the KGB’s operations against Britain and Scandinavian countries, noted that Aragvi was “the favorite place to recruit agents and for farewell parties for agents going abroad”. He also added that the front-of-house staff were mainly retired KGB officials.
The restaurant was even immortalized in Soviet literature and featured in films. The poet Sergei Mikhalkov came up with the lyrics of the new Soviet national anthem while eating there. In fact, the very name of the restaurant has a literary root – being named after a Georgian river located inside a former hotel where Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov once stayed. All of this adds up to quite a large legacy.
In order to tap into that legacy, the Tashir Group and Gor Nakhapetyan, who previously led the Troika Dialog investment group, took on the task of restoring Aragvi to its former glory. Beyond its famous Georgian fare, such as khinkali (dumplings full of meat and bouillon) and khachapuri (bread topped with cheese), there will also be non-Georgian specialties like borscht and Black Sea herring pate. Being favored by the government back in the day, the restaurant had its most important ingredients, particularly those for its famous “satsivi” or cold chicken in nut sauce, delivered in a special train carriage from Tbilisi.