Men armed with Kalashnikovs circled the room. Loud popping sounds filled the air. Tensions were running high.
We froze as one of the men carrying a Kalashnikov approached our table and lowered his gun, pointing it at my glass.
Vodka poured forth from the weapon, and we all relaxed. The popping sounds were nothing but champagne corks flying. We were dining at the Cantine Russe, one of the kitschiest restaurants I have had the pleasure of frequenting in a long while.
The room is decorated with red tablecloths and drapes (though there are no windows in the basement restaurant), gold-framed paintings (landscapes, portraits of Russian composers and bears frolicking in the woods), and displays of samovars and other Russian clichés. While we ate, a singer and a guitar player on the stage entertained us with accomplished covers of pop hits from the 1960s to the 2000s, with a special emphasis on the ’80s.
We wanted to taste everything and kept adding to our order to make sure we didn’t miss out on anything (except the caviar, priced at €120). We sampled the borscht (quite tasty, with chunks of beets, cabbage and other vegetables), the zakuski (an assortment of appetizers, including tarama, egg salad and potato salad), the homemade blinis with smoked salmon, the borscht, the pelmeni (dumplings in broth), the shachlyck (shish kebab) and, for dessert, the vatrushka (cheesecake).
While all the food was tasty and well made, it didn’t inspire any exclamations of joy. What really delighted us was the wonderfully dated atmosphere of the place, which seemed like a throwback to the ’80s.
Although the live music started up (quietly) at 8pm, the restaurant remained fairly empty until about 10 or 10:30, when it started to fill up with dressed-up women and men – not too old, not too young, but somewhere in-between. They came not to eat as we had – though they ordered snacky plates – but to drink vodka and champagne, and to dance on the small dance floor in front of the musicians, who stepped up the beat and the volume as the evening wore on.
“I feel like I’m at a wedding,” one of my friends commented astutely. We got up to dance to Abba with the other swinging couples.
I have always been curious about this anomalous restaurant hidden away in Paris’s Conservatoire Serge Rachmaninoff but somehow had never managed to eat there. Now that I know the ropes, I will definitely be back with friends, unarmed but dressed up in our wedding best, ready to hit the vodka and the dance floor, with a few zakuski to soak up the alcohol.Favorite