Setting foot in Nazdarovie, Havana’s Soviet-themed restaurant, is like entering a time machine. Colorful posters of smiling Soviet workers and glossy Sputnik magazines line the walls. A traditional samovar teapot adorns a corner table. A firetruck-red Soviet flag flies proudly from the balcony.
“My vision was: you walk through those doors and it’s the USSR of 1983,” says Gregory Biniowsky, the founder and intellectual author of Nazdarovie, located at 25 Malecón in the heart of Havana, near the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta. In Russian, “Nazdarovie!” means “To your health!” It’s a phrase heard often when family and friends gather to share delicious food.
“My vision was: you walk through those doors and it’s the USSR of 1983.”Gregory Biniowsky
Biniowsky, 51, grew up in Canada, but has been living in Cuba for 27 years. Although he is of Ukrainian descent, he was inspired to open the restaurant in 2014 after hearing Cuban friends tell stories from their days as students in the Soviet Union.
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“They say, ‘Gregory, looking back, the best years of my life were those six years studying in the USSR,’” he recounts. “Really, the biggest reason for me doing the Nazdarovie restaurant was not my ethnic background, but this incredible legacy that the USSR has [left in Cuba].”
Outside the island, many are familiar with the Soviet-Cuban alliance through the lens of Cold War geopolitics. In 1962, the world barely escaped a devastating nuclear war when the United States learned that the USSR had secretly deployed missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons to Cuba. In the 1970s and 80s, the Cuban and Soviet governments waged military campaigns in Angola and Ethiopia. For three decades, the USSR kept the Cuban economy afloat through favorable trade policies.
He recalls a U.S. embassy official once joking, “… We’re not totally cool about the communist iconography in the restaurant, but your food is so damn good!”
But the relationship between the two countries extended far beyond the military and economic spheres. Tens of thousands of Cubans earned degrees from Soviet universities. Soviet products flooded Cuban shelves. Soviet technicians — affectionately referred to by Cubans as bolos, or bowling pins — arrived in droves to support infrastructure projects on the island.
Cuban graduates of Soviet universities frequent Nazdarovie as a way to reconnect with their youth. Once a month, the restaurant offers a special discount so even those who make meager state salaries can afford a meal. Biniowsky still remembers the first time he saw a former student overcome with emotion as she remembered her youth in the USSR. “I’m that 19-year-old who’s just arrived in Moscow,” she told him. “I haven’t tried this food in 40 years and it’s all coming back.”
According to Biniowsky, Nazdarovie is also a tribute to “to the nostalgia of Cubans [who] never went to the Soviet Union, but fondly remember the 1980s [as] a time of plenty.” The restaurant, he says, “celebrates that piece of the USSR that lives in the hearts of so many Cubans.” But it is not an endorsement of the Soviet system: “The Soviet Union collapsed because of its own internal contradictions and nobody can deny that.”
Cuban graduates of Soviet universities frequent Nazdarovie as a way to reconnect with their youth.
Unsurprisingly, Nazdarovie is popular among staff from the Russian embassy. But its diplomatic clientele is diverse. Biniowsky notes that Cuban and American officials often cross paths while enjoying a cocktail and admiring the balcony’s spectacular view of Havana’s Malecón.
He recalls a U.S. embassy official once joking, “The fact that you have the hammer and sickle flag hanging from your balcony is a detail we have not missed… We’re not totally cool about the communist iconography in the restaurant, but your food is so damn good!”
Most of Nazdarovie’s customers, however, are foreign tourists — particularly Americans. In 2016, celebrity chef Guy Fieri paid a visit for his hit TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” Since then, groupies have flocked to the restaurant.
The Coronavirus pandemic has created new challenges. “It’s gonna be really lean times for all restaurants, especially those —like ours— that are reliant on tourism,” says Nazdarovie owner Gregory Biniowsky.
Whatever their politics, guests delight in Nazdarovie’s original menu, which offers dishes from across the Soviet Union. Juicy pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings), tender Chicken Kiev, and rich, flavorful borsch (beet soup) are fan favorites.
The restaurant’s cuisine is not just tasty, but domashnee — home-cooked. Biniowsky remembers meeting a Russian tourist in the restaurant one day. The woman was born in Moscow but had lived in Paris for many years. She liked Nazdarovie so much that she came two days in a row. “Here I am in Havana, Cuba, eating food that’s bringing me back to my mamushka [mom] in Moscow,” she told Biniowsky with tears in her eyes.
But it’s not a secret ingredient that makes Nazdarovie’s pelmeni so authentic; it’s the chefs themselves. Émigrés from the former Soviet Union run the kitchen, ensuring that dishes remain “pure Soviet-style.” Biniowsky explains that his cooks are part of the “resilient, sturdy group of babushkas” who fell in love with Cuban students and moved to the island decades ago. Many made successful careers in Cuba, but few have managed to return home since the fall of the USSR.
One of the cooks worked as an engineer in Cuba for many years, but misses her culture. Working in the restaurant has been a dream come true for her. “I come to work … and I go back to my homeland,” she told Biniowsky.
Nazdarovie’s staff also includes children of Soviet-Cuban couples. Known as polovinki (Russian for “little halves”), they are a product of two cultures, but often feel estranged from their Soviet heritage. Biniowsky recalls a young man who started working at Nazdarovie as a dishwasher and eventually became a chef. Although his mother was from the USSR, the man did not speak Russian. “I’m discovering my other half,” he said to his employer.
Nazdarovie’s staff also includes children of Soviet-Cuban couples. Known as polovinki (Russian for “little halves”), they are a product of two cultures.
These stories are what Biniowsky says make Nazdarovie worth it for him, even though he doesn’t turn a profit from the business. Opening the restaurant was “probably one of the smartest decisions I ever made in my life,” he says. “I love it and I’m passionate about it.”
Still, running a private restaurant in Cuba is far from easy. Chronic shortages make even basic staples hard to come by. “You have to be very creative, very innovative, very flexible in your thinking, and very patient,” emphasizes Biniowsky.
The Coronavirus pandemic has created new challenges. “It’s gonna be really lean times for all restaurants, especially those —like ours— that are reliant on tourism,” he says. But he has no intention of closing the restaurant: “We just have to weather the storm.”
The Soviet Union may be long gone, but Nazdarovie is here to stay, and you should add it to your list the next time you’re in Havana.