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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Luring Cafe Society With St. Pete's 'Idiot'

ST. PETERSBURG -- Kira Kenney, proprietor of the soon-to-open The Idiot cafe and bookstore, has trouble taking "no" for an answer. Late Sunday night, she was urging pounds of leftovers from the cafe's kick-off party on her kitchen staff. Already laden with her generosity, however, they could not possibly carry more.

"You've got to eat something," insisted Kenney, 50, ignoring their protests. "You'll need your strength on Wednesday."

The Idiot, located at 82 Naberezhnaya Moiki, will open its doors Wednesday as St. Petersburg's first English-language bookstore and cafe.

If Sunday night's soire? was any indication, the cafe's wait staff and cooks -- largely recruited from unemployment lines -- will indeed be run ragged.

Combining Soviet kitsch with pre-revolutionary antiques and Kenney's talent for just hanging out, The Idiot is a sprawling and elegant vegetarian cafe priced for the student crowd -- a mobile phone-free oasis in the city's flashy expensive dining world.

Kenney promised that patrons of The Idiot, named for the Dostoevsky novel of the same name, could enjoy an evening out for $6 or less.

"I'll probably hang a sign out front that says, 'No parking for BMWs and Mercedes,'" said Kenney at Sunday's party, after chasing a tequila shot with a lick of salt off the back of her hand. "If they park there, we'll let the air out of their tires."

Venues like The Idiot -- those with a simple emphasis on cheap eats and good company -- have in the past often been swallowed whole by the mafia or gnashed to bits in the teeth of turgid bureaucracy.

Kenney has been fighting both of those forces for the past four months.

She has opened a restaurant in Paris and one in Moscow, the Azteca, so she is no stranger to the difficulties of Russian start-ups.

One city agency, which Kenney requested not be identified, gave The Idiot the blunt option of paying a $20,000 bribe or refusing and being bled to death over the months with daily fines. Kenney said she and the bureaucrats of that agency had yet to reach an understanding -- but Kenney's position on the matter seems clear.

"My answer is: 'To hell with them!' I've got a krysha," Kenney said, putting her arm around a solidly built young man at her table -- a representative of the post-Soviet security business. "Let them deal with him."

Kenney, a native of St. Petersburg, spent the last 30 years abroad in the United States and Europe, most recently in Paris, before returning to Moscow three years ago. She said she had opened a restaurant in Paris and worked at Moscow's Azteca restaurant near Novoslobdskaya Metro Station. She assisted in the opening of Azteca and worked there following the death of the owner, Alex Kay, in a car accident in September 1995.

The idea for The Idiot cafe was born when Kenney returned to St. Petersburg two years ago on the occasion of the death of her mother. "Walking the streets, remembering that time in my life as a child, I knew I had to come back and be a part of the community again," she said. "In a way, the place is an effort to recreate my family -- the extended family of Russia that I left behind."

So Kenney set out to create the kind of relaxed intellectual den writers Sergei Dovlatov or Joseph Brodsky would have recognized before departing the country.

The literature on the shelves of the cafe's bookstore -- like the dog-eared editions of W.H. Auden and Robert Frost that Brodsky adored -- consists of used books bought for resale.

The Idiot's youthful staff, mostly teenagers, are hard luck stories Kenney has collected like orphans. Sixteen-year-old Zhenya, the dishwasher, was recruited from a public pay phone after Kenney overheard her begging for work from the classifieds. "Her parents are dead, and she lives with her older sister. They have no money. Could I just walk by?" she asked.

Kenney will be running The Idiot with her daughter Olya, 29, who plays straight man to her mother's irrepressible bon vivant. When Kira trotted out a catalog of stories about Olya's childhood in front of a table of friends, Olya deadpanned, "I know, Mom. I was there."

Despite her high hopes for The Idiot, Kenney described it as little more than a starting point for a movable feast.

"If this place doesn't work out, I'll just move me, Olya and the staff out to a big house in the country, and we'll take it from there," she said. "What good is money unless you can put on a good time for your friends?"