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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Building Russian Cafe Culture

Dmitry Borisov likes to say that he opens restaurants for "normal people."

  In the past decade, he and his partners have changed the face of Moscow dining by opening Project OGI, Jean-Jacques, Gogol, Apshu, Mayak and Kvartira 44 -- all of them unpretentious, democratically priced cafes in a city better known for expensive, extravagant restaurants aimed at post-Soviet nouveaux riches.

But Borisov, who goes by the informal name of Mitya, doesn't like to talk about target audiences and marketing strategies. In fact, he barely acknowledges being a businessman at all.

"In general, we try to make places for ourselves and our friends," he said between frequent puffs of cigarette smoke in a recent interview at the original Kvartira 44, located on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa.

"It's unlikely that you would meet bandits in our establishments," he added. "They wouldn't like it."

Borisov, 31, grew up in a well-educated Moscow family. His father, Vadim Borisov, was a dissident historian who published samizdat and was close to Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The younger Borisov started out on a similar track, entering the philology and history department of the Russian State University for the Humanities. But the 1990s were a difficult decade for academics, and Borisov never felt like a scholar in the first place. He skipped classes, got involved in Moscow's underground arts and music scene and eventually dropped out of university.

"It was a time when, if you were sitting in a library, you got the sensation that you were missing out on the real life that was happening around you," he recalled. "It seemed like you could do anything you wanted then."

Borisov started to organize events, such as concerts by the rock bands Auktsyon and Leningrad. In 1998, he co-founded the first outpost of the OGI chain in an apartment near Patriarch's Ponds, managing the club's event program while Dmitry Itskovich, another ex-academic, ran the literary side and Alexei Kabanov, the third co-founder, oversaw the finances.

OGI was perhaps the first Moscow venue to combine a cafe, a bookstore, a publishing house and a performance space. Its first location was unlicensed though, and was quickly shut down by the authorities. In 1999, it was replaced by Project OGI on Potapovsky Pereulok, which remains open.

Borisov described OGI as a place that was more about atmosphere than food. "Back then, none of us knew about gastronomy, and I didn't understand anything about food," he said. "I hadn't even been to Europe yet."

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Borisov has tried to combine gastronomy and atmosphere in his restaurants.

More OGIs popped up around Moscow, and in 2001 the chain caught the attention of the Financial Times, which called it "a network of cozy cafe clubs for budding intellectuals among the city's emerging middle class. ... They fill a niche that remained empty for a surprisingly long time."

Not long afterwards, the chain foundered and many of its locations closed. Itskovich and Borisov split up under unclear circumstances, and Borisov is no longer involved in the management of the remaining OGI clubs.

Instead, he launched a series of restaurants with a new partner, who, coincidentally, was also named Dmitry. The two Dmitrys -- Borisov and Yampolsky -- opened the Parisian-style bistro Jean-Jacques, the bohemian cafe-club Gogol and the somewhat more upscale Mayak, among other places.

This time, they did not neglect the gastronomy. Marianna Orlinkova, deputy editor of Gastronom magazine, praised the food at restaurants like Jean-Jacques and said the duo's projects stood out because of their "personal touch."

"They have a very recognizable style that makes a connection between home and restaurant," she said by telephone. "Before them, nobody managed to achieve this."

Jean-Jacques, in particular, has flourished: It now has two locations in Moscow, two in St. Petersburg and one in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. But Borisov thinks it was something of a no-brainer to open the first location on Nikitsky Bulvar in 2005.

"In any European city, there are thousands of cafes like Jean-Jacques, places where you can walk in and not worry about the prices, where you know you'll get something normal for 20 or 30 euros," he said. "In Moscow, there were very few of these places back then."

Borisov and Yampolsky opened two more venues along with Borisov's sisters, Anna and Maria Karelskaya. Both places have names taken from Borisov's family history: the restaurant Kvartira 44, which now has a second location on Malaya Yakimanka, and the cafe-club Apshu, hidden in a basement on Klimentovsky Pereulok.

Kvartira 44, which is Russian for "Apartment 44," is named after the apartment where Borisov and his sisters lived as children. Apshu is short for Apshuciems, a Latvian resort where the family vacationed in the 1970s, going for walks on the beach and having freewheeling conversations outside the range of KGB listening devices. Sadly, Apshuciems was also the place where Borisov's historian father, Vadim, drowned in an accident in 1997.

Despite being nearly impossible to find by the uninitiated, Apshu has developed a loyal word-of-mouth following in certain hipster circles.

"It's got a very pleasant atmosphere and many interesting people go there," Valeria Fedoryak, a psychologist who recently had a birthday party at Apshu, said by telephone. "Many of my friends like it. They put on good concerts too."

Lately, Borisov has been pursuing projects outside the restaurant world.

Among other things, he plans to shoot a movie with film and television producer Yevgeny Gindilis. The two have started a production company and are now looking for screenplays. Borisov has also joined the team of the biweekly magazine Bolshoi Gorod, although he is mysterious about his responsibilities.

Yet Borisov denies that he is saying goodbye to the restaurant business.

"No, I'm not leaving," he said. "But I'm not sure that I ever worked in the restaurant business in the first place. ... This is not really the restaurant business. It's more about being a producer, creating an atmosphere. It's taking a few separate pieces and combining them into a product."