The restaurant that never was

The restaurant seemed so close, the timing so right, the serendipity of the situation so perfect. In Moscow that hadn’t been happening to us a lot. Maybe the travel gods were finally smiling on the Kesslers.

My wife and I had decided to take our kids to Russia for summer vacation instead of, say, Destin or Italy or one of those so-called “desirable” holiday destinations because…

well… because we’re bucket-list travelers and also a little bit crazy. We found cheap fares to Helsinki, booked an overnight train to Moscow and found an apartment to rent for our stay. It seemed an adventure.

Then Moscow decided to confound us at every turn. Museums closed without explanation. Maps lied. Two subway stops with the exact same name that we had picked out in the Cyrillic alphabet refused to connect. Roads were uncrossable. The central tourism office told us open sites were closed and closed sites were open. We were completely unprepared for the scale of the city.

But things were going to turn around. We had just finished a wonderful walking tour of Soviet-era sights given by a hilarious young woman with a gift for telling jokes. We were in a lively part of town with skateboarding kids and gyro stands. And, best of all, a small, charming restaurant called Delicatessan that had come highly recommended by a food friend was just three blocks away.

This being Moscow, each block was monumental. We trudged along for about a half hour until we came to the spot indicated by my phone’s GPS. We looked up at a massive apartment complex on the edge of a 20-lane road. Nothing. We found some restaurant cooks in an alleyway having a smoke by the trash bin. We showed them the restaurant name and address. They shrugged. We tried a couple of passersby. One pointed in one direction, one in the other. We walked down one more monumental block and back. We were looking for number 20; the buildings skipped from 18 to 22.

Once we found ourselves back where we started, we began wandering through the labyrinthine, interconnecting courtyards behind the apartment buildings. I showed the address to everyone who cared to stop and pick out the Roman lettering on my phone. The van driver. The lady walking her dog. The bum drinking from a paper bag. Shrugs all around. We broke up and wandered in and out of the few shops we could find.

We gave up and settled on an expensive Italian restaurant with a nice rooftop patio and free wi-fi. We pulled out the iPad and looked for our elusive restaurant. It popped up on all the travel sites. It was “amazing” and served “the best cocktails in Moscow.” Everyone said it was ” very hard to find” but worth the effort. One lucky reviewer found a pedestrian who led him to the restaurant’s “hidden” door and he feasted on the most “creative” fare in Moscow. It was ranked No. 27 out of 5102 restaurants in Moscow. Grrr…

Mapquest and Google had differing opinions as to the restaurant’s location, perhaps because of the Russian convention of numbering several buildings that share the same address. Google tauntingly told us it was 40 feet from where we were sitting. Mapquest suggested a 2.1 kilometer walk.

My wife, never one to pass on a challenge, thought we should bolt down our meh pizza and pasta and then triumph in cocktails at the hidden restaurant. The kids and I outvoted her: Moscow won.

Later, I thought about how often I read those travel stories where the author suggests a 36-hour itinerary jam packed with sights to see and great restaurants to visit. They take you from funky shopping street to world-famous museum to hidden-gem bistro without missing a beat.

How often does that happen to me when I travel? Like, never. Moscow is an extreme case, but it seems that every trip is filled with missed trains, closed doors and endless trudging.

Another evening in Moscow proved to be much more felicitous. We followed my friend’s suggestion to another hidden restaurant, and after a few wrong turns we found it. This restaurant, called LavkaLavka, brought us away from the city center, down a funky side street at the edge of railroad tracks and into a complex of former industrial buildings that had been reclaimed by artists and designers. We had a meal prepared by a thoughtful chef who used local, organic products and researched the foods and flavors of pre-Soviet Russia.

But on this evening we wouldn’t be so lucky. We’d wander through the graffiti-painted courtyard of a Soviet apartment block and talk to a bemused bum who had no idea what we were saying before cutting our losses and eating pizza.

It isn’t always pretty but I like to think that’s part of the reason to travel. The ordeals are part of the journey.

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