A meal in a traditional Russian restaurant is an essential item on the itinerary of most visitors to St. Petersburg. While there are numerous delights to be discovered in Russian cuisine itself, it is as much the ceremony and atmosphere, most often deeply nostalgic, that attracts visitors and locals to St. Petersburg's best Russian restaurants.
In broad terms, Russian restaurants in St. Petersburg can be divided into three often overlapping culinary trends: those which evoke the opulence and luxury of the Tsarist-era aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie, with rich French-influenced cooking and interiors referencing Russia's turn-of-the-century cultural Silver Age; those which employ a rustic theme, emphasizing simplicity and fresh natural ingredients (including a sub-genre of "hunters' restaurants", serving exotic fish and game from throughout the Russian Federation); and Soviet-themed restaurants, which draw on nostalgia for Russia's more recent past and the distinctively kitschy elements of Soviet design, with cuisine that can best be described as Russian comfort food.
Russia can boast a handful of dishes that have gained international renown, Beef Stroganoff being the most obvious example, but it is less individual dishes or cooking techniques that distinguish Russian cuisine and more the way food is served and consumed that make a traditional Russian meal a unique experience. The ideal of Russian dining is a table laden with delicacies and drink, and a meal that extends over several hours and endless toasts. In this context, elaborately prepared entrees are often less highly valued than the variety and quantity of zakuski - snacks such as cured fish and meats, brined vegetables and mushrooms, pirozhki (small buns made from yeast dough and stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings), Russia's famously calorific salads and, for those that can afford it, caviar served on bliny or buttered bread. For authenticity, zakuski should be accompanied with shots of ice-cold vodka and, while many visitors baulk at the idea of necking neat spirits, it's a combination with a uniquely invigorating effect that should be tried at least in small quantities and especially in the cold of a St. Petersburg winter.