For Russian people, dinner tends to be a big, social affair for the whole family. In fact, it may be the only time of day that the entire family gathers together—and it is customary to wait for everyone in the household to get home before eating. As such, dinner is usually eaten around 7 or 8 p.m. at the earliest in Russia; likewise, restaurants serve dinner quite late and will likely be surprised at 5 p.m. guests.
Typical Dinner Foods
Russian dinner foods, just like their lunches (and sometimes even their breakfasts) are quite heavy. A typical Russian dinner will consist of one or more salads, which are heavy, filled with potatoes and often mayonnaise, with flavors coming from beets, onions, pickles, and various kinds of meat (these salads are actually delicious—don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it!). Following the salads, a meat course is served. This can be anything from a simple chicken dish to meat stewed in tomato sauce, to the labor-intensive cutlets (ground beef or pork creations for which the closest analogy is the meatball, but they are much more subtle and delicious).
The meat is usually accompanied by a side of mashed potatoes, buckwheat porridge, or pasta.
Sometimes, instead of a meat dish, a heavy soup like Borsch is eaten; this kind of soup is usually served with sour cream. Because it has a meat base, and often contains pieces of meat, and because of the added sour cream, the soup can be as filling as a regular “main dish”. Another alternative to the meat course is, of course, pelmeni—something like Russian dumplings made of ground beef and/or pork inside a dough pocket. These are also eaten with sour cream or mayonnaise. Although some people buy this pelmeni frozen at the supermarket, Russian people will tell you that the most delicious ones are homemade—a process that usually takes up a whole day (but yields a stock of pelmeni for several months).
Bread—especially rye bread—is a staple and most Russian people will not sit down at the dinner table if a pile of sliced bread is not present. Tea is served for dessert; wine or vodka usually accompanies the meal.
Going out for Dinner
Dining out is not a common concept among most Russian people, simply because “affordable” restaurants are a very new development in Russian cities. Most people do not allocate any of their budgets to eating out, and thus it is still not quite affordable for them to go out to dinner. However, going out to dinner is slightly more common than meeting at a cafe or restaurant for lunch, and most restaurants do cater heavily to the dinnertime crowd, serving only a shortened “business-lunch” menu during the daytime.
Being a Dinner Guest in Russia
If you are invited for dinner at a Russian family home, expect approximately what we’ve described above but with much more abundance, both in food and in alcohol. It is considered extremely rude to leave your guests (potentially) hungry, so it is customary to cook way more than necessary; and stock up on alcohol too, of course! Food will be plentiful and it will be difficult for you to not overeat, as the hosts will likely keep offering you food until you fall off your chair. Likewise, it might be tricky for you to refuse alcohol, especially because some Russian people do still consider it rude.
However, if either of these things is a concern, come up with a feasible excuse and stick to it, and eventually, the hosts will believe you!
Don’t forget to bring a host(ess) gift along for dinners, such as some flowers or a nice bottle of wine (or some other alcohol). Depending on the family, you can also bring dessert—but check with the hosts first to ensure that you will not be disrupting their planned menu.