By Jane Snyder
Hand-painted Russian dolls sit in the nooks of brick walls built in 1908. Bottles of whisky and vodka line wooden shelves behind a granite-top bar. A portrait of the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin is lit by an orange-tinted light and hangs above a small table dressed in a red and gold tablecloth. As I walk into this scene resembling a tavern in Moscow, it is hard to believe that I am standing in the heart of Zagreb, Croatia. Bobo and Jana Varga, owners of The Pushkin’s Office, welcome me to take a seat at a table near the front, giving me a full view of the stone interior adorned with Russian trinkets and gold chandeliers. As I settle in, I place my purse onto the tile floor and begin browsing through the menu filled with authentic Russian dishes. Jana politely leans over to me and asks, “Do you mind putting your purse on the chair? It’s bad luck in Russia to place your bags on the floor.” At this point I realize Croatian culture is not the only culture present in Zagreb. Jana, originally from Murmansk, Russia, has made her own space for Russian flavor in the city of Zagreb.
The Pushkin’s Office, the only Russian restaurant in Zagreb, serves as a connection for Croatian and Russian culture through both food and love. The eatery, opened in February 2016, was created after Jana moved to Zagreb to marry Croatian-born, Bobo. The love interest, originally sparked on an internet forum, resulted in not only constant companions but also a business relationship—one Jana describes as the best partnership she has ever had. Jana and Bobo, first time restaurant owners, use The Pushkin’s Office as a vessel to share the dishes Jana grew up eating as well as to encourage experiencing other cultures through food and conversation.
Prior to meeting Jana, Bobo had never tried Russian food. He had heard of the more well-known soup Borsht, but never imagined Russian cuisine including rich green vegetables and savory pancakes with caviar. Recognizing Russian cooking would be a new concept to Croatians and travelers, Jana and Bobo were wary about opening a strictly Russian restaurant. They first established The Pushkin’s Office as a whisky bar, carrying more than 60 types of whiskey, but eventually evolved the location into the authentic home-style Russian bistro that it is today while still serving the same Russian whiskeys, vodkas, wines and beers. When the Vargas first announced they were going to open a Russian restaurant, they were amazed by the interest and support from the community. Jana says, “When I first moved here, I did not expect that Zagreb is full of people who really love Russia— Russian history and Russian culture. And it was a big surprise for me.”
Jana and Bobo bring together an uncommon combination of Croatian ingredients and authentic Russian cuisine, serving dishes such as Pelmeni, a meat dumpling, and Shashlik, skewers of meat with vegetables. Much like a Russian restaurant in the middle of Zagreb, Jana and Bobo’s relationship can be seen as unexpected. When first meeting online, Bobo and Jana were unable to communicate in their own native languages, so instead used English, their second language, to speak with one another. Soon after, Jana traveled 2,200 miles to marry Bobo and picked up the Croatian language through literature and interaction with locals. As a married couple and business partners, Bobo and Jana have learned the importance of communication as well as a sense of humor. Bobo says, “We agree on 99 percent,” he pauses and grins, “Okay, maybe 97 percent of things. We have different approaches to business, but sometimes we meet somewhere in between and sometimes we agree that the other one’s idea was better.”
Creating a sense of home has become an important aspect of the restaurant—not only for Jana, but also for the guests. Instead of hiring servers, Jana and Bobo serve all the food themselves— treating each customer like family. The couple stands by a motto of making guests feel welcomed. Bobo says, “Our relationship to our guests is the same as if they were at our home. The only difference is that here, they have to pay.” In the evenings, customers can be seen taking turns on the baby grand piano near the bar or challenging friends to a game of chess. Bobo sits behind the bar serving drinks while Jana chats away with guests, sharing stories of cold nights in northern Russia. In the kitchen, Chef Dario Fadcevic personalizes each dish with thin slices of vegetables carved into roses and decorative rosemary lining the plates. People remain into the night, conversing over a glass of Russian beer and a bowl of beef stroganoff. Some guests, Jana shares, practice the Russian language with her in-between serving tables. For Jana and Bobo, The Pushkin’s Office is not about making money, “This is something we do because we like it,” Bobo explains.
Jana and Bobo hope to build a community through The Pushkin’s Office, inviting locals and travelers to learn from each other’s cultures and experiences. In order to promote conversation, the Vargas plan to form a chess club within the restaurant, meeting once a week to play a game while listening to live acoustic music. An outdoor terrace, set to open in June 2016, will allow guests to taste Russian food while enjoying the scenery of Zagreb’s streets. By creating The Pushkin’s Office, Jana and Bobo add diversity to the daily lives of guests. The story of The Pushkin’s Office testifies to Zagreb’s evolving culture while highlighting the city’s constant hospitality.