Starlite Diner - Moscow, Russia

             Biting into the burger, I felt a tear in my eye. Outside, cars hummed through frozen air along Strastnoy Boulevard near Moscow’s center. M. watched me bite into the burger with anticipation. She’d brought me to Starlite Diner because she wanted to see how a real American reacted to this simulacrum of Americana. Moscow was her home. It certainly wasn’t mine.

            Nestled next to Tchaikovsky concert hall in Aquarium Park, Starlite Diner doesn’t so much stick out as appear by surprise. To get there, M. and I caught the subway and braved a brief, frigid walk. Through puffs of ghostly breath, I spotted the diner, looking as if a tornado had carried it straight from Kansas and plopped it here in the wintery heart of Moscow.

Constructed from materials shipped all the way from Florida, Starlite Diner is a piece of authentic Americana. Right down, or up, to the neon sign — a shooting star with the name emblazoned in both English and Cyrillic — perched on its chrome top.

M. had wanted to take me to the Starlite Diner for weeks, but something had always come up. Now, on this Saturday morning two days before my return to America, after three solid months of negative temperatures and a thimble of cumulative sunlight, I was getting a taste of home.

I ordered a burger called “The Really Big Shawn,” consisting of three patties, chili, cheese, jalapenos and bacon resting upon a bed of fries. The menu suggested I bring an appetite for it. I did.

My second bite of the burger brought more cheese, mild chili and smoky bacon. I chased the burger with fry after crinkle-cut fry and saturated the lot with hearty pulls on my vanilla milkshake.

It didn’t feel as though I was simply eating a burger. It was much too good for that. I was releasing pressure from the almost constant difficulty that had characterized my stay in Russia. My stay thus far had only been three and a half months. Three and a half months of sleeping on a modified couch in a flat with five roommates, walking to and from work in the oppressive, half-light of Moscow’s unyielding winter, always having a little less money than necessary, eating the same cost-cutting meals and being cut off from extensive human contact by an impenetrable language barrier. Not that I’d had any illusions going into the situation that it would be easy. But, originally, I thought I could cut it. And, in total, it wasn’t even the worst situation to be in, mostly uncomfortable. That’s why the tear, the relief at the thought of home, came as such a shock.

            M. asked me how it tasted. I told her with grunts, surreptitiously wiping the tear with my napkin. She’d been a fantastic guide and good friend to me the months I’d spent in Russia. We’d gone to Gorky Park in the rain and toured the stern grounds of the Kremlin and Red Square. She had deep knowledge of Moscow’s history and tended to show her city in a brighter light than what it appeared to me, an outsider. Obviously, having grown up there, Moscow was her home, and she loved it.

Outside, snow fell, each flake evenly spaced; I couldn’t have told you if it had just been snowing that day or for weeks. It was the type of snow that one simply had to bear, which fit rather snugly into the greater Russian spirit, it seemed. From learning more about Russian history: life under the tsars, life under communism and now life under Putin, burdens to be lived under appear to be a birthright. But given the weather, the culture and the political climate, Russia — as far as I saw through the people I met — is a place where people bear hardship not even as a matter of course, but joyfully, snickering behind hardship’s back, as if to collectively say “you think this is bad?”

            The Starlite Diner itself was started by an enterprising American, Sean Mckenna. With all the American and European ex-pats living in Russia, he’d guessed there was a market for good, wholesome Americana, and been right. The interior is as art deco as one would expect in any Johnny Rockets or local stainless steel dining car. The menu is the same laminated poster-sized litany of items, with lots of pictures and ample English. The seats are the same squeaky plastic linoleum and the waitresses all wear aprons and dresses straight out of Happy Days. From outside, it most certainly feels out of place when considering it beside the concrete scowls of most other Soviet-era Russian architecture. But the weirdness soon fades, as the flawlessness of the execution brings even a dyed in the wool American like me back to a place like home. And that’s why I was sad.

            I was sad because I wanted to go home. The sad part not being the feeling of longing for home, but the realization that I really, truly yearned for home.

            Never before had a country broken me like Russia did. And I don’t want to chalk it up simply to Russia. It was a perfect storm of components, every part of my life there had been difficult in some way. And thus, the easy familiarity of Starlite Diner got the better of me. I thought I was stronger and that made me ashamed. I came to Russia because I knew it wouldn’t be a cake walk, I knew it would be colder and harsher and more difficult than, say, Amsterdam or New York City. But I didn't expect it to actually be so hard. And it made me feel both in awe of the people like M. who not only lived there but loved it with a fiery, passionate devotion, but small and weak in their presence.

            To the Muscovites I worked with the cold was never that cold. The long workdays could have been longer. The grey, sunless sky was much more dense last winter, and the winter before? Don’t even speak of it.

            Russia taught me my limits — how much closer they were than I had expected.

            M. had told me more than once that Moscow was the greatest city in the world. And to her it was. She’d grown up there, knew her way around, spoke the language, and relished in the difficulty that the weather brought.

            Living in Maine now, I think I understand what she felt. I know what it means to live in a place considered inhospitable by many. That’s part of the allure. Actually, it might be more than simply a part. Everyone likes to feel tough.

            Perhaps if I’d been slated for a longer stay I would have gotten through it. I would have hardened to the surroundings and kindled some rough happiness in my frozen chest. But that’s not how it worked. I was broken and I left, tail between my legs, defeated by something I still don’t understand.

            Starlite Diner was a panacea: everything I could have needed. M. probably knew that and that’s why she brought me there. I ate everything on my plate and everything in my glass. I wolfed it all down while crying a single tear of lonely patriotism.

That tear was surrender. That tear was weakness. That tear was my broken spirit crawling out, slain, decrepit and pitiable — for all to see. I don’t even think M. noticed.




Good old fashioned legitimate Americana. Well made shakes, fine burgers and more options than you can shake a vintage Chevy stick shift at.


Pocket Rubles

Moscow is damn expensive almost everywhere you look. This is a rare deal that really feels like you’re getting bang for your buck (razzmatazz for your ruble?).


Beaver Cleaver

Gosh golly jee jiminy jillikers.



Moscow, like Portland, ME, has not collectively mastered the art of serving patrons. HOWEVER, Starlite has great service. Check plus.



If, for some unknown reason (special agent shenanigans), you are in Moscow, go to Starlite for a healthy, hearty dose of home (if that is your home… traitorous spy!).  Anyway, yeah Starlite is great. Go there and be happy, or sad, your choice.