Stomping Grounds: Makhachkala

Where to go for vodka and bullet-riddled disco balls in Dagestan's capital

By / October 2013

The Golden Antelope is open for dinner and after-dinner parties every evening on the eastern edge of Dagestan’s capital city, Makhachkala. The seating capacity, best as I can tell, is fifty-some people across twelve rectangular tables. This time of year the windows stay open. The Antelope is less than a quarter-mile from the shores of the Caspian Sea.

As in most post-Soviet restaurants, the atmosphere — replete with fancy tablecloths, ornate straight-back chairs, heavy-glass drinking ware, fine China, live music, and even an out-of-place disco light ball — blends the tacky with the overly ceremonial. Or formerly ceremonial: Five dreadful cigarette marks dot my tablecloth, and the only bathroom is a nasty, squatty-potty outhouse.

As I gaze at the disco light, I am confused by the chips and dents in the strobe ball itself. I ask a waitress, who draws my attention to more than a dozen other holes in the ceiling near the strobe light. It dawns on me, even before her pistol-shooting hand sign. Don’t think violence, though. In America we might shout when we’re thrilled. In Makhachkala, they might shoot. In fact, the menu threatens severe fines for throwing a drink or cursing but says nothing at all about bullets.

Of course, I’m the strangest item on the menu here. Not necessarily because I’m a foreigner, but because I’ve arrived alone. Fellow guests glare at me in bewilderment. In Dagestan, everything is done in groups, with friends or relatives or entire clans. Inevitably, an energetic fellow who looks to be in his early 50’s hurries over to my side to ask if I’m okay. Upon discovering I’m alone and a foreigner, he promptly ushers me to his crowded table, sprawling with lamb kebabs, boiled dumplings, cucumbers, tomatoes, fresh breads, and four bottles of vodka.

So much for a solo meal in solitude. With a sigh, I turn to receive handshakes and questions from my new table mates. As my glass and plate fill to overflowing against my will, I steal another glance upwards at the strobe light. I dream about leaving my own mark upon the Golden Antelope.


Dave Hayton is an EthnoTraveler contributor.