Like many aspects of a trip to Russia, the quality and variety of the local cuisine is likely to come as a pleasant surprise for the visitor, and not only because of the preconceived notions and low expectations most visitors are likely to have. Today it's not difficult to buy imported tropical fruits in mid-winter, or sea fish in shops thousands of miles from the nearest maritime coastline. The variety of local and imported foodstuffs available in shops and the quality and range of restaurants is on a par with anything in the rest of Europe.
Traditional Russian cuisine is based around those fruits, vegetables, meats and milk products available in a northern geography, so you'll find lots of dishes which include potatotes, beets, beans, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, pulses, berries and so on. The rigours of the climate mean that many dishes are warming winter soups and stews, but there is also a large amount of seasonal variety, including cold soups and salads in summer (often covered in mayonnaise), and many restaurants and cafes also offer a Lent menu (known as postin Russian) in the run up to Christmas and Easter. St Petersburg's location on the Baltic should mean some great seafood options, although these are not as widely available as you might expect.
While vermillion-coloured borsch, served piping hot with a dollop of creamy mayonnaise and — vegetarians beware — hunk of beef for additional flavouring, is almost ubiquitous and should be sampled at least once, there are plenty of other soups to try. Look out forshchi, a plain cabbage soup which can be enhanced with various additions such as meat, vegetables and herbs; rassolnik, a cucumber-based soup; and solyanka, which is typically thicker and more heavily flavored than the others and can include either meat or fish. In summer try okroshka, a cold soup based on fermented stock and heavily influenced by dill and other green herbs. Like gazpacho, it can be a tasty and refreshing start to lunch on a hot summer's day.
Mushrooms hold a special place in the Russian popular tradition, and at weekends in late summer and autumn, especially after heavy rain, the woods and forests surrounding St Petersburg are full of locals picking mushrooms to dry, pickle, marinade, or use in soups, salads and stews, as has been done for generations. Obviously you have to know what kinds of mushrooms are safe to eat, so don't try this for yourself without expert local guidance. But on menus do look out for mushroom julien, usually served with smetana (sour cream) in small iron pots, and, particularly from late summer, chanterelles, ceps, porcini, oyster and other varieties in salads and soups, stuffed and pickled. In a restaurant do ask where they came from, as they're likely to be have been freshly picked from the surrounding area, a great example of slow food or localism.
There are several traditional salads you'll find on menus, but if you're lactose intolerant be aware that these tend to be smothered in mayonnaise and you may be better off opting for a non-traditional caesar or plain green salad. However worth a try are olivier, a potato salad invented in the 1860s (reportedly) by the French head chef at Moscow's fashionable Hermitage restaurant; vinegret, comprising chopped beetroot, peas, onions and occasionally garlic; crab stick salad, which includes sweet corn, rice or pasta and egg; and the poetically named seld pod shuby, or herring in a fur coat, which brings together herring with potatoes, carrots, beetroot and egg and drowns it all in lashings of mayonnaise. Not for everyone perhaps, but a very traditional option which should be tried at least once.
There are a number of non-alcoholic drinks in Russia based on traditional recipes which you won't find elsewhere. As well as chai (tea), traditionally poured from a samovar into glasses which are held by intricately-decorated metal cup holders, and drunk with lemon, sugar, jam or honey (but never milk), coffee is now pretty ubiquitous and can be found in any of the several chains of coffee houses (but in St Petersburg at least, no Starbucks!) or in restaurants. There are many berry and fruit-based drinks, such as sok (a weak and watery juice made from a range of different fruits); mors (cranberry juice); kompot (fruits boiled with sugar, then left to cool and drunk with the fruits still present in the juice); oblepikha (a winter drink made from the fruit of the sea buckthorn bush and served hot); sbiten (another hot drink prepared with honey and spices); med (honey mixed in hot water); and kissel, a kind of fruit soup or jelly which can be served hot or cold. Another drink to look out for (more frequently to be found in shops and homes then restaurants) is kefir, a rather sour drink made of fermented milk.