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Two Years Into the Russian Invasion, Ukrainian Nightlife Is Thriving

The bar scene is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of a war zone. Most news stories tend to focus on casualties, military strikes and other tragedies. 

But two years into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nightlife goes on. Investigative reporter Adam Robb has been traveling into the country to talk to locals and document everyday life for everyday citizens who have been living amongst the backdrop of war. 

In his journey, which he wrote about for Wine Enthusiast, Robb visited experimental cocktail bars that highlight foraged ingredients—some of which hail from the forests around Chernobyl—coffee roasteries, dance clubs and Neapolitan-style pizzerias, observing the atmosphere and chatting with the hospitality professionals who aim to bring a sense of normalcy to people living through extraordinary times.

Along the way, Robb learned how living amongst drone and missile attacks, drafts and daily deaths and injuries “brings out a real selflessness,” he tells us on this week’s episode of The Wine Enthusiast Podcast

“People don’t expect to be driven to that level of virtue,” he says. “The best of them experience a level of empathy that no human being is normally pushed to experience.”

Listen as Robb goes deep on his experiences and offers a peek into the Russo-Ukrainian War through the lens of the country’s hospitality industry. He shares insights into how drinks professionals have been stepping up to create safe spaces for their communities to come together and enjoy the moment, the creativity of the Ukrainian mixology scene, how it warrants a place in the international spotlight and his plans to try to help it garner the attention it deserves.

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Episode Transcript

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Speakers: Sara Ventiera, Adam Robb, Samantha Sette

Sara Ventiera  00:09

Hello, and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast. You’re serving the drinks culture and the people who drive it. I’m Sara Ventiera, senior digital editor here at Wine Enthusiast. On February 24 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine in what has become the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War Two. More than two years later, the fighting continues. But for Ukrainians who have stayed in the country everyday life goes on. Last year, investigative reporter Adam Robb spent a night out bar hopping in Lviv and documented his evening eating pizza and drinking gin and tonics to the sound of air raid warnings for Wine Enthusiast. He recently returned from a major bar event in Kyiv. So we decided to check in on the current state of the country and its nightlife scene. Listen to find out about the lessons learned about trying to live a normal life against the backdrop of war.  All right, Adam, so you wrote this really amazing piece for us about a night out drinking in Ukraine with air sirens voiced by Mark Hamill, going off in the background, lots of people drinking and living their lives. Let’s just start from the beginning. Why did you go to Ukraine in the first place?

Adam Robb  01:26

Yeah, so the day of the Russian invasion, I remember I was in Paris working on the travel story, and meeting with some documentary producers about a trafficking investigation I was working on at the time, and I was in the bathtub with the Meurice drinking Champagne in the bottle of Ruinart that, like they sent up. And I was watching the news of the invasion on the TV screen built into the bathroom mirror from the bathtub. And that’s my first association with alcohol in Ukraine, and that was February ’22. So, December two years ago, at the end of 2022, I should say spent most of 2021 and 2022, more than a year and a half investigating a big crypto fraud scheme. And by the end of 2022, that story had led me down another rabbit hole. And suddenly I found myself having dinner at Torrisi. So with Ja Rule. Now, Ja Rule and his business partners who declined to partake in this particular fraud scam, I was investigating. And he and his partners were so proud of this fact. Now generally, two business partners, one was in the background really just on paper, and the other was running his day to day operations. And that guy is my point person. So, right before dinner—I don’t know why I hadn’t done this earlier—but I looked up the third partner, the one on paper, and I’m looking at the Google results back when Google Search worked. And I thought, wow, this guy has the worst SEO imaginable because every result for his name is about some guy who was arrested 20 years ago for kidnapping and torturing and branding someone. And it got me thinking, when was Ja Rule in prison? And what was this guy in prison? Were they in prison at the same time? And it’ll start to click in my head. So, now I’m a little freaked out. I have just enough time to watch the episode of What Order SVU they made about Ja Rule’s business partner. You could look it up and watch it on streaming. It’s called “Branded.” And I’m watching the episode but don’t have to leave for dinner. And I’m stressing about how do I bring this up in conversation? Where do I bring this up? Do I bring this up and I get to Torrisi and Ja Rule is running three hours late, so I’m sitting with his publicist, drinking Negronis, eating bread and finally Ja sits down. And I’ll say he’s incredibly charming and charismatic and person and the waiter rushes over, I remember, Ja charmed the reading glasses right off the waiter’s face and wore them the rest of the night, reading the menu and the waiter Ja Rule, if you wanted an emergency martini to catch up with us. And instead Ja Rule ordered a Moscow Mule, but he caught himself and said “Wait, no, we can’t say that anymore because of Russia.” And he ordered a Kyiv instead, and I just must have made some mental note that at that moment, like wow, Ja Rule is so about international affairs and boycotting Russia, and good for him. So, in the back of my mind that Ruinart moment, the Moscow Mule moment, I think subconsciously, I’ve been primed to think about Ukraine and drinking in context together for a year before I committed to traveling there. And a few months after the Ja Rule dinner, I’m about to publish the investigation but Buzzfeed News shuts down before the story is published. And right away, I found another investigation for New York Magazine. And I remember I was in a group that maybe were in Beverly Hills at Dante, I get the phone call from my editor: go ahead with the investigation. And I’m off to the Cannes Film Festival for a few weeks to investigate an LA bar owner turned movie producer who had previously confessed to me that he was under investigation for terrorism. And it was years earlier we were at this great little sushi restaurant in Silverlake that isn’t there anymore. And he just got off the phone with his lawyer who had broken the news to him and maybe he had a little too much sake and felt confessional at that moment, and now all these years later, he’s a movie producer with a project at Cannes, it’s a big story. And the week after I get back from France, the story becomes a little too heated, and that story gets killed. And first I’ll just say, because this is the Wine Enthusiast podcast, I do all my food and drink and travel writing and research while also reporting out longer investigative, intensive, aggressive stories.. So, if you do find yourself in Cannes, you’d be remiss not check out the Turkish Coffee Negroni and the Tobacco and Date Old Fashioned at Rüya, a Turkish restaurant on the terrace at Carlton Hotel in Cannes or take a long walk to the Bijou Plage from the vendor central guys at the end of the Pointe Croisette and grab a Garibaldi there at sunset. But after two of those long investigations got killed back-to-back, I needed a break from writing about bad people. And I’m looking to write something more positive. So, last August, I’m wondering what to do next, and I read a story in The Washington Post by their Ukraine Bureau Chief. And it’s all about how Ukrainians are boycotting Campari, because it’s sold in Russia. And I realized a few things while reading the story. One, I guess, I can’t drink Garibaldis anymore. Two, I realize it’s possible to write lifestyle coverage about a country at war. Their story, The Washington Post story, is written through a business lens, but they’re also talking to local bar owners. And it made me think long before Alex Garland’s Civil War movie had come out this past spring, like what would lifestyle reporting journalism look like during a ground war, and in Civil War, it’s like a road trip movie following journalists traveling from New York to DC. And one of the journalists writes for, quote unquote, like what’s left of The New York Times. And that was the headspace I was in reading this Washington Post story a year ago thinking like, if we are at war in America, and we also have media jobs, what would The New York Times’ style section, food section, travel section, T Magazine, what would Wine Enthusiast be publishing every day, every month? And that’s when it all kind of clicked for me to start covering the bar scene over there. And I hate to say this, but before I pitched Wine Enthusiast, I pitched another nameless spirits publication, and the editor, that outlet had told me that this was a terrible idea. Because if I wrote about the hospitality scene in Ukraine, they wouldn’t be seen as suffering enough. And this is really upsetting to me, because I think, if I’m living in a country at war, and I’m trying to hustle and do my thing, and live my best life—because we only have this one life—and it’s one moment, we’re only this age once, that I would want some foreign journalists to find me in America, and capture me with all my dignity and spirit. And I would want there to be some document that said, I got through this time being active and creative, being a great bartender, a great chef, giving comfort to others contributing something, not that I was just some anonymous face waiting in line for a bowl of borscht from some international aid organization. And, and I’ve been guilty of that, I had written a story prior for Food & Wine Magazine, where I interviewed José Andrés on the phone while he was driving out of Ukraine, and I tried to go with him and it didn’t work out. So, I don’t really have a sense of the ground. And, so I finally went on my own, I wasn’t with any American chefs, and I wasn’t shadowing anyone, I just kind of immersed myself in it. And I think my reporting was better off for it. And the third thing I realized, during The Washington Post story was I realized war reporters go to terrible bars. I realize now, when I see a war movie, and they’re all the hotel, bar drinking, bragging, fucking, watching CNN, whatever they’re doing, they really just don’t know where else to get a good drink and they don’t care. So, I Googled the bars in the Washington Post article, and I just knew there had to be better options out there. And I think the first thing I did was check the World’s 50 Best Bars Discovery list. If there was a legitimate great bar over there, as a starting point, it would be on their list, and there were a few. So, I followed those bars to Instagram and found the bartenders and seeing who they follow, where they go, what they post, and then moved on to restaurants and began piecing together an itinerary and requesting interviews. I should point out, it’s an insane thing to do. It felt very good. And I just wanted to contribute something positive to the world. I wanted to challenge myself. And again, it’s an insane thing to say, but at that point, I’d been really burnt out from investigations and I felt like I’d rather die than have their story killed. And, in terms of the kind of reporting I’d like to do, these stories aren’t offending litigious people and they would see the light of day. And that was really reassuring to me. So, no matter what happened, the reporting wouldn’t be frustrated by some outside force. And I felt better and safer doing it. 

Sara Ventiera  09:06

Well, I think those were two things that really struck me about the story when I was going through it. One, was, A, the bar scene sounded incredible, and the cocktails and creativity just sounded like what you would find in I mean any major city with a great culinary scene. But on top of it, the sort of sense of normalcy in the midst of this, you know, major war,  it kind of struck me in a way where it’s like, it’s hard to imagine what that would be like, you know, as an American who hasn’t lived through, you know, a ground war like that. You know, like how do you carry on with your life while you’re surrounded by fighting and you know, airstrikes and all of those sorts of things. And I think you did such a great job of sort of like, showing what that process was like.

Adam Robb  09:56

It was just surprising to me being on the ground, I think, I was also working on story at the time for Conde Nast Traveler about Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw and them setting up business there, and I felt on my first trip to Ukraine that it was so easy interview everyone that they were very focused, very engaged, and I guess very stoic. And that surprised me. No one, no one was overly emotional while I was speaking to them. And then when I got to Warsaw, and I spoke to Ukrainians who had left the country behind, and they knew they were safe now, they were the people who were emotional, they were the people who cried, because they walked away and, and went toward safety and a better life, and I think they had some, some residual guilt. But everyone on the ground in Ukraine was just everyday living their fullest day-to-day life, even though like the PTSD, like the collective PTSD of, of whole towns, villages, cities, was just, it was like electricity in the air, like you couldn’t not feel it, no matter where you went. And eventually you figure out that there are bars, where people go to, to drink, to cope. And there are bars, you can quietly or loudly celebrate or just live for today. And so it took a while to get a sense that those were two very distinct things. 

Sara Ventiera  11:16

Yeah, I think I mean, you seem to in the piece, highlight the bars where people we’re living for today. I know, you mentioned that it was mostly women that were in the bars, because a lot of the men were out fighting. What was the difference between, you know, the vibes in those bars versus the vibes, and the ones where people were going just to cope?

Adam Robb  11:37

I remember my first day in Lviv, going to a coffee shop, and it being very busy. It was a beautiful, sunny day, last September/October. And there were lots of people outside with their laptops working or, or just relaxing in the sun. But there was a very quiet energy about it. And I couldn’t quite figure out where that was coming from. And the coffee shop owner explained to me that you just don’t know, if the person next to you just lost someone, or they just found out they’re briefly being drafted. And everyone’s mindful of that in an environment like that, and want to be respectful and quiet, and no one gets too rowdy. And then a few hundred feet away, there was a bar called People Place that had a DJ in the window, and had like groups of women, young women dressed up going out for the night, and like kicking off their night there with a non-Aperol, Aperol Spritz because they were boycotting Aperol. And it was crazy how that shift could just be a few hundred feet apart. And you could walk from one room to another.  

Sara Ventiera  12:50

Well, and I mean, what is it— you know, again, hard to imagine—but what is it like going into a bar like that? You know, most bar scenes, it’s a lot of people looking to go out and meet members of whatever sex they’re attracted to. So for it to be mostly women, like, what did that feel like?

Adam Robb  13:11

It took a minute to realize that there were no men. That happened to me more than once that I remember just a couple of weeks ago, leaving Ukraine on my last trip, that I was taking the train out back to Poland, and I’m looking around the train car. And it took me a minute to realize I was the only man on the train. And the men since the second day of the war, they haven’t been allowed to leave the country, if they’re able bodied between a certain age, and it was just all women and children around me. And it’s just like a shocking thing to witness and realize that these are the people left behind. The men, the male bar owners that I’ve met, seemed more worried about business than about being drafted, which is good. But really, they were just living for that day in that moment. And I think the women going to really busy popular bars like that were very much doing the same. There was a sense I think, a year ago, where it was more inappropriate, more looked down upon to party. And then on this past trip, I went to a brand new bar in Kyiv called Haram that was like a multi story underground nightclub, like a big popular steakhouse in Kyiv. And they had opened in the past year during the war. And it had multiple, you go in downstairs and just the coat check is the size of like other bars I’ve been to and then you go into this massive cavernous underground party space and there’s multiple like unique bars. One was like a smoking bar where every drink is smoked and you can also smoke cigarettes.  And then you like travel downstairs, to this other bar beneath with a huge sacrilegious stained window of the crucifixion, which is also the beginning orgy and there’s a gospel choir with a live band on the side performing like Bruno Mars songs and rap songs, and everyone’s like dancing and just letting off steam, and I think that was kind of missing in the first year. And now people feel either they’re in for a long haul and they can engage with those feelings where it’s okay to just like, let go and let loose. But those are behind closed doors. I think in Kyiv way more than in Lviv, you saw more speakeasies, you saw more unmarked bars, where the best bars in town and the 50 Best Discovery bars like Loggerhead and Beatnik those bars are almost like real speakeasies. You’re not meant to distract from the more somber energy of the city, I guess. 

Sara Ventiera  15:40

And so, okay, so your first trip was to Lviv, right? And this last trip you went, to Kviv or did you travel to both cities? 

Adam Robb  15:50

I went to more places this time. So, yeah, I got a better sense of the country on the most recent trip. But I started in Lviv, took the train to Kviv for what was the first bar show in Ukraine in three years. It was a partnership with Diageo Bar Academy, they put on a show called, uh, the Ukrainian word for unity. And they invited all the best bartenders from around the country. I think they came from everywhere, but Kharkiv. They came from Odessa, Lviv, and Kyvi. And it was the first time like bartenders can see each other in three years. I remember speaking to a bartender from Odessa who has a bar, Fakultat, which is like one of the best bars down there. And he said, his friends don’t come to the bar he owns, he tells them not to come because Odessa is so affected by drone attacks. And drones are really cheap. And so, while Kyiv is always subject to missile attacks, they have a strong missile defense system. But you wouldn’t waste the money to use a missile against a drone. And so the drone attacks are very common in Odessa, and it’s a more dangerous place. And, so he lost his staff, but they left to go to bars in the E.U. or elsewhere. But he was the owner. And he just kind of like been, you know, alone every day in the bar opening and powering through, like representing Ukrainian Odessa and trying to find people with that same spirit like to work alongside him. But he was so excited to come up to Kyiv  and see guys from some of the other bar programs, women at the bar programs to get a sense of just what we’ve all been working on the past three years and to try each others’ drinks and new menus and new concepts. And, even though bar shows are so common, and there’s like the Rome bar show was like a week later, and two resort bar shows next week, and then Bar Convent in Brooklyn and Tales of the Cocktail. But like, it’s a common thing that’s easy enough for local bartenders to find in their community. But it was a big deal to have a bar show in Kyiv. And it just brought out the best of everyone. And so that was the other side of the city. And the surrealness of that was that the night before everyone had arrived, everyone stayed at the same hotel on that Friday night. And there was news that week that Russia was going to attack, like blow up two Kyiv hospitals because they said they were actually like secret military bases. And this was kind of like, I think it’s in the news, it’s like the rumor going around, that ever was nervous there was gonna be an attack on Kyiv that weekend. And, so I remember taking the train from Lyiv to Kyiv, it was like a six hour train ride and getting there at 10:30 pm, and everything closes at like 11 pm and curfew is at midnight. And, like everyone making a rush toward McDonald’s while the alarm is going off at 10:35 pm, and they’re turning people away. And then I had to find my car and it’s my Holiday Inn all before midnight, and then just getting there and hearing the air sirens and when the air sirens wind down, use your dogs howling the street. And you just hear that from like 11 pm till like I think was like 4 am that night. And by 5am I went back to sleep and by 10 or 11 am I guess I woke up and, and like everyone else, I made my way to the bar show. And I realized, I’ve come to realize being there. And it’s a bit of a thing if you learn what’s important, and you put the small things about last night behind you, and you live in the moment. And so everyone went to that bar show. It was a sunny day. Nothing else happened that weekend. And we all lived in the moment and that was a very inspiring thing to witness. So, yeah, so when I rode the train from Lviv to Kyiv, I rode the train with other bartenders who have bars in Lviv and they were very excited for the bar show, just to have something else to go somewhere to see people. And the FMB director at the hotel I was staying at in Lviv, The Grand Hotel, the best hotel in town, she was very proud of the hotel bar program and they had just opened,  like a big Hennessy lounge near a cigar lounge. I don’t think people realize people are coming to spend money and they’re updating things and they’re proud of the environment they create for other people. And she had been through a lot. She was saying her brother-in-law is fighting east now, that she’d lost her brother fighting in the east last year. And she still wakes up every day and it’s really proud of the bars and the restaurants she runs in the hotel. And we got to talking about the program, and people don’t just like to live with their head in the sand or they live in a bomb shelter. Like you want to go out and experience life, experience your interest, your passion, your career and advance yourself, what would make you happy every day, and and feel fulfilled. So, no matter where I went in Ukraine, it was good to see people behaving that way. And I just think that’s something that gets a little underreported.

Sara Ventiera  20:50

Yeah, I mean, it seems, you know, I again, can only imagine what it’s like living under those circumstances and how that must impact your nervous system. Like, I’m sure hearing air raid sirens or as you mentioned, Mark Hamill from Star Wars’ voice going off announcing an air raid, has to affect you on a level that, you know, is beyond just anxiety, but like impacting your body and like your overall nervous system. 

Adam Robb  21:17

I’m glad to say that Mark Hamill’s voice does not give me PTSD right now. But it was a crazy thing, when I was in LA a year ago, I was with this music manager who’s friendly with him. He and his wife were talking about having Mark Hamill over for dinner that Friday night. And I was like, oh, what a nice thing it is to have Luke Skywalker over at your house. And the closest I’ve ever come to that is hearing Mark Hamill telling me to seek shelter during an air raid in Lviv. And it’s a weird thing that he did that, that he recorded. A different voice does it in Ukrainian, but the English version of the air alert app is Mark’s voice telling you “your overconfidence is your weakness,” which is something he says that the Emperor in I think “Return of the Jedi,” and to seek shelter. And then you hear this like a piercing air siren emitting from your phone. And then when you get the all clear, he wishes you “may the force be with you” and tells you it’s all okay. It’s comforting and eerie at the same time. I guess it’s nice to hear a familiar voice overseas. But also be aware you’re listening to a recording that exists long after you know society has vanished off the face of the earth. But still, Mark Hamill’s voice lives on an app warning people to seek shelter, a little dystopian, but it depends who you’re with and it depends on your own seek-your-own-adventure attitude. But there are people who turn the alarm off. And I’ve gotten to the point where I trust people more now in telegram groups, telegram chats to tell me what’s going on than just the more general app, which is just a picture of a missile, saying like, you know, seek shelter. And you adapt and a lot of people that Friday night, because the missiles ever came from Russia. And just the alarm sounded all night. They went to sleep where they tried to sleep, but did not go to the bomb shelter. And the first time the air raid siren went off, the first time I heard Mark Hamill’s voice I was at this bar called Siaivo, which is this amazing, two-story, coffee shop, cocktail bar that reminds me of Drink in Boston. It had low countertops and a very engaging bartender across the way to make you whatever you wanted. And it was with the bar manager, the bar owner, there, and like great guys, and they didn’t even download the app yet. And they were telling me they were looking at their phone when the alarm was sounded. So, I’d download the app right away. And I was like, should we go? And they were like, no, no, no, like, our friends tell us through Telegram that it’s actually just like, Russian planes are flying overhead doing an exercise or something. And it’s not anything we need to immediately prepare for. And, so I stayed out, I knew someone who was staying at a hotel in town, and she messaged me, and she had gone down to the bomb shelter of the hotel, which also doubled at the hotel spa, like in the basement, and she was sitting there on a bench. And people were like in their towels going to it from the spa. She felt embarrassed. And I decided like, you know, you shouldn’t be down there, like, it’s okay, got her out of the bomb shelter and took her drinking. I was glad she cooperated with that and trusted me. And we had a great night and we were able to have like five more hours of our life back to go out and enjoy the city and not worry. And then the alarm sounded, it was all clear, and we were good to enjoy the rest of the evening. But I kind of feel that the only story you find in a bomb shelter is if something happens to you there. So, that’s not where I’d want to be.

Samantha Sette  24:37

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Sara Ventiera  25:09

You detailed the night in the story a bit where you went to the first party since Siaivo. Alright, so that’s how you pronounce it?

Adam Robb  25:16

 I hope so. 

Sara Ventiera  25:17

Okay. And I think you were drinking gin and tonics, I believe.

Adam Robb  25:22

Yeah, they had, they had a great gin bar. And it was the same weekend, or same days as like a big tech conference. And so the bar was like, packed with people from the tech conference, it was rush hour happy hour, it was a full scene. So, it was free just to witness like a normal weekday and see a thriving city and a thriving bar, and it feels like home. And the more you enter environments like that bar at that time, like, the more it feels relatable to you, in America, or anywhere. And it feels like, okay, this is just a normal life, they’re living a normal life. And so it just makes you feel safer and more at ease every day, which was like a good feeling. And it’s a collective feeling. If everyone goes to the bar, if everyone goes out after work, then it just makes the people around them feel more secure. And I remember talking to coffee shop owners, Svit Kavy, the oldest roastery in town. And they were saying how very early on in the war, when the siren sounded, the sense was that everyone should close the doors and pack up and go in the shelter, either like beneath a coffee shop or find one nearby. Pretty much every building had a basement, at least in Lviv. And they got the sense over time that their customers would rather come out. And they felt psychologically safer, healthier, better for it for all being together in the coffee shop, or all being together in the bar, instead of being alone in your basement. And so it was a unique example of resilience to experience. And you don’t really think that just having a gin and tonic at a bar during the evening rush is an act of resilience or an act of rebellion. But it is. It’s a small thing that makes people feel good and feel strong. And that was inspiring to witness.

Sara Ventiera  27:14

And, you know, I know you went to a bunch of other places as well. And I’d say again, the cocktails and the mixology sounded very impressive. What drinks and dishes were you most impressed by?

Adam Robb  27:32

The bar where I was when I got the all clear that first night, second night  was Sino Experimental. Andre, the original owner, and bartender there, he—and a lot of bar owners—talked about how before the war, they all had to kind of like, operate through COVID, which had its own challenges, and then operate in the war. But, so during COVID, he did a lot of batch drinks, which led to him canning or bottling cocktails. And then during the war, he got really into foraging. And it was fascinating. Because I think, everyone, there’s probably something disassociative a little bit, everyone likes to put out their minds when they’re over there. And I think one thing I put out of my mind was wow, we’re really close to Chernobly. And having watched the HBO series—you just don’t think people are foraging in Ukraine. And like in the forest in the West like Transcarpathia, or in the east around Chernobyl, and then putting those things in food or drink. And it’s not good. And he was talking about how he made a really popular cherry soda whiskey drink and the cherries all came from a foraging trip, up a mountain he met someone who had on his property with wild cherry trees growing and offered him all the cherries, he wanted to use them to make the drink. And it’s my assumption that I’m sure foraging is safe and bright enough in the west. And so his drinks, which were based on lots of ingredients, including mushrooms and other things he found like that, that made the bar popular and it allowed him to really stand out at that time. But then, just like last week or two weeks ago, I was with Scott Klopotenko, who’s the most famous chef in Ukraine. He has a new cookbook route about capturing the flavors of all the regions in Ukraine. And he was telling me that before the war, he actually foraged around Chernobyl and served things he found there in the restaurant, like little touches and garnishes in dishes—which absolutely blew my mind. And he was saddened because of the war, all the forest area around Chernobyl is now laid landmines. So, you can’t park there anymore. But I was surprised to see how it doesn’t bother Ukrainians to at least engage their produce and engage foraging. The last thing I thought about was like where my food and drinks were coming from while I was there. But yeah, Andre at Sino changed the menu every week and he just used what was seasonal, what he could find around to really challenge people’s perception of what you know classic cocktails were, and so that was, that was no surprise. And then he led me to another bar called Bar Over, which was a spin off of a bar called a Ditch Bar in Kharkiv. And Kharkiv is all the way in eastern Ukraine, kind of like near the front line that is attacked. I think I was just horribly attacked the last couple days. And Ditch Bar is one of the last bars standing in Kharkiv, and also one of the best—very cool bars, they take care of their own. People come there and get whatever resources they need, but also they make awesome cocktails. They do canned cocktails to go, and one of the owners from Ditch Bar decided to move west and open in Lviv. And you saw a lot of bar owners from the east more and more opening in the west, where it’s safer. There’s less of a reason to attack the west of Ukraine. And so they were opening in Lviv. And so the open bar over there, and it’s this beautiful, intimate upstairs bar and dining room. And just like class cocktails, I mean, he made an excellent Negroni with a non Campari product. And everyone creates not only great drinks, but really intimate environments, everyone really focuses on making a stand out space that is unique into itself, both for its menu and it’s decor and ambiance, energy, like would make it a bar you would see on a 50 Best Discovery list or 50 Best list if they were judges getting in the country, which there are there aren’t right now. 

Sara Ventiera  31:25  

Yeah, I mean, speaking of which, how did you even get into the country? How did that process work? 

Adam Robb  31:31  

Yeah, I flew from New York to Krakow. Krakow, the nearest big airport to the Ukrainian border and so there’s a great car service called A Transfer, highly recommended. And it’s all Mercedes Sprinter vans or Mercedes. But they’ll take you the six hours it takes to drive from Krakow airport to Lviv for less than the price of an Uber from Midtown to Atlantic City. And so as far as bad ideas go, that was an affordable one. And so they’re great drivers. They know how to navigate Polish customs, and Ukrainian border control. And the first three, three and a half hours to drive from Krakow to the border, it’s just open highways and you see US military equipment, or other NATO military equipment moving into Ukraine. So, you see police cars, like escorting tanks and things up flatbeds, going into the country. And then you get to the border control and it’s multiple lines. Because no planes go into Ukraine or ships, everything comes in now by truck from the west. So, you see miles and miles of lines and trucks that are like everything for World Central Kitchen to fuel, whatever. And so you see those backed up for, I have no idea how long they process, I can imagine how long those drivers like sleeping their trucks, waiting to just move up, I guess one batch at a time, through customs. The car lines are a little bit shorter and so when you enter Ukraine, when you leave the EU,  you leave Poland, you get ushered through, they don’t really like to search your luggage or anything. And then in Ukraine, it’s pretty easy. The only issues are like when you leave Ukraine and get to the EU, I will say they search everything. It takes forever. And I do not recommend the car to leave Ukraine because those lines are tragic. It’s much faster on a train or on a bus. But my experience was that when you leave Ukraine, they open. Like when I was on a train with all the Ukrainian women, they opened every woman’s suitcase and they went through like every possession. They’re just really looking to see what gets smuggled out of Ukraine, into the EU. And yeah, on a human level you can understand that, you know, people want to take valuables with them whatever is important to them and get it, but then I understand you also worry about other kinds of smuggling. But they are very strict and search everything and that slows down the line. So, if it’s six hours going in, it could be like 24 hours going out. So it’s much faster on the train or bus. But the car was the best way. And, so I took the car on the first day and got to Lviv in the morning, and I was slowed down by about an hour. I already had a full schedule of appointments of people to meet and I already missed my first one. I was already feeling over my head because about an hour outside of Lviv traffic just came to a halt, and there was a funeral procession going down the other lane of traffic in whatever small town we were driving through. And our driver got out and I got out, and you saw, like a military band, a whole congregation from a church and young girls like walking behind a hearse with flowers and just the whole town everything stops. And this happens every day because you see the people die every day and there are more every day. And that is one thing that you can’t ignore. And I think that, that was one thing I couldn’t ignore the first time I went. And then the most recent time I went, I think the one that I couldn’t ignore was just how many wounded vets are everywhere, which I did not see a year ago, and how prevalent that was, especially in Kyiv. But going in, we paused for the funeral and then made our way into the city. And I already missed my first appointment with a bakery that I just wrote about last week for New York Magazine that had a viral pastry. And I felt bad because these people, again, have a thriving business, and they’re trying to live their best lives. And you know, I’m late to the game in terms of reporters coming to Ukraine. And so I’m sure they’ve dealt with foreign press before. And, you know, I didn’t need me holding up their whole day. So, it took me a while to get acclimated and to apologize to them, and get a second interview. And that was an adjustment. And I went to the Lviv Tourism Board Office to check in with them, I think they’ve become, they’ve kind of pivoted to being a press liaison office. And they were kind enough to just help smooth over some introductions and, and set me on the right foot for the rest of the day to go smoothly. And they felt good. And then, you know, within hours, I think, after that I really felt at home with everyone I spoke to. And you know, you go to the hotel, you check in the hotel, like you would anywhere else. I think the only thing is that American Express does not work anywhere in Ukraine. And other than that I felt pretty at ease, and that you check in is like any other hotel with all the amenities. Then use that as my jumping off point to just before we town. And then the only thing that was like, I guess little eerie was the end of the first night coming back there, and just like realizing, like the streets out the window are empty. And we’re all just indoors now until the next day. 

Sara Ventiera  36:52  

Yeah, I mean, I guess that’s like my last question, like having gone twice now and having experienced what it’s, you know, or getting a little taste of what it’s like to live life, or at least see life being lived in the midst of war. What’s your takeaway from those experiences, like, what did it leave you with?

Adam Robb  37:17  

It just left me feeling. I wish when this is all over, and people go back, and like, look at the reporting done. I know all the reporting that everyone’s doing over there, at the moment is very important when we’re talking about troop movements and aid and, and money. But I just think the human aspect is a little bit overlooked. And, and I would love to know, after all this, I’d love to see more reporting like that, and just more peoples’ stories told. Because, for the average citizen in all these cities, and towns or villages everywhere, there are just moments that would be otherwise recognized or celebrated just aren’t being seen by the outside world, or even maybe, you know, in the larger world in the country, and that just makes me feel terrible. I just think about how in the US there’s been such a shift from outlets closing and a shift from hard news reporting to lifestyle reporting and influencers and, and TikTok and personal essays, and I think it’s ingrained in Americans under any conditions, the COVID the pandemic is example this like, we’ll always kind of like, celebrate and recognize what we’re doing amongst ourselves. And I don’t see enough of that. I think maybe it’s not ingrained in people over there anyway, to just live that way. And maybe it’s too narcissistic, but people should get recognized for the good work they do. And I just wish there were more reporters there exploring that. So, I find that fulfilling and it motivates me to keep going back. So, I’m going back in a couple weeks, I’m going back in August to make a documentary. And I just want people there to feel more seen. And and I just want American readers to have more empathy and see themselves in these people and not think that victims of any war, any violence, a tragedy anywhere are like some other kinds of people that aren’t like themselves, because going over there you very much feel these people are are just like you, and I just want that to be better recognized.

Sara Ventiera  39:35  

Yeah, I think that you did a really great job of sort of highlighting the everyday life and like everyday successes and accomplishments of people, but also just the resilience and sort of will to keep going in the face of catastrophic circumstances. I’d imagine that it would probably leave a mark and sort of change you to some extent after having experienced that where most of us have not come even close. 

Adam Robb  40:01  

I think it changed for the better. I think that the people I’ve spoken with would talk about how they’ve been living their lives the last two and a half years, the best of them experience a level of empathy that no human being is normally pushed to experience. And the way they just see themself and one another, and are eager to help one another and engage one another, it brings out a real selflessness and everyone, that is, people don’t expect to be driven to that level of virtue. And it’s a great thing they are and they recognize it’s a great thing, that they have become virtuous in that way. But it shouldn’t take a tragedy to make people that virtuous. 

Sara Ventiera  40:46  

So would you say the takeaway is, we all need to cultivate more empathy for one another? 

Adam Robb  40:53  

Cultivate more empathy and see yourself in other people and that diplomacy is always the best solution.

Sara Ventiera  41:02  

Well, on that note, I really appreciate your time with us and your work on the story. It was a pleasure to read, and we’re very happy to have it on our site. And thank you. 

Adam Robb  41:15  

Thank you so much.

Sara Ventiera  41:21  

It’s hard to imagine how one would go on living life in such extraordinary circumstances. But we’re grateful to get a peek into the ways Ukraine’s hospitality professionals have attempted to cultivate a sense of normalcy and escape for their community. How would you cope? We want to know, you can email us your comments and questions at Remember, you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Google, Spotify and anywhere else you listen to your favorite shows. You can also go to for more episodes and transcripts. I’m Sara Ventiera, thanks for listening.