San Diego restaurants pull Russian vodka and wear flags of solidarity to protest war in Ukraine – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Numerous San Diego restaurant owners took steps over the weekend to show their support for the Ukrainian people by pulling Russian vodka from their bar shelves, while one local Russian restaurant is reeling from a wave of public attacks.

Ike Gazaryan, owner of seven-year-old Pushkin Russian Restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter, said that since the Russian invasion on Thursday, Feb. 24, his business has received eight threatening phone calls, numerous critical 1-star reviews on and Google and many canceled reservations.

Ike Gazaryan owner of Pushkin Russian Restaurant, in downtown San Diego, photographed inside his restaurant in 2020.

Ike Gazaryan owner of Pushkin Russian Restaurant, in downtown San Diego, photographed inside his restaurant in 2020.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Gazaryan is Armenian by birth and much of his family lives in Odessa, Ukraine. His family emigrated to the U.S. from Russia 24 years ago to escape the dictatorial regime of now-president Vladimir Putin. About half of the employees at Pushkin are from Ukraine and all of the Russian people he knows — including two employees, many customers and several longtime friends who still live in Russia — are opposed to the war.

“I told my wife I was expecting some of the people who are are not so bright to attack a restaurant that has nothing to do with the politics and Vladimir Putin’s efforts to restore the former Soviet Union. We are all immigrants here that fled Russian because of his regime and wanted to find a better life for ourselves,” Gazaryan said.

As soon as Russia invaded Ukraine, Gazaryan said phone calls started coming in from phones with blocked caller IDs. Some of them sounded like teenagers making crank calls but some of the callers were adults, shouting and making threats. One long-booked party of 20 canceled their reservation over the weekend and a man from Ukraine who hosted weekly board games at Pushkin said his group will find another place to meet.

Gazaryan said he was able to get the critical 1-star reviews removed from Yelp because they were politically motivated, but two new 1-star reviews are still published on Google Maps.

On the positive side, Gazaryan said local Ukrainians who marched in an anti-war protest in downtown San Diego on Saturday finished their day with dinner at Pushkin, where most of the employees had the Ukraine flag painted on their cheeks that night.

Gazaryan said he named the restaurant after his favorite Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, who was repressed by the Russian regime and was against war. He said Pushkin’s menu offers a mix of Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Armenian and other cuisines. Only a few of the ingredients he uses in his restaurant are imported from Russia.

“Trying to cancel a restaurant because it has Russia in its name is hurting our employees and it’s hurting their families in Ukraine who they send money to,” Gazaryan said.

Employees of Pushkin Russian Restaurant in San Diego with the Ukraine flag painted on their cheeks on Feb. 26.

Employees of Pushkin Russian Restaurant in San Diego with the Ukraine flag painted on their cheeks on Feb. 26.

(Ike Gazaryan)

Also over the weekend, a couple dozen San Diego restaurants and bars pulled Russian vodka from their bar shelves.

The local campaign was announced on Sunday with a brief post on Cohn Restaurant Group’s Instagram page, saying the move was “a very small gesture of solidary with Ukrainian people and against Russia’s unprovoked aggression.” Cohn Restaurant Group (CRG) is San Diego’s largest restaurant group, with 25 restaurants and bars in California and Hawaii.

In the wake of the post, many other restaurant owners joined the effort, including George’s at the Cove, Jake’s Del Mar, Mille Fleurs, King’s Seafood, Callie, Black Rail Kitchen, Café Sevilla, Rockin’ Baja Lobster, Johnny B’s Burgers & Spirits, Curbside Eatery and the Urban Kitchen Group.

CRG co-founder David Cohn said he got the idea from seeing other restaurant and bar owners making a similar statement and he thought it was a good cause to support.

After CRG’s post was published, Cohn said the company got some pushback from followers who said the effort was “stupid” and wouldn’t make a dent in Russia’s economy. Cohn said that wasn’t the point.

“The truth is, it’s not meant to get the attention of Putin,” Cohn said, in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We’re all frustrated and we’re all wondering why this aggression is taking place and what we can do about it. We’re not naive. This isn’t about an economic impact. We’re just trying to do something.”

Urban Kitchen Group, which owns five Italian-themed Cucina restaurants in San Diego and Orange counties, doesn’t serve Russian vodkas but the company wanted to support solidarity efforts like CRG’s vodka ban. Instead, Urban Kitchen Group will raise money this week for Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, which mobilizes chefs and purveyors worldwide to fee refugees and disaster-stricken populations worldwide.

“We stand together. We dine together. Our hearts are with Ukraine,” said Tracy Borkum, owner of Urban Kitchen Group, who said the company will donate a portion of sales for all spring cocktails purchased March 1 through 6 to World Central Kitchen.

Cohn said he hopes the gesture will raise awareness among customers about the war when bar servers explain the reason for the absence of Russian vodka. In truth, most Russian vodka is produced at distilleries outside of Russia, but the effort by local restaurants and bars will get people thinking about the injustice being done to people in Ukraine.

Cohn said he’s grateful to see the solidarity that has formed among local restaurant owners, who have all been devastated financially by the pandemic. He also hopes the war will come to a peaceful and diplomatic end so Russian vodka can be returned to bar shelves.

“It’s great to see all my restaurant friends reach out and say we’re on board and we’ll join you in the effort,” Cohn said. “Some of them had ready taken steps to remove Russian vodka. It’s a small movement that’s part of a bigger response to what’s going on in the Ukraine. It’s just something that people can do when the news and the images make them feel like there’s nothing they can do.”