Restaurants are ideal places for spies to ply their trade, as there’s plenty of ambient noise, a nice crowd to throw things off, and food to go around, which tends to alleviate stress. Here are five restaurants where tradecraft was the daily special.
1. Au Pied de Cochon, Georgetown
Vitaly Yurchenko was a 25-year veteran of the KGB who defected to the United States in 1985. It was quite a coup for the CIA—he was the fifth-highest ranking Soviet spymaster at the time, and the Kremlin was terrified at what he might reveal. Then he disappeared. Then he reappeared in the Soviet Union and was eventually given an Order of the Red Star.
So what happened? Because he was such an important figure, he had a CIA escort at all times. He and his American counterpart were having dinner at Au Pied de Cochon in Georgetown. According to Time, Yurchenko asked his guard, “What would you do if I got up and walked out? Would you shoot me?” The CIA man said, “No, we don't treat defectors that way.” Yurchenko replied, “I'll be back in fifteen or twenty minutes. If I'm not, it will not be your fault.”
He didn’t come back.
He excused himself to the restroom, climbed out a window, and bolted for the Soviet Embassy. The KGB proceeded to drug and interrogate him to make sure he wasn’t a double agent, and when he passed muster, the Soviets held a press conference and had a great time mocking the United States. There are a lot of theories about why, exactly, he defected and redefected. Maybe he was crazy. Maybe it was a love affair gone wrong. Maybe he was tired of the CIA following him around.
Today, the former spymaster is a security guard at a bank in Moscow; the Soviet Union collapsed and dissolved into fifteen states. And Au Pied de Cochon is a Five Guys hamburger joint.
2. Chadwicks, Georgetown
Some people go to Chadwicks for the burgers. Some go for the beer. Some go for—as Chadwicks itself proclaims—“casual dining at its very best.” CIA case officer Aldrich Ames went to destroy U.S. operations in the Soviet Union.
On June 13, 1985, Ames met with Viktor Cherkashin, the Soviet chief of counterintelligence at the Soviet embassy in Washington. As Cherkashin recounted in his memoir, “Intelligence officers might think they’re chiefly responsible for recruiting agents, but most of the work really consists of finding people who want to be recruited.” After careful prodding, it was clear that Ames was just such a man. He had financial problems and an ax to grind, and though he claimed to abhor communism, he admitted a respect for the Soviet Union. “Then began the second chapter in Ames’s spy career. He hesitated, then took out a notepad and paper and began writing down a list of names.”
Aldrich Ames revealed the identities of more than one hundred CIA agents in the Soviet Union. In the weeks and months that followed, when the agents started disappearing, the “fifth floor” at Langley grew alarmed. Then the executions began. Ames’s price was $4.6 million, and his actions were the single most devastating compromise in CIA history. He was caught after buying a half-million-dollar house in cash, driving to work in a Jaguar, and wearing tailored suits—while supposedly living on a $60,000/year salary.
Meanwhile, Viktor Cherkashin was just getting started. He later turned Robert Hanssen, who would become the worst compromise in FBI history.
3. Aragvi Restaurant, Moscow
Pyotr Semyonovich Popov was a master spy and member of the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel'noye Upravleniye (GRU), the intelligence branch of the Soviet military. He came to detest the Soviet Union and its treatment of peasants, and eventually approached the CIA in Vienna. He became the first U.S. agent in the GRU. Popov is regarded for his dauntless and unparalleled tradecraft—he regularly got vital and invaluable information to the CIA even while being monitored by the Soviets.
After he was transferred to the Transportation Corps and stationed near Sverdlovsk, the information provided by Popov began to decline in quality. This puzzled and worried the CIA, and Popov himself soon provided an explanation: the KGB had arrested him, and was trying to turn him into a double agent. With signature boldness, Popov informed the CIA of this at the Aragvi Restaurant in Moscow. While under constant surveillance by KGB officers, Popov slipped a note to his CIA handler in the restaurant restroom. The message had been written on scraps of toilet paper over the course of several months.
Before the Aragvi meeting, Popov cut open his hand, wrapped the wound with the note, and wrapped it with a bandage. In the message, he explained the situation fully, including what information he had revealed to the Soviets while under interrogation. The note read in part: “Because the KGB believed I had confessed fully, they are using me in this double agent game. I was told that if I cooperate, my sentence might only be fifteen years. Thus I beg you to act as if you know nothing of this trap. I will keep you informed about my situation and the KGB’s intentions... Do not take any chances.”
Popov was executed a few months later. Though details are hazy, it is thought that British double agent George Behar betrayed him.
Popov’s CIA handler was George Kisevalter, who was also responsible for Oleg Penkovsky, the Soviet military intelligence officer who warned the United States about missiles being sent to Cuba. This is better known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
4. Le Meurice, Paris
On May 14, 1989, Felix Bloch, the director for Canadian and European Affairs for the U.S. State Department, arrived for dinner at Restaurant Le Meurice in Paris. His dining companion was Reino Gikman, an agent of the KGB. Unbeknownst to either man was that across the room were French counterintelligence agents with the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire. They photographed Bloch arriving with a black briefcase and leaving empty-handed, and Gikman arriving empty-handed and leaving with a black briefcase. As The New York Times reported, “It was an expensive dinner. The Meurice always is. But the KGB picked up the check.”
The FBI was eager to put Bloch away, but never managed to prosecute successfully. This was in part because the FBI and the CIA got into a turf war. The Company wanted to snatch both men that night at the restaurant. The Bureau wanted to lure Bloch back to the United States, where he would be easier to arrest. Bloch, meanwhile, protested innocence. Inside the briefcase was a stamp collection, he said. (And in fairness, Bloch was an avid stamp collector.) Either way, once he got back to the United States, the trail went cold. Someone had warned Bloch by phone to lay low and cut off contact with his KGB friend. The FBI believes that Robert Hanssen was responsible for the call.
Bloch was fired from the State Department and stalked relentlessly by the press. After one interview with Time magazine that was conducted at a restaurant, he thanked the reporter, saying he hoped they could do it again, “providing I don’t defect to East Berlin first.” He then turned to the FBI agents spying on him from across the restaurant. “Just kidding,” he said.
Bloch eventually got a job as a checkout bagger at a grocery store. He was later arrested for stealing bags of groceries.
5. Chez Espionage, Washington D.C.
There’s nothing like plotting international intrigue to build up an appetite. When spymasters at the Central Intelligence Agency wanted to get out of the office and blow off some steam, they used to meet at a restaurant laughably codenamed Chez Espionage. The actual venue seems to have rotated, or maybe it’s been clouded by disinformation, but French restaurants La Niçoise and L’Escargot have been named as meeting places. (Last reports put it at an unnamed country club.) David Atlee Phillips, former CIA chief of operations in the western hemisphere, came up with the codename.