Note: This is part of a series. Read part one here.
I looked to my left and right. I was flanked by two British diplomats and an Arab (unknown country of origin), all of whom were surrounded by Eastern European hookers. This was the B Hush bar’s rooftop lounge, Velyka Zhytomyrska Street, 2А, Kiev, Ukraine, and the night was getting interesting.
What makes a good spy bar? Unusually, a high-priced drink menu (to keep locals out), good local security, and an owner or manager who caters to diplomats’ need for discretion. These seem to be among the top traits, in my opinion.
The problem? Most these places are wide-open hunting grounds for the experienced enemy counter-intelligence professional. But I’m not giving a lesson on covert intelligence gathering; I’m not qualified to do so anyway, as I’m just a former SEAL with a bunch of spy friends who talk too much. Tonight, I was out to have fun with my Kiev friends, and see how many crazy spies I could spot.
I always wondered why so many young diplomats from State and the CIA are so awkward abroad, but I guess you have to chalk it up to a lack of life experience. You’d think they’d spend more time training for this at The Farm, but I guess there’s no replacing experience. Not that the young special operations guys abroad are any different; you can spot them by their ball caps, American chewing tabacco, lax grooming standards, extremely yoked-out physiques, and tattoos. You can usually confirm it when the guy looks back at you with a “who the fuck are you looking at” stare. Return the look right back, and it’s usually greeted with an “ah, you’re one too” acknowledgement before you both go about your business. But tonight we’re talking about spy bars, so enough alpha male bullshit for now. Plenty of that for later.
We started off at TGI Fridays in downtown Kiev. I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking “no fucking way” myself. I even asked Buck (twice!) if he was bullshitting me. He said again, “Seriously.” He was right.
TGI Fridays was pretty tame. It was obvious that this was not a local favorite, but hell, that’s what makes a good spy haunt. No State or CIA worker wants a bunch of locals overhearing them while they bitch about work. I had two beers with my friend and then we were off to meet another friend of ours at the Hilton. Cabbing around Kiev is a strange endeavor; there are plenty of cabs around, but it appeared that unless you called dispatch directly, you couldn’t get one. Most of the idle taxi drivers seemed to be taking a break, and didn’t seem to give a shit about me trying to beg a cab in broken Ukrainian. We were better off using Uklon. Sorry Uber, some young tech guys in Ukraine cloned you guys already, and Uklon was way better than calling the local taxi service. Off to the Hilton.
The Hilton H Bar
The Hilton H bar was a completely different experience from TGI Fridays, and far away from embassy row. Right off, stepping into the joint, it was obvious that this bar and hotel was a favorite among visiting diplomats and U.S. military. Personally, I’ve found it much safer to use Airbnb—these hotels are known to be bugged—but hell, who am I to say.
I saddled up to the almost overly trendy, brightly lit bar with my two friends and ordered a Zacapa neat (If you haven’t tried Zacapa, I highly recommend it—best rum I’ve ever had), and proceeded to watch the show.
A nice-looking Ukrainian girl was being paid to sing. She was OK by karaoke standards, but no American Idol singer. Far from it. What she lacked in talent, however, she made up for in looks. More entertaining than her were two British spies to my left, and two young American Army guys (you can always spot the Army guys!) at a table at the end of the bar.
None of them made any attempt to blend in, and I’m not sure they gave a shit anyway. After all, they were at the Hilton, in comfortable surroundings, far from downtown Kiev and any trouble. Or were they? I noticed several people, including some of the staff, keeping tabs on who was coming and going in this place. Again, none of my business. Just an observation.
After three drinks, my friends and I decided we’d had a enough and summoned up another Uklon driver to take us to the Intercontinental Hotel—home of the posh B Hush Bar. It was getting late for me, but the drinks were helping me push through the jet lag, and you know what they say in Navy SEAL training: “Nobody likes a quitter.”
The B Hush Rooftop Bar
We took the elevator up to the roof of the Intercontinental Hotel’s B Hush and I felt like I was back in a trendy Manhattan rooftop club. It felt a little aged to me, but not the bottle prices and private tables—they were both priced into the four figures in U.S. dollars, with cocktails starting at $15-20 USD. What the hell? The company was paying for it, I thought, smiling. My smile faded when I realized it was still coming out of my own pocket! Things just got real. It was very unlikely that some pencil-neck IRS agent would be sympathetic to my writing this off.
Normally, the tables were reserved for bottle service only, but it was still early by B Hush standards and my friends and I were given a private table with two very attentive cocktail waitresses. They sandwiched us in between two interesting tables.
The B Hush was slowly filling up. The service was excellent, but the cocktails weren’t that great, and were the most expensive I’d seen to date. Note: The exchange rate was roughly $24 Hryvnia to $1 USD. Typical drinks in nicer local places ran $48-90 Hryvnia, or two to three bucks American. A good bottle of Georgian wine with dinner was around $100 Hryvnia. Food and drink were both great values in Kiev.
As I sat down and pulled off my jacket, I gave a glance to the left. There, I saw two British diplomats whispering to what had to be two prostitutes. They were listening with a disciplined attentiveness that only money or the promise of a permanent visa could demand. The hookers in Kiev were incredibly pretty, but looked feral-alley-cat savvy, which was more than I could say for their two drunk companions. Oh well, I thought to myself. It could be worse; at least they weren’t with two she-males in Thailand. I’ll tell that story another day.
After our drinks arrived, we stepped out onto the rooftop patio. I stood up and looked to my right to see the table that was previously at my back. A boisterous Arab was chatting up three ladies. He gave me a knowing wink; I’m not sure what it meant, but no need to be an asshole. I grinned back. I’ve found there are two types of wealthy Arabs: the really loud ones, and the really quiet ones. The loud ones have never worried me, the quiet ones always have. My friends wanted to smoke, and were already at the sliding door, stepping outside.
Unfortunately, a lot of people still find smoking cool in Kiev (I think this is true of a lot of Eastern European countries I’ve been to), and they sure as hell weren’t letting the -4 degree Celsius night air stop them. Temps drop to -20 in the winter. Ukraine is no place for sissies. Most women wear skirts and nylons all winter long; their core temps stay warm by beautiful down and fur (yes, gasp, real fur) coats.
I’m not a big smoker, but I did want to see the view. It was stunning looking out over the powerful river Dnieper, and the historical green-topped roof of St. Andrew’s church was worth the secondhand smoke. Before we stepped back inside, I snapped a quick picture of the Arab guy and his female companions with my iPhone 6.
We stayed for one more round, and decided to leave to try our last spot, Dogs & Tails. Something about gourmet hot dogs and fancy craft-made cocktails sounded pretty fucking cool to me. This wasn’t a known spy haunt, it was a local favorite.
Dogs & Tails
My visit to Dogs & Tails was before Halloween; this holiday is not widely celebrated in Eastern Europe, but over the last few years it has taken root, and the place was definitely decorated in true Halloween spirit. Most people only go out on Friday and Saturday nights in Kiev, and even then, most places are only frequented by Kiev’s elite young professionals and the rich. The rest earn less than $500 USD a month, and don’t have the disposable income to party.
Dogs & Tails is not an easy place to find. We parked off a main street, but then had to weave through several side streets and a small alley before arriving at the front door around 0120 local time. The place was incredibly cool, and worth the effort. I was tired of the bullshit bars we’d been at all night, and was ready for some authentic Kiev local action.
When we walked into the place, we were greeted by a small, stocky guy at the door who was taking coats. This is very common in Kiev, and tipping is appreciated but in no way expected. The place was packed that night, standing room only, but one of the young guys I was with knew the manager—an attractive brunette—and after a quick talk with her, she whisked us away to a private table in the back.
As we walked back, I noticed a private section to the right close to the door. I could tell straightaway it wasn’t filled with locals. My guess was CIA or British intelligence. I’m a sniper, and snipers are trained to notice things. I could tell they weren’t locals based off their dress, body type, and hairstyles. The women in the party were also 20-30 lbs. heavier than most locals, and their eyes were much different. Local girls in Kiev are very slim, and have striking eyes. I think they’re so slim and fit because they walk everywhere, and the cold weather is also a calorie burner.
I like to think I was doing a pretty good job of blending in—nicely dressed but with very plain jeans and a black shirt. I was also with three locals, which always helps. The group I noticed had their own private section by the door, they were extremely loud, and they were standing out like turds in a birthday party punch bowl. They were loud enough that I could hear American and British accents over the DJ. Not that this is a bad thing; I just didn’t expect to see such a large group of foreigners outside of their usual high-priced haunts. We headed to a table in the back.
There, we looked at the menu. I ordered a stiff bourbon cocktail and one of the local hotdogs (both were extremely good), which was helping to soak up my buzz. I started talking Ukrainian and American politics with my friend and realized that so many problems and differences can be accepted or smoothed over with a shared meal or stiff drink. I finished my rant about drones and the loss of privacy in America, and my hosts were ready for another cigarette. I was going to sit this one out. I’d seen the alley already. I would skip the secondhand smoke and chat up the table next to us, filled with some people my Kiev friends knew from work.
What scared me about the table next to us was the full bottles of vodka and bourbon that had just been slammed down with thunderous deliverance by the young, pretty waitress. “Oh shit,” I thought to myself. I don’t like doing shots, but some things are unavoidable. What the hell.
I could still feel the bourbon burning in my esophagus from the last shot when my group got back to the table, still smelling like cheap Ukrainian cigarettes. They started laughing and talking about the drunk British guys talking to all the girls outside over smokes. It appeared their cover stories dissolved after only a few drinks, and they were in full spy pick-up mode. Too funny. Some things never change.
It was a relatively tame night in Kiev, but I was only here a short time, and there is a hard edge hidden just below the surface. It’s a serious city with strong ties to Russia, and certainly Russian intelligence agents are pervasive and always looking for opportunities to turn a new asset. I had a gut feeling that if I had another week to explore, things would get very interesting for me indeed.
It was now 0300. We paid our bill, took one more drink, grabbed our coats from the stocky door guy, and said our goodbyes outside. As I walked off into the freezing night, my breath visible on the night air, I kept thinking how much I was looking forward to my next trip to Kiev. My mind started to wander a bit, and then it hit me: There’s so much to explore in my own backyard in Manhattan. Spy bars of the UN and Manhattan, here I come.