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Vodka! Borscht! Toasts! Inside the World of Russian-Style Restaurants

By Flora Tsapovsky

02.10.20

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Red Tavern in San Francisco serves up traditional Russian fare with 21st-century style.

Courtesy of Red Tavern

Red Tavern in San Francisco serves up traditional Russian fare with 21st-century style.

In cities around the globe, another dimension of dining experiences awaits.

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Imagine a windowless room with golden drapes offsetting white tablecloths, chairs with intricately decorated backs, artfully folded napkins, and extravagant china. Only it’s not candlelight that illuminates it all, but pink and blue neon. There’s no need to order—the food flows to the table like a banquet: pickles and mayo-adorned salads, blini (crepes) and piroshki (savory stuffed buns), creamed and baked mushrooms. Vodka and wine bottles are set, begging to be poured. Then, after the appetizers and before mains arrive (dozens of skewers! a festive stuffed pig or hen! potatoes, always), music strikes, and everyone gets up to dance. A DJ? No way. Instead, there’s a live band, performing Europop tunes and luring couples to dance with Russian ballads from past decades. If you’re lucky, there are backup dancers wearing sequins and black velvet. Toasts and speeches are yelled over the music into a microphone. More dancing. Food. Repeat. 

This is the Russian restaurant—existing behind closed doors everywhere Russian immigrants reside, from Melbourne to New York City, from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia. The act of dining takes on a meaning beyond the 90-minute appetizer-entrée-dessert affair. At a Russian restaurant, it’s always celebration time, and the endless flow of food is sometimes mixed with a bona fide nightclub atmosphere. And while expats everywhere flock to these traditional restaurants for a good time, slowly, urban dwellers from outside the community have started to discover the immersive experience.

Glasses piled high at Emperor, a European restaurant in Philadelphia.

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Growing up in Communist-era Moscow in the late 1980s, we could enjoy fine dining at only a handful of places. Conveniently, these were also the places where we’d celebrate a wedding or a big birthday. As a Russian child, I’d occasionally be dragged to such a celebration and sit there, decked out in my best clothes, in front of a whole chicken decked out in hers (paper flowers around the roast bird’s legs were all the rage then). The Russian restaurant—a mix of feasting, drinking, socializing, and dancing, multi-generational disco style—might be the expat’s answer to that era. Upon moving to Israel in the 90s, I realized that many immigrants chose to mark life’s festive occasions like weddings and birthdays in similar establishments, as if it weren’t humid Israeli summertime outside. All around Israel, banquet-style, immigrant-owned Russian-style restaurants with grand and important names, like Emperor or Black Knight, still operate weekly. And they’re not alone. 

Russian and other former USSR cuisines, like Georgian or Lithuanian, are having a moment, being reinvented and made edgier by young chefs. The “new” Russian restaurant is contemporary and sophisticated. Outside of Russia, places like Kachka in Portland, Oregon, and Zima in London honor and celebrate the cuisine of my childhood in clever ways. Their designs are reserved. 

Diners can enjoy traditional menu items like borscht at Nevsky Russian Restaurant in Melbourne.

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But the old-school Russian-style restaurant remains. Not all of them are owned by former residents of what we now know as Russia. Rather, owners may be from any country of the former Soviet bloc, from Belarus to Ukraine. Some describe their food as “European” or “fusion,” and the menus may feature French-inspired dishes or Mediterranean touches. The stars of the show, however, are often the dishes popularized during the Soviet era. Over the top, rich, and elaborately decorated, they have names like “Salad Exclusive” and “Royal fish platter.” In Brooklyn, Romanoff Restaurant will welcome you with towers of caviar sandwiches and live concerts. In Philadelphia, Golden Gates and Emperor dazzle with opulent decor and plates of smoked fish and cured meat. After first discovering modern Russian food in updated, chic eateries, why not go back in time and try the classic next? 

“Non-Russian people are looking for new dining experiences more often nowadays,” says Ilya Shekin, who operates Nevsky Russian Restaurant in Melbourne, Australia. “When we opened in 2011, we were initially a bit surprised by just how many non-Russians found us.” How does the average Australian find out about Nevsky? Through the grapevine, mostly. “Often we will have a table with only one or two Russian/European-background guests, and the rest of the guests at the table are non-Russian, for Russians like to introduce their cuisine to others,” says Shekin. “Nevsky is also popular with the LGBTQIA demographic as we are known as a ‘safe’ space. Our waitstaff are renowned for their friendliness, knowledge, and willingness to talk about the food, vodka, and Russian culture.” As for Russians who don’t cook Russian fare at home, “It’s a trip down memory lane from childhood, for convenience, for gatherings,” he says. 

Emperor Restaurant in Philadelphia serves caviar for guests.

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San Francisco’s Richmond district is dotted with Russian restaurants like Russian Renaissance, Beluga, and Red Tavern. “In every restaurant you’ll visit, the cadence of the evening is the same,” says co-owner Igor Litvak, who took over Red Tavern in 2017 after his mother passed away unexpectedly. “But the Russian restaurant offers more time. On the weekends, when we offer banquets, the customers are in no rush, they come to hang out for the whole evening.” And while the authentic banquet is yet to be fully embraced by non-Russian diners, Litvak thinks it’s about time. “It’s extremely unique—the large-format dance and eat experience isn’t prevalent outside of the Russian restaurant,” he notes. “We’d love more Americans to do that. Classic Russian restaurants and cuisine are unlike common Americana and they’re truly a window into the wonderful culture of Russia. Just ask your friendly neighborhood Russian!” And why not? Instead of frantically bar-hopping or squeezing a dinner and a concert into a stressful evening, instead of painstakingly picking from the menu as a group, only to get lost in Venmo calculations later, a one-stop shop with preplanned food, unlimited alcohol, and music is an age-old scenario that feels surprisingly new. 

>>Next: The Surprising Story of Moscow’s Food Revolution

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