I grew up as a second generation American in the 1960's with four grandparents who were born in Russia. Two of them had very thick accents and often spoke in a bizarre combination of Russian and Yiddish that no one else outside of family seemed to understand. My family clearly identified ourselves as Jewish, and other than the words borscht and pogrom, I knew nothing about Russia until we studied it in high school history.
In 1974, when I was 18 years old, my parents and paternal grandmother took me to the Russian Tea Room (RTR) for lunch. It was one of those rare New York restaurants with a unique combination of tourists, New Yorkers and celebrities. Red leather banquets predominated and beautiful bronze samovars were scattered throughout the restaurant. There were colorful paintings everywhere, and they all seemed to be the kind that I had seen in art books and museums. The waiters wore bright red tunics and always seemed to be running to and from the bar carrying huge trays of Bloody Mary's. My lunch (borsch and chicken kiev) was delicious and the only disappointment came when none of the staff could answer my grandmother's questions in her native tongue. We returned numerous times over the next few years and every visit was memorable.
In May 1978 I graduated from college and needed to bolster my finances in order to find an apartment in Manhattan. I had worked as a bartender during my senior year in school, so I applied for a bartending position at the RTR and after a test of my mixology skills I was hired. It was the perfect stopgap job and one of the perks was that the staff could order our meals (except for caviar and chicken kiev) right off the menu. A few months passed and I secured a job in film production, and over the next 20 years I dined frequently at the RTR for lunch, dinner and a drink or two before and after concerts at Carnegie Hall.
The Russian Tea Room opened in 1927 (the restaurant closed its doors in 2002 and reopened in 2006) and is currently celebrating its 85th anniversary so recently I decided to pay a visit. The RTR has always been more of an institution than a restaurant and everything looks the same other than the bar, which has been moved from the right side of the restaurant to the left. As I sat down and enjoyed a single malt scotch I surveyed the room and looked over at where the bar used to be and recalled serving a drink to Liza Minnelli and getting a smile from Princess Grace of Monaco as she walked past the bar to her table.
The clubby celebrity buzz is gone (although I recently spotted Russell Crowe & Emma Watson at lunch) but it's been replaced by a quiet elegance and egalitarianism that I much prefer. The décor is exactly as it was when I first dined there. No other place in New York City screams the holidays like the RTR. Christmas balls are up 365 days a year and with a red, green and gold color scheme the atmosphere is always festive. The food is still excellent and at a recent lunch I especially enjoyed the beet salad (yellow and red beets with crumbled blue cheese and spiced walnuts) and the pan seared lamb chops. On a subsequent visit I had the butternut squash soup and the chicken salad. Both were delicious.
Ken Biberaj is the RTR's Vice President and is also a democratic candidate for the city council on the Upper West Side in 2013. Biberaj explained what's new at the RTR: "Everyone has to grapple with change, so we've taken this historical brand and modernized it for a new generation of New Yorkers. We want the Tea Room to be as accessible to the current generation as it was to the previous one."
Caviar has always been a staple at the RTR but the cost is often daunting to a first timer, so Biberaj has added caviar tastings for 35 dollars as well as a Cavitini, which is a martini with a slice of cucumber topped with caviar for 28 dollars. The RTR is also child friendly. There's a children's tea every day from 2:00 - 4:30 pm and it's become so popular that Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama all partook in the afternoon ritual in 2010. For those of us 21 or older, the RTR boasts vodka flights with a choice of nearly 40 varieties of vodka and at my last dinner a Russian waiter helped us choose the right brand for our martinis. I also had the Pelmeni appetizer, which is Siberian style beef filled dumplings with sour cream, peas, dill and mixed mushrooms. Delicious and far better than what grandma used to make. The honey glazed house brined pork chop with braised cabbage galubsi and bacon-mashed potatoes is tender, succulent and perhaps my favorite item on the menu.
I regularly attend New York Pops concerts on Friday evenings at Carnegie Hall and plan on making the RTR my go to place before or after every show. The waiters red tunics may be gone but the food and ambience are still superb and the wonderful memories will always remain and the new ones will keep coming. Nostrovia!