Restaurants and coffee houses run by Russian immigrants appeared in the late 19th century. Their proprietors were Jews living on NYC’s lower East Side as well as others in California and Chicago who were pro-revolution enemies of the Czar. But not until after World War I (and the Russian Revolution), when a very different wave of anti-revolution, pro-Czar Russian immigrants arrived, did explicitly and self-consciously Russian-themed restaurants come into being. They flourished in the 1920s and 1930s.
For many readers New York’s Russian Tea Room will immediately spring to mind. It was established on West 57th Street in 1927 by Jakob Zysman, a Polish immigrant who operated a chocolate factory at the little tea room where ballerinas hung out. The business soon moved across the street where it changed hands and was expanded into a full-fledged restaurant. Over its long history it had many owners, notably including Faith Stewart-Gordon who ran it from 1967 until the end of 1995. After extensive renovations by restaurant impresario Warner LeRoy, it reopened in the fall of 1999. LeRoy died in 2001 and the RTR closed the following year.
But it should be noted that, unlike other Russian restaurants of the interwar period, the RTR was not started by a White Russian nor did it have a specifically Russian emigré clientele for most of its tenure. Reportedly, at one point the Russians who haunted the barroom were discouraged from patronizing the place because of their propensity to linger while they eulogized the olden days. The RTR was mainly famous as a flamboyant celebrity restaurant.
In the 1920s NYC gained a population of White Russians numbering about 6,000, most of them well-educated former members of the intelligentsia or the Imperial Russian Army. Numerous Russian eating places soon cropped up, with names such as The Russian Inn, The Eagle (E 57th), Katinka (W 49th), The Russian Swan, Kavkaz (Bdwy & 53rd), Casino Russe (W 56th), The Russian Sadko (W 57th), The Maisonette Russe (W 52nd), and The Russian Bear (W 57th). On the lower East Side were The Russian Kretchma and the (original) Russian Bear. Striking modernistic wall murals by emigré artists such as Boris Artzybashev, balalaika music, and entertainment by Cossack performers often contributed to the atmosphere of these eating places. As far as I can tell they served both as gathering spots for Russians and as tourist attractions.
Los Angeles also had a White Russian settlement of up to 2,000, with an Orthodox church, art shops, tea rooms, and restaurants. Lured by Hollywood, some Russians from this period acted as extras in movies and a few became studio consultants with expertise on the former glories of the fallen Russian aristocracy. When Theodore Lodijensky, proprietor of NYC’s Russian Eagle, moved westward he consulted on Sternberg’s “Last Command” (1928) — and he opened a West Coast version of The Eagle.
When the RTR began there were also other Russian tea rooms in NYC and around the US, some going by that exact name, some with names such as The Samovar. An importer of artistic wares named Polakoff, a Czarist who used a royal crest in his advertising, ran a Russian Tea Room filled with Russian arts and crafts on Chicago’s South Michigan Blvd. A specialty there was the Petrograd Supreme, a tall sandwich which the eater approached from the appetizer layer on top, working down to the dessert layer at bottom. In the 1930s Valentina Alekseevna Vernon ran a Russian Tea Room in San Francisco. A woman of strong opinions, she found Americans as resistant to some Russian dishes as she was to theirs.“I wouldn’t touch either an ice cream soda or a fruit salad,” she proudly proclaimed. Also in San Francisco was the Moscow Café which opened in 1932 and featured flaming Beef Stroganoff and Cossacks balancing flaming swords. A few Russian restaurants could also be found in Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven CT, and Miami in the 1930s.
The dishes introduced by White Russian restaurants included not only Beef Stroganoff, but also Blini with Caviar and Nesselrode Pudding. Although their menus might list Borscht, Darra Goldstein points out in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink that this humble Ukrainian beet soup was brought by Russian Jews who had immigrated earlier.
© Jan Whitaker, 2011