Tag Archives: Russian restaurants

Theme restaurants: Russian!

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


Filed under proprietors & careers, theme restaurants

Flaming swords

When I was researching my last post on knights-and-castles restaurant themes I discovered that this kind of theatrical decor was often complemented by flamboyant food presentation, especially the kind that mixes weaponry and meat. Specifically sticking meat on a sword, setting it aflame, and rushing it toward your guests.

If you like that and had been looking for a fun night out in the vicinity of Reno, Nevada, in 1960, you might have turned up at The Lancer, “home of the flaming sword” and Glen Relfson at the organ. The Lancer’s advertisement showed a knight charging forward on his horse with lance in hand — yet, disappointingly, the food came on an everyday sword. Why not a lance?

I’ve searched U.S. patents and the reason why meat was not served on a lance is because no one thought to invent a lance — or a gun, why not? — that could go on the grill loaded up with shish kebab. But they did invent several very practical-minded swords, either with detachable handles (permitting the handle to stay cool while the skewered meat cooks on the grill), or with the hand protector turned upward to catch dripping grease when the sword is held upright (pictured). As the patentees methodically argued, these features are important to restaurant managers.

Many municipalities have enacted fire regulations that do not permit restaurant employees to carry flaming objects across a room. This has cut down the number of restaurants that offer this service today as compared to the peak in the mid-20th century and through the 1970s.

It’s possible the custom began in restaurants with Russian themes. In the 1930s there was a place in San Francisco called the Moscow Café which had Cossack dancing, entertainment with flaming swords, and a specialty of flaming Beef Stroganoff. (Presumably the sour cream was added after the flames subsided.) Los Angeles’ Bublichki Russian Café also offered beef on flaming swords in the 1950s. And a patent was granted in 1965 for an item called a “shashlik sword.”

How does the flame work? I always wondered. As a patent applicant explained, “this is usually accomplished through igniting, immediately before serving, a piece of cotton which, first dipped in alcohol, is wrapped around the base of the sword near the hilt thereof.” However if you adopted another design you could have a wick holder built into the grease drip cup “so that when the skewer is carried in an upright position with cooked meats or other food articles impaled thereon, the wick, previously soaked with rum or brandy, may be ignited, providing a dramatic torch-like effect as the skewer is carried from the kitchen to the table.” Quite frankly, that would be my preferred sword because I like the way it catches grease and eliminates cotton wads thereon.

You may be thinking that only corny restaurants in mini-malls featured food on swords but you’d be wrong. For instance, the menu at NYC’s Forum of the Twelve Caesars in the early 1960s included, perhaps for lighter appetites, Wild Boar Marinated and Served on the Flaming Short Sword. And, starting in the 1940s, flaming swords were practically synonymous with the fabulously funky Pump Room in Chicago’s Ambassador East Hotel. The Pump Room’s manager Ernie Byfield laughingly referred to the action there, consisting of costumed waiters weaving through crowds of guests with “flaming gobbets of lamb,” as being “like Halloween in Hell.” I don’t believe anyone was immolated.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under restaurant customs, technology