The evocative red awning at the entrance to the Russian Tea Room on West 57th Street is recognisable to almost everyone. Those who have not actually been there will have seen it in photographs or in the many films that have been shot there, including ‘Tootsie’ and ‘Manhattan’. Over the years the Russian Tea Room has hosted both the famous and infamous – politicians, actors and even royalty. It was a point of pride with the management that they always sat side by side with ordinary members of the public. This is echoed by the fact that there are no celebrity photographs lining the walls of this restaurant. Dignity, privacy and discretion were always its watchwords.
Originally founded in 1927 by dancers of the Russian Imperial Ballet Company seeking a new life in America, the current premises were purchased in 1930 by a Siberian expatriate. He did everything to make the dancers feel welcome, including using a very Russian shade of red for the decor, lining the walls with samovars and using Faberge eggs as inspiration for the decorations. Over the years, the Russian Tea Room changed hands a number of times – and even closed at one point – but thankfully it re-opened in 2002 and is once again the landmark that it used to be.
I first heard about the Russian Tea Room as a child, in a book I read one cold wintery afternoon. Sadly the title is lost in the mists of my memory, but I do recall the author’s vivid description of the brightly coloured red and green décor and the walls lined with samovars and works of art. I was utterly captivated by the idea of this little jewel of a restaurant and decided immediately I had to dine there one day.
Up until now circumstances have conspired against me, as most of my visits to New York have been rather hurried. So I found myself visiting the restaurant I had dreamed of for most of my life nearly thirty years after that wintery afternoon, for brunch with my husband and son on New Year’s Day this year.
The doorman welcomed us as we walked in under the famous red awning. After we checked our coats in the cloakroom (legend has it that Madonna was a coat check girl here in the days before she became famous), we were escorted to one of the glorious red booths on the left side of the restaurant. I was entranced by the décor, which was everything I had expected it to be. Vivid reds, greens and golds surrounded us. Numerous works of art lined the walls, most of them in vivid colours as well. These were interspersed with shiny samovars, polished within an inch of their lives. The waiters were dressed traditionally, in black uniforms with glossy gold buttons. The little girl inside me who had originally dreamed of visiting here was not disappointed; it was everything I expected it to be. Yet this gloriously famous old restaurant was not for one moment stuffy. We were made to feel incredibly welcome from the moment we arrived, and our waiter was totally attentive, despite the fact it was very busy indeed.
We chose to start our brunch with a basket of pastries and fruit smoothies. My son tasted the first pastry, a doughnut, and was so taken by the flavour that he immediately cut it into three pieces so my husband and I could have some too. It was the best doughnut I have ever tasted. The basket also included a beautifully flaky croissant, pain au chocolat and delicious baby muffins. The smoothies were wonderfully fruity and freshly made.
The next part of our brunch was lovely as well. My husband chose the Eggs Florentine, which he thoroughly enjoyed. I had a light and fluffy egg white omelette, stuffed with spinach and baby mushrooms. Toast was served alongside, cut in soldiers, the crusts removed. My son tried the Cinnamon French Toast, which was almost like a bread pudding. He had wanted to try the caviar but we put him off as neither my husband nor I like it. However should you have different tastes to us, there are not less than ten different sorts listed on the menu. I watched it being served under shiny silver domes, beautifully presented in glass bowls laid on piles of crushed ice.
We finished with tea, which was served in the Russian fashion in glass cups with gold handles. All the teas were served without milk, although we were offered a tray of sugar and a dish of sour cherries. We were advised to actually put these cherries in our tea. I could not quite bring myself to do that, but I did taste them and they were absolutely delicious. We lingered over our tea, enjoying our surroundings and each other’s company. When we finally wandered out into the cold New York air some time later, we had already booked a table for lunch on my son’s birthday a few days hence.
The wonderful thing about eating at the Russian Tea Room is that although it was not inexpensive, I felt it was very good value for money. The food was delicious and well prepared and the service was excellent. We were treated with exactly the same amount of respect and attention as the diners next to us who were dining on caviar and champagne. Unlike many New York restaurants, the Russian Tea Room does not include the tip in your bill, so we were free to leave exactly what we felt had been earned by our attentive server - in cash so that we knew it went directly to him.
For me, the Russian Tea Room has always symbolised the glamour of old New York. And on the first afternoon of this New Year, I felt like I had stepped back in time to a golden age far removed from our post-modern era. Of course I cannot know what it was really like back in the day, but I cannot imagine that our experience was that far removed from what the famous diners of yesteryear must have seen and experienced. The Russian Tea Room is truly a jewel of a restaurant and I simply cannot recommend it highly enough.