For years, I've driven by Russia House-- it's large, red letters and neon-framed windows staring me down every time I head south on highway 101. I've wanted to go there for a long time, but just never got around to it. This week, I finally stared back.
Very little information could be gleaned from a Google search of the place and no one I know had ever been there. The most information I could find was a list of seven comments on Yelp.com. The reviews were decidedly mixed. Rumors of all-you-can-eat (and drink) Russian food, dancing, and either a hostile welcome or no welcome at all were all I had to go on. To me, that sounded almost like a dare. I discussed the restaurant with a friend of mine who felt equally up to the challenge. In fact, she said she already had her Russian name picked out for the evening-- Katinka. While I googled her stage name (which I learned means "pure"), she made the reservation. We gathered a group of eight people together, figuring there was a certain safety in numbers.
While I busied myself snapping photos of the Russia House sign upon arrival, the three dining companions I showed up with were confronted by a man of about sixty dressed in blue jeans and leather jacket standing near a sign that read "Dress code strictly enforced." A cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. He was anything but welcoming. After explaining that we had a reservation, we were allowed entry.
Once past the Russian Cerberus, we stepped inside the zodiac-themed blue doors and walked upstairs to the dining room. The first thing I noticed were the enormous crystal chandeliers that seemed to be in some sort of battle with the neon of the bar for who could throw off the most light. It was extremely bright.
The second thing I noticed was a little girl, maybe seven years old, in some sort of ice dancing outfit. My friend Gary asked if that was the Russian Jonbenet. Several other children of varying ages were all dressed up and running about.
The third thing to capture my attention was the group of about thirty people standing about two banks of long, platter-filled tables. Some of them stared at us blankly. Others stared out the window, waiting for someone or perhaps something to happen.
The fourth thing I noticed was that no one came to greet us. After about a minute of standing around trying not to look helpless or uncomfortable, my friend Lyle stopped a waiter who was rushing past us. We mentioned the name of our reservation. He pointed to a table for four and said we could sit there. When we explained that more were joining us, he pointed to a larger table next to the large party with all that shrimp cocktail. We sat. And then we sat some more.
What was I hoping to accomplish by being here? Was this a big mistake? Was the big, Russian dinner I've been promoting among my friends going to be a big, Russian failure? I wondered.
After a thorough examination of a wall mural we decided could only have been inspired by Russian fairy tales filtered through the mind of a Chernobyl survivor,we tired of sitting without benefit of food or drink. No one had approached us for minutes. Lyle pulled some money out of his wallet and beckoned a blond woman who was standing under the neon sign of the bar to come over. He asked for her name and how we might procure some service. While he did this, he handed her the money. She handed the money back, telling us that she was Elya, the owner. When I asked her if she wanted the name of our party for reservation purposes, she said, "No, it's okay. I don't need that." At that point, I knew we needed some vodka. Fast.
We made our vodka selection-- not expensive, considering we had to buy it by the bottle, but decent. 750 ml of Absolut for $60. When it was brought to the table, we asked if there was any real Russian vodka to be had. Elya replied, "No, not yet. Soon." Lyle asked how long Russia House had been open. 20 years. Russian vodka must be harder to obtain than I had previously thought.
We also asked about the menu. We had heard of an all you can eat and drink feast, but what we had in front of us was an a la carte menu. She told us, yes, she did that sometimes on Fridays. Fridays? I told her we understood the restaurant was only open to the public on Saturdays. She shrugged her shoulders and said that sometimes she felt like opening on Friday, too.
When she noted the empty seats around our table, I explained that we were still waiting for the rest of our party.
"Your girlfriends?" she asked.
"Sort of," I replied.
"Are they Russian?"
"No. Not Russian." I thought of the fake Russian names they'd be using tonight.
"That's surprising," she said. "Ninety-five percent of the American men who come here have Russian girlfriends or wives. So why have you come?"
I thought about how to answer that one, but settled on, "To have fun!"
She smiled and got our waiter. I think at some point in that brief exchange, it was decided that we liked each other and the mood of the room shifted. The girls arrived, we settled into our first drink, and Lyle took charge of ordering appetizers.
What came to the table were baskets of soft rye bread and butter, platters of beef tongue, smoked salmon, smoked sturgeon beef piroshke, and shrimp cocktail. Lots of shrimp cocktail.
The beef tongue was good with a little mustard sauce and soft rye bread...
The beef piroshke was excellent. We were certain there was more that just meat in them. We briefly discussed which organs might have been included.
The best dish, to the unanimous decision of the table, was the smoked sturgeon. Salty, faintly smoky and butter on the tongue, it needed nothing but perhaps a little vodka to keep it company on its way down my throat. We had two platters. They even threw in more shrimp cocktail.
Our table livened up after some food, cold vodka, and soda water served in iced pitchers. I looked over at the birthday party next to us. I still didn't see anyone smiling. Just people milling about in fur stoles (women, naturally) and not touching their food. I thought they might be having a wake instead. Commenting on the brightness of the lights, my friend Gary looked to the birthday crowd and commented that he now understood why Russian women wore so much make up-- it was to hold up under those damned bright lights. He wondered where he could get a make up mirror with a Russian setting. I drank a little more vodka.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. Everyone's attention turned to the bandstand. A woman who looked remarkably like Jan Wahl started singing. The lights, mercifully, were dimmed. Everyone started smiling and moved to the dance floor. Apparently, the party had begun.
People danced, moved back to the tables to drink a little, and then danced some more. We watched from our table, since our main courses had arrived. Chicken Kiev, which seemed like a must-have since I frequently ate the Stouffer's version as a child, was a bit of a dry disappointment, and shashlik -- kebabs of fish and chicken, we found tastier. Lots of potatoes made their way to our table, as did some excellent pickled vegetables. The hands-down favorite was the watermelon. The eight of us were stuffed and ready now to give our full attention to what was about to happen on the dance floor.
The little girl in what we thought was an ice dancing dress was partnered with a dancing boy. Everyone in the restaurant crowded around the dance floor. We were shown the proper way to swing dance, fox trot, and just about every other kind of trot. The dancers were cute and we laughed and clapped for them, but the Russians looked on humorless, as if this were something to be taken very seriously, which doesn't seem so surprising when one considers that Russia has produced some of the greatest dancers the world has ever seen. Think Nijinsky, Pavlova, and Baryshnikov. I felt as though I might be missing something important. I had another sip of my vodka.
A much older couple then took over, showing us hot Latin-inspired moves that loosened up the crowd a little. Decency (or simply poor photography skills) prevents me from showing you the 13 year-old girls costume, but I can show you an example of her excellent hand movement...
Having been shown how it's all done, we took to the dance floor ourselves, working off the shrimp cocktail and vodka. Everyone else in the room seemed to have the same idea.
Back at our table for a little resting and watering, I saw that the birthday club had finally sat down to their meal. For a minute or two at a time. Some ran off to dance, some came over to flirt with a couple of my friends.
I thought perhaps we'd gone about our dinner all wrong. We ate then danced. The Russians danced, then ate. Perhaps there was sense in that. Do we see dancing as a digestive activity while they see it as an appetite stimulant? I wondered.
I also wondered what all the fuss regarding hostile service was about on Yelp. In my opinion, the people that walked away from the place weren't trying hard enough (Yes, I know-- they have a good point). I regarded the experience as a bit of travel adventure.
I'm certainly no sociologist, but given centuries of strong-armed governments, pogroms, and war, I don't think it strange that Russians might be a bit tight-knit, insular, and suspicious as a group. Once we got past the doorman and actually started talking to people, we found them warm and lively. It just takes a little while. To make more pat generalizations about the Russians, I think that any civilization that has made such incredible contributions to literature, music, and dance is worth the effort to get to know a little better. And those little matrioshka stacking dolls. Sigh.
What started out as a rather uncertain evening ended up being a hell of a lot of fun. If you can see yourself making it past the doorman, I say put on your (fake) fur hat and your dancing boots and just go.
Here's a sped-up video of the place. Stop at any frame to get a good look at the joint:
The Russia House is open to the public on Saturday nights. Please don't ask the hours, because I have no idea.
Russia House is located at 2011 Bayshore Boulevard in San Francisco, 94134
Call 415-330-9991 for reservations. Be strong.