From the outside, the Russian Tea Room appears downright subtle. Situated next to the magnificent Carnegie Hall in midtown Manhattan, the restaurant’s simple red awning is easily overpowered by the hall’s grandiose architecture, and the concert advertisements and flying flags on its façade. But stepping inside the Russian Tea Room and past the entryway and bar, it proves to be anything but subtle. The vast dining area is an explosion of color—all red leather booths and patterned carpet, with extravagant lamps made of Christmas ornaments reflecting light off the golden ceiling. Paintings of all sizes and styles (mostly all extremely colorful) stretch across the deep green walls, creating a sense of kitschy energy and abundance.
Originally opened in 1927 (founded by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet), the Russian Tea Room has a long history as a gathering place for many, whether Russian expatriates in the 1920s and 30s, or actors, intellectuals, and politicians including Ayn Rand and Wanda Toscanini Horowitz in later decades. Madonna even worked here as a coat checker in 1982. In recent years, the Tea Room has lost some of its luster as it has changed ownership several times, with plans to even turn it into a golf museum earlier in the 2000s. But with its most recent opening, in 2006, the restaurant has worked to again assume its place as a notable, if not quite central, dining destination for New York locals and visitors.
A meal at the Tea Room is best started with one of its signature cocktails. While my date ordered a Russian Margarita (which replaced tequila with vodka for a pleasantly sweet concoction), I went with the Moscow Mule. This was definitely the way to go and after sampling its refreshing, ginger and lime effervescence, my date was soon ordering one of her own.
While the décor may be over-the-top, the food gracefully balances between fine Russian cuisine and comfort food. The goat cheese and wild mushroom blinchik—a crisp crepe filled with gooey goat cheese and mixed mushrooms and onions, topped with tart lingonberries—was a wonderful way to begin the meal. For something lighter, guests can try the spring salad of organic greens, shaved asparagus and parmigiano reggiano, and for something more traditional, it’s hard to beat the Tea Room red borscht—a red short ribs and bacon broth with beets and seasonal vegetables.
The Tea Room offers a full Dinner Menu of appetizers and entrees, including a selection of 11 caviars, as well as a more pared-down Pre & Post Theater Menu. We ate during a relatively quiet period, with just a smattering of guests throughout, providing a feeling of complete privacy even in the center of the huge dining space. The servers were attentive and good natured in discussing the dishes as well as the restaurant history and decorations, and quick to refill glasses and remove empty plates.
For the main course, the chicken kiev’s breaded outside contrasted nicely with the tender inside, stuffed with herb foie gras butter. Balancing the savory dish was the side of apricot cumin chutney. The Boeuf á la Stroganoff, accompanied by buckwheat noodles and wild mushrooms, offers another classically hearty option. Also worth considering is the Kulebiaka, a salmon filet cooked with onions and mushrooms and wrapped in a flaky pastry.
We finished up our meal with a rich tiramisu and bittersweet chocolate pyramid (a delicious mousse accented with vanilla crème brulee and citrus syrup). Along with the desserts we enjoyed the Tea Room’s black tea, sweetened lightly with honeyed cherries—a must-try when visiting the Tea Room. Before leaving, visitors should also stop by the downstairs area, offering Russian dolls and memorabilia that captures this restaurant’s charming and peculiar history.
Russian Tea Room
150 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019