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Famed Russian Tea Room Reopens

The elaborately-decorated second floor dining room of the Russian Tea Room features a golden tree with hanging carved glass bulbs, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2006, in New York. The renowned restaurant is reopening after four dormant years. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
AP Photo
In a classic moment from the movie "Tootsie," Dustin Hoffman, dressed as a woman, sidles up to his agent, played by a sputtering Sydney Pollack. The scene is set in the crimson-green-and-gold splendor of the Russian Tea Room.

Madonna once worked the coat check there. And boldface names such as Michael Douglas, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Barbara Walters, Woody Allen and Henry Kissinger went to the restaurant for their tete-a-tetes and trysts.

It was the ultimate power meal, spiced with romance, until it closed in 1995. Then reopened. Then closed again.

On Friday, the Russian Tea Room opens yet again, after a takeover and makeover that cost more than $19 million. The new owner is real estate developer Gerald Lieblich.

No one knows how this third reincarnation of an iconic meeting place will do, but one thing is for sure: The name Russian Tea Room evokes New York's celebrity realm - "an anteroom to all the glamour and gifts, sizzle and pulse, art, intelligence and determination of New York," as singer Judy Collins, a Tea Room regular, described it in an essay after its 2002 closing.

Today, the town house is filled with decor that mimics early 20th-century Russia, with 28 antique samovars, crimson leather banquettes and vivid green walls. The menu offers borscht and blinis with butter, caviar and sour cream.

A new chef, Gary Robins, is crafting dishes to satisfy nostalgic clients, creating his own borscht while "bringing in a more vibrant, more contemporary palate," he said. Translation: healthier, less buttery fare. Cheese blintzes are now blinchiki, Russian-style crepes served with goat cheese, wild mushrooms and duck confit.

Also on the menu is an Iranian caviar appetizer, at $350 per ounce. But dinner can still be had for about $75, plus tip and tax. Whether memories and new menu will bring back the magic is culinary Russian roulette. On the dog-eat-dog restaurant scene, said Tea Room spokesman Ken Biberaj, "it is a lot of pressure."

In the Tea Room's heyday in the 1980s, the focus was not on the food.

Lunchtime at this Manhattan institution next to Carnegie Hall brought together theater, movie and book agents who made important things happen over meals.

Collins first visited the Tea Room after her Carnegie solo debut in 1962. And then, like so many others, she returned for holidays, birthdays, everyday meals - even takeout (lamb, bulgur wheat and a Caesar salad served on a plastic plate covered with foil).

In the early 1980s, Hoffman came for lunch with his wife and agent while preparing to shoot "Tootsie." The actor decided to turn up in his drag costume. His own agent didn't recognize him.

Zero Mostel once donned an apron at the Tea Room to take orders for a dish he called "peasant under glass."

The cliche "it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" doesn't apply at the Russian Tea Room, whose red and green colors make the restaurant look like Christmas year-round.

The many stories started in 1926, when a chocolate shop and tea room for Russian expatriates was opened by former dancers of the Imperial Russian Ballet who had fled the Bolsheviks.

The Russian Tea Room's golden era began in 1955, when it was acquired by Sidney Kaye, an exuberant man of Russian descent. His perky, name-dropping wife, Faith Stewart-Gordon, became a friend and confidante to some of the greatest names in the entertainment industry.

Leonard Bernstein composed the opening bars of his "Fancy Free" dance at the Tea Room. When Yul Brynner died, the friends who gathered to mourn him at the restaurant included Raquel Welch, Sylvester Stallone and Robert Mitchum.

Stewart-Gordon sold the property for $6.5 million to Warner LeRoy, who closed it on New Year's Day in 1996 for four years and $36 million in renovations, including the addition of a private dining room featuring a mechanical Czarist-era diorama of what later became Moscow's Red Square, complete with miniature soldiers and a czar.

The costs drove the restaurant into bankruptcy. The Sept. 11 attacks put an additional squeeze on the economy, and the Russian Tea Room closed again in 2002.

LeRoy died in 2001, leaving a restaurant that was sold to the U.S. Golf Association, which failed to turn it into a golf museum as planned. Lieblich bought the property for $19 million but would not say what it cost to reopen it.

There are only a few truly original items behind the revolving entrance door at 150 W. 57th St. - including the old wooden door itself. Hand-etched on its glass panels are the letters that have greeted guests for many decades: "RTR."