12 January 2019

Russian Tea Room, New York

I loved the Russian Tea Room in New York. But knew nothing of its origins until I read Daytonian in Manhattan. Young John Pupke left his native Germany in 1845 and worked in a coffee firm in New York. Later he became a partner in the coffee and tea importing company, Pupke & Thurber. In 1873 Pupke purchased two adjoining lots on 57th St where the then weal­thy merchant erected two new buildings. Then John Pupke needed a two-storey brick extension to the house. This was next to Carnegie Hall which opened for live music presentations in 1891.

John Pupke became president of a tea and coffee importing firm. While his family kept ownership of 150 West 57th St, they hired an architect in 1913 to make extensive renovations, including a storefront and studios. This arts-soaked neighbourhood had living spaces and studios for visual and performing artists.

Russian Tea Room, c1929
photo from the Museum of the City of New York

A large wave of Russians emigrated from 1905 on, following the first Revolution; at least 30,000 of them immigrated to the USA, mostly to the NE corner. Coffee houses run by Russian immigrants had already starting appearing before WW1. Their owners were largely pro-revolutionary ex-pats who were living on NYC’s lower East Side. But after WWI and the 1917 Russian Revol­ut­ion, a very diff­erent wave of anti-revolution, pro-Czar Russian immigrants arrived, and explicitly Russian-themed restaurants opened for business.

Alas anxiety about foreigners peaked in the USA and the immigrants' loyalties were doubt­ed. The 1924 Immigration Act restricted im­mig­rants from South­ern and Eastern Europe, particularly Italians, Greeks, Poles, Russians and Slavs.

Dining room (above) and bar (below)
The bar has all drinks, but I concentrated on the vodka cocktails.


So it was even more important for the newest Russian arrivals to gather in the White Russian restaurants for warmth, familiar food and social life. The restaurants offered blini with caviar, salmon and mushrooms wrapped in flaky pastry, beef stroganoff and nouveau-Russian specialties. For my parents in Australia, the most import­ant food item was borscht, the Uk­rainian beet soup that was brought by Russians who emigrated here (and everywhere?)

Russian eating places soon opened: The Russian Inn, The Eagle, The Russian Swan, Kavkaz, Casino Russe and The Maisonette Russe. On the lower East Side were The Russian Kretchma and the Russian Bear etc. Striking modernistic wall murals by emigré artists, balalaika music and entertainment by Cossack performers added to the atmosphere.

The Russian Tea Room was opened in New York in 1927, by former members of the Russian Imperial Ballet, as a gathering place for Russian expats. Established on West 57th St, vocalists and musicians continued to rent studios in the upper floors, making it famous as a gathering place for those in the entertainment ind­ust­ry. Included on the top two floors were soprano Carmen Rueben, and her husband Paul Schumm. This solo vocalist was well-known both on the American and European concert stage and gave vocal training in her 57th Street studio.

In 1929, the business moved across the street, to its present locat­ion. As we saw above, it was an Italianate brownstone built in 1875 by German immigrant John Pupke, the tea and coffee merchant. By 1933, the Siberian émigré Alexander Sasha Maeef was running the Russian Tea Room. The design of the bar area was modern, re­placing the soda fountain after Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

During WW2, its sleek, art moderne interiors reflected the up­scale patrons coming in from Carn­eg­ie Hall concerts. After running the Tea Room since 1933, Maeef sold it in 1946.

The next owner Sidney Kaye, son of Russian emigres, became a celebrity in his own right. In 1955, Kaye turned the tea room into a full blown restaurant, and gave the interiors a bolder person­al­ity. When Sidney Kaye died at 53, he left the restaurant to his widow, Faith Stewart-Gordon.

Next to the Russian Tea Room, Carnegie Hall was threat­ened with demolition in 1955. The restaurant became the planning meeting place for the Committee to Save Carnegie Hall. Again in 1981 Harry B Macklowe, developer of the Metropolitan Tow­er, planned a large office tower that would have included his own site at the Metrop­olitan Tower AND also the restaurant's and the lot on which Carn­egie Hall Tower was erected. There was an agreement with Carnegie Hall about their lot, but during the planning of the Carnegie Hall Tow­er, on the other side of the Russian Tea Room, Stewart-Gordon dec­lined to sell its site or its air rights. The result is the nar­row 20’ gap, separating the Metropolitan and Carnegie Hall towers.

Front entrance of the Russian Tea Room
with the dancing Russian bear
Daytonian in Manhattan

The Russian Tea Room's maître d'hôtel for the first thirty years was the famous Moscovian Anatole E. Voinoff (1895-1965). To opera-goers, ballet and classical music fans, as well as the performers, he was very well known. The Russian character of the Tea Room faded somewhat as beloved Russian-speaking waiters and waitresses retired, as did the last Russian chef George Lohen, and Anatole Voinoff.

In Sept 1977 The Russian Tea Room closed for renovations, although some of the old decor survived. The renovations extended the re­staurant into half of the second floor, where a cafe was instal­led. Interestingly, the architect­ural details of the 1875 house still survived within the top floors eg the marble Victorian mantels and woodwork.

Patrons were stars of the dance world, like George Balan­ch­ine, Nat­alia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev; and Broadway and Hollywood person­al­ities. The business required a huge staff, and there was a separate bakery on the premises. Later Michael Douglas, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Barbara Walters, Woody Allen and Henry Kissinger went to the restaurant for their socialising.

Expressionist paintings covering the walls, leather banquettes and samovars

In 2006 the Russian Tea Room opened again, after a $19+ million makeover. The new owner was real estate developer Gerald Lieblich who, with investors, reopened the old downstairs room, adding imperial eagles on the walls, golden sam­ovars, lavish leath­er banquettes, crimson carpet and expressionist paintings. The facade was completely resurfaced, with a large bas relief of a dancing Russian bear.









18 comments:

LMK said...

I know how important a social space for meeting friends was. My parents loved Ackland St. Not elegant but comfortable and safe to speak Russian, Polish and Yiddish.

Joseph said...

The prices are not the cheapest in New York, so I would recommend that tourists turn up in time to select from the brunch menu.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I admit that I do not understand the restaurant business. Even with the high prices Joseph mentioned, and tax abatements and so forth, how can owners recoup multi-million dollar investments in a single restaurant, especially considering the enormous upkeep a fancy place like the Russian Tea Room must receive? I guess it must be true that the profit is in the alcohol.
--Jim
p.s. Your post made me look up Russian tea biscuits, (the rolled kind, not the dropped nut cookies), which possibly are a Cleveland specialty, or do you have them in Australia? Perhaps this winter I will try to make some, but I'll stick with my mother's recipe and technique.

Jenny Woolf said...

It looks very striking and interesting now, but I always am concerned when there is such an expensive renovation, it could end up a bit Disney and then get sold off because most of its historical value has been swamped. However, I know that makes me sound a bit English, clinging on to every bit of ancient wooden beam, and definitely not at all like a New Yorker! :)

Hels said...

LMK

agreed... every community needs a place to socialise together in comfort and familiarity. Here is my history of delicious Acland St facilities: https://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2018/01/acland-st-stkilda-melbournes-best-cake.html

I would note some major differences from New York:
1. New York's Russian cafes opened well before WW1 whereas Acland St really emerged after 1946.
2. The Russian Tea Room in New York, at least in its later incarnations, was gorgeously fitted out and decorated. Acland St cake shops and cafes were warm and friendly, but not decorated at all.

Hels said...

Joseph

You would have to mortgage your house to afford their caviar served with warm buckwheat blini and traditional accompaniments *sigh*. But you are right about the brunch prices.

See http://www.russiantearoomnyc.com/menus/ for menu choices and prices.

Hels said...

Parnassus

the Russian Tea Room was fairly simple and cheap for decades. So when they went up-market, they must have known what the plan was - a new, richer clientele? More group functions eg weddings? Fewer staff? More alcohol?

Re the Russian tea biscuits, you MUST be guided by your mother's (and grandmothers') recipes.
It is the law!! But as long as you don't use milk or butter, you can mix the jam, walnuts and raisins to your own taste.

Hels said...

Jenny

if a building has Heritage Protection and yet the owner damages the original features, I agree that the owner should be gaoled for the rest of his life. Or longer!

But John Pupke had his 57th St building designed back in 1873 and large changes were made every time a major renovation went ahead. So I imagine that all the original historical value has long disappeared. The National Register of Historic Places cannot undo earlier changes, but they could certainly guarantee that no future changes occur to this special building.

Ricki's Blog Cabin said...

The staff even obliged my request to see The Bear Room. It was absolutely magical. As if the bear was not cool enough already, I giggled with delight when I saw that it’s actually a fish tank.

If you have business to take care of or not, definitely go to the restroom here. There is an impressive collection of Faberge eggs and nesting dolls in the hallway outside.

Ricki's Blog Cabin

Parnassus said...

Hi again, You hit the nail on the head--most pastries are rich from butter and dairy ingredients, but not Russian tea biscuits. In Asia, butter is both expensive and bad quality. Incidentally, one secret for good baking is ALWAYS to substitute walnuts with pecans; the improvement in quality is incredible. Can you get pecans in Australia? They are expensive, but will last a long time in the freezer. (Hickory nuts are even one step further on the walnut-pecan continuum, but are very difficult both to obtain and to shell.)
--Jim
p.s. You are right--I can't go wrong with my mother's recipes and directions--when I come home for a vacation there simply is not enough time for her to make all my favorites. My grand-and great-grandmothers were also wonderful bakers--I should have spent more time observing, and less time eating!

Hels said...

Ricki

I love Faberge eggs, even though we all know they were mega expensive and elitist Czarist possessions. Are the ones in the Russian Tea Room originals?

Hels said...

Parnassus

isn't that always the way? At a young age, when we could learn important stuff from our parents and grandparents, we are too busy with our own priorities. By the time we want to hear all the old family stories/learn their languages/adapt their recipes etc, the grandparents have long gone and the parents have moved into a care home. I had no problem with Hebrew and not too many problems with Yiddish, but I am sooo sorry I didn't take the opportunity to learn Russian from my beloved grandfather.

Re nuts. Pecans are readily available here, but I have never heard of hickory nuts.

peppylady (Dora) said...

Now a fancy tea room would be something to visit.
Coffee is on

Hels said...

peppylady

the original Russian Tea Room must have been smallish, but attractive. I am adding a photo of the original facade onto the blog.


The latest incarnation is very fancy, indeed :)

Andrew said...

It looks absolutely lavish. I think the Lower East Side has always been an area for recent immigrants but you would know better about it than I do. So good that you had a focus for vodka cocktails and didn't allow other spirits to muddle you mind.

Hels said...

Andrew

I spent time at the Russian Tea Room as part of a roots tour. I wanted to immerse myself in all the places my grandparents would have known, had they ever been in the USA, including the Russian libraries, synagogues, galleries and theatres. But mostly via drinking vodka cocktails :)

bazza said...

I just read through the menus and I'm salivating only slightly attenuated by the prices! We are just about to head out for Sunday lunch at my daughter Laura's new house. I'm ready!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s technically tremulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

bazza

I used to copy my grandmother's Russian food (with only potato and cabbage) and my mother's Russian food (with a wider variety of vegetables), adding the salads that we always ate in Australia. So buckwheat blinis with sour cream, chopped boiled eggs, parsley and trout was like being in my mother's kitchen again :) Ditto dill marinated salmon and herring served with black bread, potato blini and pickled vegetables. Ditto salmon with braised onions, mushrooms and vegetables wrapped in pastry, served with rice.

Inaugurating a new house with a feast is a wonderful idea.