Russian restaurants are characterized by their glamour and opulence. Venture inside any properly run Russian restaurant in New York City, and you will often discover a traditional, banquet-style setting, grandiose chandeliers, exquisite decor, loud music, and a lot of infused vodka. Visitors who come for supper are free to stay and dance into the morning hours. Traditionally, the music in these venues was sung live with a set list consisting of old Russian songs. However, especially in Manhattan, the trend has recently shifted to more of an Americanized, electronic feel in order to keep the restaurants modern and more attractive to foreign crowds.
A night at a Russian restaurant begins with salads and appetizers called “zakuski”, which are traditionally pickled vegetables or various cold cuts and cheeses. This is when the music remains lows and people begin pouring the Russian Standard. After a few shots chased by a bite or two of a pickle, a singer gets on stage and the real party begins. The music is very loud and most people run to the stage to dance. In restaurants like Mari Vanna or Onegin, which do not have a dance floor, anyone who is drunk enough will eventually get up on a chair. During the time the music is playing, people run back and forth to the table for shots.
Click here to see a traditional Russian dance at Tatiana on Brighton Beach .
Click here to see belly dancing at the popular Russian hangout 1001 Nights on Emmons
While people are drinking and dancing, the chefs are preparing the first course, something along the lines of potatoes with mushrooms, blini with caviar, or perogis. All the food is served at once in a banquet-style meal (what most Russian restaurants encourage). As soon as the food hits the table, the volume of the music is lowered to let people know that it is time to eat. After the first course is devoured, the music comes on again. This routine continues in cycles until about 2 am, when dessert is finally served. People are offered tea, coffee, and a selection of Russian Pastries.
I personally find that Russian restaurants in Manhattan have a better ambiance and more exquisite decor, probably to make up for how inauthentic the food actually tastes. However, my Russian heritage could create bias: we all know that no restaurant, as authentic as it may be, lives up to Grandma’s cooking.