Need a place to dead drop some classified CIA documents? Or maybe you’re just in the mood for some Cold War style intrigue. Well then Comrade, you should sneak into my midtown neighborhood and join me at The Russian Vodka Room. Stepping into this dark haunt on 265 W. 52nd street is like entering a clandestine lair. Outside may be New York City. But inside, it’s Moscow. Or maybe St. Petersburg. Since there are no windows in this mysterious, wood paneled restaurant, you can’t even double check to be sure. The only indication that we’re in New York is the toy Yankees monkey perched on the bar.
The slogan here is “Attitude Adjustment Hour”, and we have little choice in the matter. This is a different realm. Plan accordingly for our trip behind this Iron Curtain.
Do I know the owner’s name? No. Nor any of the bartenders. This isn’t the place where everybody knows your name. Quite the opposite. It’s the anti-Cheers. It’s where you go when you don’t want anyone to know your name.
You can come here anytime of year to escape what’s outside, if not the ghosts of the KGB. During the long, snowy nights of winter, I come for the warmth and the undercover vibe. In the summer, I enjoy the air-conditioned escape, when I just can’t take the heat rising up off the streets.
Tonight I hear the murmur of Russian bartenders and the rattling of ice in a martini shaker. There is a group of businessmen talking in jargon. Ties unloosened, they try to outdo each other by ordering shots of as many of the 53 types of vodka they offer here. Next to them is a couple sharing blinis, gravlax and potato pancakes, arguing about Middle Eastern politics. Some tourists have stumbled in, needing to kill some time before seeing “Jersey Boys” at the August Wilson Theatre. They seem a bit bewildered by the décor, which consists of massive jars full of unidentifiable pickled items, green marble accents and a large red and gold Communist banner. True to form, one of them orders a Cosmo and makes a reference to “Sex And The City”. They’re having fun and I shouldn’t begrudge them…but I still wish Carrie Bradshaw would finally be sent off to some sitcom gulag.
There are no gimmicks here at The Russian Vodka Room. In a city filled with high concept fusion-cuisine and silly theme bars offering kitschy or overly complicated cocktails, this place is very straightforward. The drinks are strong and the classic Russian food is delicious.
The pretty female bartenders are also quite skilled at politely brushing off propositions from drunken men. And don’t expect these bartenders to listen to your woes. Of course, you’re welcome to cry over them or sing along as the pianist in the corner plays melancholy tunes. You may want to drop a buck or two in his tip jar and request a nostalgic Russian folk song like, “Those Were The Days”:
Once upon a time there was a tavern,
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours
And dreamed of all the great things we’d do…