We were young—it was Christmas and our anniversary and we wanted to celebrate our very special day with a memorable dinner. Our pocket s were fairly empty—at that time—chorus dancers and singers didn’t earn much so we scrounged and saved for a few months in order to reserve a place at The Russian Tea Room, a restaurant on 57th Street in Manhattan that gives it address as “Slightly to the Left of Carnegie Hall.”
After the Russian Revolution, dancers, musicians and actors—once stars in St. Petersburg and Moscow—began to emigrate to New York City and the Tea Room became a hangout for White Russians looking for a taste of their former home. In its early days the restaurant had many owners including the former owner of a halvah factory in Moscow and it was he who introduced full meals.
The artists were homesick for the gossip, intrigue, intellectual discussions and the sweets and pastries of the Czar’s Russia. Feodor Chaliapin, a commanding Russian opera star and Michel Fokine who introduced Americans to the Imperial Russian Ballet were among the newly arrived talents who enjoyed the food and the ambiance.
I don’t know why I wanted to eat at the Tea Room—it’s still a mystery to me. Though my grandparents came to America from Russia, they came to escape the pogroms and traveled in steerage class. Our family was poor and my grandfather worked as a shoemaker. They couldn’t wait to arrive at Ellis Island, study and become American citizens. Perhaps it’s just something about Royalty that intrigues Americans.
The room’s setting, warm and welcoming, greeted us with green walls that served as a backdrop to vivid scarlet leather banquettes that displayed tablecloths and napkins pink as the first blush of spring wine. Christmas decorations—brightly colored ornaments that would remain all year—garlanded the room along with polished samovars that sparkled and ignited my imagination with dreams of tea being carried by Tartars—nomads who traveled across Asia brewing tea to slake their thirst. Buffed wood and gleaming mirrors reflecting images of the elegant clientele seated around the restaurant promised a dinner we would never forget.
The waiters attired in Red Russian tunics and the busboys in green paid attention to their guests without being intrusive; we settled down and each ordered a Bloody Mary to toast our anniversary. A Russian restaurant—vodka was and is a specialty of the bar
We began our dinner with the Tearoom’s traditional hot borsht made with red beets, shredded cabbage, and the freshest vegetables of the season. The borsht, flavored with dill, was crowned with sour cream. Piroshki—little meat filled dumplings made with puff paste and filled with beef, parsley, onions, eggs and Tabasco attended the borsht.
The main course, Chicken Kiev—rich with sweet herbed butter stuffed in a boned and breaded chicken breast, then deeply fried came next. The dish is thought to have been created by a French chef at the court of Alexander I.
We lifted our forks in preparation for the first succulent bite of the chicken than glanced at each other. We thought we heard a soft whimper. The whimper sounded again and we looked at the adjacent banquette. The moans came from a sweet, baby-faced woman sitting on the bench much to the concern of an equally young man who sat at her side. Soon everyone in the restaurant had stopped eating and began staring at the couple. From our banquette, I could see the woman was pregnant and leaned over to ask if there was anything I could do. My only experience was watching movies where someone always boiled water. A flutter of her hand said, “Go away.”
The maitre d escorted a distinguished fellow to the table.
“Madam, I’m an obstetrician. May I help you?”
“Not yet,” she said. “Not yet.”
The Tea Room had grown silent. No sound of a fork, spoon or knife could be heard. No glasses clinked in tribute to Christmas or the Holiday season. No one was sure what the proper etiquette was. Does a caring person continue eating when someone may be about to give birth? The doctor looked as confused as every other diner in the restaurant.
The young woman stopped moaning and slowly sank to a prone position in her booth. She couldn’t be seen and she couldn’t be heard—conversation resumed. We relished each bite of our Chicken Kiev and ate every last bit of our dessert—Baklava made with sheets of thin phyllo pastry and sweetly layered walnuts, honey, and cinnamon.
We’ve never forgotten that Christmas anniversary dinner and I’ve often thought about that woman. Did she give birth on Christmas? At the Russian Tea Room? A boy? A girl? And did the doctor finish his dinner?
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