"I bet you'll see Jackie Mason there," someone told us on our way to the Russian Tea Room last weekend, and lo and behold, he was right outside when we approached the restaurant's golden rotating doors.
The Russian Tea Room holds a lot of history, some of which includes Mr. Mason, and we'll get in to that at another time—today we're talking about today. As with many Old New York establishments, there can be some apprehension to step inside, if only for the fear that it may not live up to your memory, or what you imagined all these years it would be like. Frank Sinatra is not crooning inside of the Copacabana, Satchmo's not enchanting the Cotton Club, and why did they even try to relaunch Studio 54?
Some of these rooms are worth (re)entering, however—you'll find Nixon's wine is still in the secret cellar at the 21 Club, Cafe Edison is still so beloved that there's a citywide campaign to save it, and The Russian Tea Room (despite its closings and reopenings over the years) remains a special place.
We attended their Afternoon Tea over the weekend, which these days comes in regular, gluten free, and vegetarian. Each tea starts at $50, with the option to up the experience via champagne and/or more caviar (bringing the total to $85). For the base price you'll get more than enough food for one person—this is a tea experience, after all, not a full meal—so if you are planning on going with a friend, keep in mind that a single order is enough for two. The $50 includes several salads (served in spoons), several sandwiches, and miniature crepes. A separate platter filled with cupcakes, scones, chocolates, and other sweets will follow, and those are accompanied by balls of butter and tiny jars of jam. While we can't say the food served at tea is spectacular, your time here is more about the atmosphere and experience.
Ensconce yourself in one of the red leather banquettes for hours, plucking delicacies off the silver platters and sipping on your tea—which will be constantly refilled in your personal pot, and comes with a unique sweetening option: a bowl of cherries, which we chose to drop into the tea over the standard sugar cubes.
There's plenty to admire from wherever your seated (note: make reservations ahead of time, it can get busy). From the walls saturated in artwork, to the Fabergé eggs, to the impressively uniformed waiters, to the other patrons, who seemed more like regulars than tourists, and we suspect that was exactly the case.
The building, just 20-feet-wide, extends all the way from West 57th to 56th Street, and holds a lot more than just the main dining room. Upstairs, for example, you'll find a bar that's watched over by a tall crystal bear—he is filled with fish, which are fed by unscrewing his head. The room is bordered by red booths and more mirrors than a funhouse, and at the other end stands a golden tree with illuminated eggs hanging from it. The place is decadent, from the ground up, even the parts that are a little worn in... just avert your eyes from the signs advertising the gift shop.
In any case, if it's an awkward family conversation you're looking to have, the Russian Tea Room will at least have enough vodka on hand to get you through it: