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New York's Russian Tea Room caters to new clientele: kids

The famous restaurant now offers PBJ and pigs in blankets alongside its usual caviar. It's one of the ways it hopes to stay afloat where others have failed in the recession.

November 22, 2009|By Tina Susman
  • Dylan Corn, left, and her friend Michaela DeFilippis, both 12, came with Dylan's mother Lisa Corn, of New York, to the Russian Tea Room. They sip cups of hot chocolate, instead of the customary tea.
Dylan Corn, left, and her friend Michaela DeFilippis, both 12, came with… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — There on the left is the plush booth where Dustin Hoffman's character shocked his -- or would that be her? -- agent into ordering a double shot of vodka in the film "Tootsie." Paul McCartney once strolled solo through the revolving door, sat at the shiny bar and ordered a margarita in a martini glass. Years ago, an unknown named Madonna might have checked your coat.

The Russian Tea Room, with its rich red and deep green decor, still reeks of glamour. But some things have changed.

Take, for instance, the peanut butter and jelly arranged on a blini atop a triple-tiered tray placed gently before patrons enjoying high tea. Or the tiny pigs in blankets and BLTs mixed in among the sandwiches on the lower tiers. And is that steaming hot chocolate instead of tea?

It certainly is, all part of the special children's tea being served at one of New York's highest-end restaurants as it looks for new ways to draw customers in a brutal economy.

"The main message we're trying to get across is that the Russian Tea Room is affordable and accessible," said Ken Biberaj, vice president of the RTR Funding Group, which owns the 81-year-old restaurant.

It's still possible to drop $395 on a lunch featuring imported black caviar. But there also is a business lunch special for $35 and, since May, the children's tea for $25 -- half the price of the more sophisticated adult tea.

Biberaj said the economy wasn't the only reason for the menu changes. Rather, the iconic eatery perched in a narrow brownstone beside Carnegie Hall is responding, he said, to customers' changing needs.

When the adult tea was introduced last fall, patrons had trouble convincing their children that tiny black fish eggs and black tea in glass cups were treats.

Chef Marc Taxiera crafted the under-12 menu by drawing on his children's tastes. "I don't get to spend a lot of time with my children," Taxiera said. "I think it's important to have that time, and we've married this into that idea."

Even if the economy was not the driving force behind the move, it no doubt is a concern among the city's most exclusive eateries.

According to an annual restaurant census carried out by the market research firm NPD Group, the number of New York City restaurants dropped by 512, or 1.1%, from spring 2008 to the following spring. The city's fine dining establishments suffered a nearly 5% decline, with 30 closing. Nationwide, 4,023 restaurants closed, NPD said.

In New York, where dining out is practically a religion, restaurant closures and hard-luck tales are big news. In the summer, Tavern on the Green announced on its website that it would close its doors Dec. 31; Cafe des Artistes, which opened in 1917 and was legendary for its romantic atmosphere and murals of naked nymphs, closed; and the Rainbow Room, which for 75 years offered expensive dining, dancing and stunning views from its 65th-floor perch in Rockefeller Center, shut its doors.

"So many historic, iconic places are closing that a place like the Russian Tea Room is even more important," Biberaj said. Bookings for the restaurant's two lavishly appointed private rooms have dropped off "a lot," he said, making it more important to rev up business in the main dining area, where a tapestry of rich colors, kitschy chandeliers and art-covered walls conjure up images of the czar's Russia -- even if the PBJ and BLT offerings don't.

"We're hipping it up, but we're doing it with elegance," Taxiera said.

An episode of "Gossip Girl" was recently filmed in the dining room, and you're as likely to see patrons in low-slung jeans as in fur coats crossing the thick carpet.

No jacket is required, and the kitchen is open to special requests.

Taxiera once produced a vegan high tea, involving a lot of thinly sliced fruit. Some regulars order takeout borscht.

It's a challenge convincing people who stroll past the famous awning on tony West 57th Street that financial ruin and a snooty reception do not await those who pass the red-cloaked doorman in the black top hat.

Indeed, it would be easy to spend a couple of grand on two caviar dinners, a bottle of Brut and a choice dessert wine. But you can also taste a selection of vodka for as little as $14, try the caviar tasting menu for $28, and of course the children's tea.

"You feel like it's going to be pretentious, but instead it's cozy. You feel comfortable," said Lisa Corn, a New Yorker who stopped in with her daughter, Dylan, and a 12-year-old friend. The girls were waiting for dessert -- chocolate mousse, a sugary scone and apple slices with gooey caramel sauce -- after having polished off all three layers of their tea trays.

"I really liked the peanut butter and jelly," Dylan said. Her pal, Michaela DeFilippis, said she preferred the tiny cucumber sandwich.

If there is a silver lining to the economic downturn, Taxiera and Biberaj said, it's that pricey establishments are being forced to pay attention to customers they might otherwise have ignored.

"This brought back the No. 1 priority -- the consumer," Taxiera said. "Everyone is looking for a bargain nowadays."

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