To Russia with Love
By the time my friends and I parked and walked through two enormous entry doors intricately detailed in all manner of astrological shit, the place was packed. In a foyer covered with mirrors and faux-marble wallpaper, men in black suits with flat-topped Rutger Hauer hair stood in tight circles mumbling beneath chandeliers glaring with bulbs turned up so bright the whole room looked bathed in noontime sunlight. But it wasn't noon, it was 8:34 p.m. on a wet and stormy pitch-black Saturday night.
As we ascended the staircase to the second-floor dining room, we were joined by a larger group of suited men and sequin-dressed women, our group moving as one mass like a river flowing slowly upstream. But flowing exactly where, we couldn't tell. The smoke and lasers from the dance floor obscured any real sense of the place, and what we could just barely make out confused us more: To the left, a chubby man poked at keyboards like a tic-tac-toe-playing chicken at a county fair as a woman who looked to be about 14 years old danced with dead eyes, her skinny legs protruding from a skirt cut high and snug as a speedo. To the right, a group of extremely unhappy-looking men came together into a Fiddler-on-the-Roof style circle. Everyone clapped. We clapped. Everyone shouted. We shouted. A fight broke out in a corner. A man shouted at a woman. A woman shouted at us. Everyone is shouting. Are they just celebrating or are they really angry? We didn't know, and we didn't care. We wanted to leave. A turn, a squeeze back down the staircase, push through the enormous wooden doors, and we walked back to the car in silence, too numb to talk, too scared to laugh. We hopped on the freeway and a few minutes later were back in the warm and predictable comforts of the Mission.
This was in 2009. And after this first, failed attempt to dine at Russia House, I have never returned. But Russia House has often returned to me, growing in my imagination like some bejeweled and wondrous cancer. It became less a restaurant and more a myth. Everyone I talked to knew where it was but nobody had ever been inside, nobody knew the place. The fact is, mostly, nobody cared. Russia House looked too sketchy, too dangerous and unpredictable. “You'll get shot,” one friend warned me. “You'll get a staph infection,” another said.
What the hell goes on in this place?
You've probably seen it heading south on 101, there atop a foothill in Visitacion Valley about a half-mile north of Candlestick: that round, dacha-style obelisk of curtained windows and black wood, its oversize backlit red letters blazing through the fog, the random cell phone towers jutting skyward from the rooftop like exposed rebar. It's not hard to miss. Among the rows of anonymous houses, gas stations, and billboards, the mere presence of a restaurant – any restaurant, especially a Russian-style dining hall – is perplexing. But there is little about the Russia House that does not confound.
First off, Russia House doesn't exist, at least according to the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection. “I've never really seen anything like this,” said the city clerk when I called to inquire about Russia House's history. “The place, basically, has no records. It's as if it is not even there.”
And yet Russia House has stood in the same plot in continuous operation for decades, according to Bill LaFave, who has worked there for over 40 years. In the early 1960s the building housed an Italian restaurant named Casa Brava, a famous and fancy joint. The property switched ownership in 1969, revamping its menu and décor to accommodate the boom of Russian expats who had moved to the Outer Richmond. In 1971, a man was shot and killed there. Fights and gunplay became such a regular occurrence that security guards like Bill were hired to keep the peace. They still do. “It's calmed quite a bit,” said Bill, “but things still happen.”
Cautionary reviews from past diners fill online review sites, the descriptions of Russia House ranging from “bizarre” and “scary” to “stole my credit card” and “extremely unsafe.”
To me, it all just added to the mystery. In August 2011, I found three other brave souls who were equally curious. We resolved to get in, dine, dance, and do whatever they do there behind the curtains on that hilltop south of town – and hopefully live to tell about it.
After numerous unsuccessful attempts to make reservations by phone, I finally got through, and three years after my first visit, was again on the black glass tile of Russia House's foyer. The place was once again packed. At the center of the room two enormous Last Supper-esque banquet tables covered with all manner of silver trays, vodka bottles, and ripe fruits hosted about 60 guests lavishly decked out in formal suits and glittering dresses. As we strolled past them to sit at our lonesome, tiny white-clothed four-top tucked beneath wall-wide windows overlooking the 101 freeway, the whole group eyed us with equal parts suspicion and befuddlement.
“I feel like we just crashed a wedding reception,” I said to Chris, one of the diners in our group. “Yeah, hopefully they don't shoot us now,” he responded. I think he was half joking.
A middle-age woman with a shock of blond hair approached and gave us a wine menu. But in place of the wine was instead a list of about a dozen different brands of vodka. I ordered a bottle of Absolut, the cheapest option on the menu.
“We are all out of Absolut, I give you good Russian vodka instead,” said our server, smiling. I was warned about this – the classic upsell of swapping the $60 bottle with a $300 bottle. I looked around at my friends wondering if the reviews were right, if we should just get up and leave now. And the leers from the other diners weren't convincing us to stay.
“Oh, it's the same price as Absolut,” our server said, sensing our apprehension. Feeling stupid, we smiled and ordered a bottle and a few minutes later she returned with the vodka, four crystal glasses, and a pitcher full of cranapple juice – the traditional Russian mixer of wusses. And we were off.
Next came appetizers: a plate of pickles, including pickled watermelon. “Ach, it stings! It’s rotten!” screamed Amy, another diner at our table. The watermelon did sting. Perhaps the reviewers were right: the food here would make us sick. We looked around, cautiously nipped at the tray, and grew more paranoid. But 30 minutes later, as we moved on to entrees, more vodka, and more pickled fruits, we still felt great. No, the food wasn't rotten – it was delicious. Huh.
Near the bar, a middle-age man and a heavyset woman walked onto the stage and broke into a canned, Russian version of “Bad Romance” so soaked in reverb it sounded deeply psychedelic, and kind of awesome. The diners at the banquet tables immediately threw down their napkins and clamored to the dance floor. Everyone danced as we sat nervous, unsure if it was safe to join them. A half-hour later the music stopped and the other diners sat back down and picked up where they left off.
It wasn't until a couple of hours later that we realized how it all worked. Russian-style dining is about prolonging the crescendo of the experience for hours, intermixing talking, eating, dancing, and drinking in equal parts, slowing working up to a climax at the end of the night. This Tantric approach to dining was foreign to us westerners, each of us conditioned by local restaurants to eat, drink, and pay up as quickly as possible to make room for new guests. I realized what ugly Americans we were, sitting fearful of our safety, drunk, full, vomiting in the bathroom (yes, one of us did vomit in the bathroom) and ready to leave at 11 p.m. while our Russian counterparts were just getting started with their evening.
Luckily, by midnight, we got into the swing of it and joined in. Soon, the befuddled looks of our fellow diners turned to smiles of approval as we stood clapping along on the dance floor as elderly men broke into traditional Russian dances. The two other banquet tables exchanged toasts. No fights, gunshots, food poisoning, overcharges, stolen credit cards, nor rudeness – just one continuous, fever-pitched, good vibe party that lasted long into the night.
As we got up to leave, the DJ approached our table, asking us what we were celebrating. A few guests at the other tables smiled and applauded when Amy said, “Life.”
I think she was half joking.
Russia House is located at 2011 Bayshore Blvd in Visitacion Valley. There is one seating, once a week, on Saturdays evening to close. Call (415) 330-9991 to make reservation, and be prepared for a gruff exchange. The owner doesn't suffer indecision, but it's worth asking if there are other large parties on the night you plan to book – you want to go with the big crowd, not sit alone in a vacant dining room. When ordering, skip standbys like piroshki and Chicken Kiev and opt for more rootsy plates as pickled watermelon, beef tongue, and some other stuff you have a hard time pronouncing. Dress is formal. Bring cash, lots of it, but leave your car at home and cab it.
In January, Russia House announced it’s closing its doors for good some time in the coming few months. Get on it.