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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

$19 Million Later, Russian Tea Room to Reopen

APRussian Tea Room employee Alban Eltari setting a table for the renowned New York restaurant's reopening on Friday.
NEW YORK -- Madonna once worked the coat check there. And everyone from Michael Douglas and Mikhail Baryshnikov to Woody Allen and Henry Kissinger patronized the Russian Tea Room for their tete-a-tetes and trysts. It was the ultimate power meal, spiced with romance -- until it closed in 1995. Then reopened. Then closed again.

On Friday, the Russian Tea Room is set to open to the public yet again, after a more than $19 million takeover and makeover. The new owner is real estate developer Gerald Lieblich.

No one knows how this third reincarnation of an iconic meeting place will do, but one thing is for sure: The name Russian Tea Room evokes New York's celebrity force field -- "an anteroom to all the glamour and gifts, sizzle and pulse, art, intelligence and determination of New York," as folk singer Judy Collins, a past-Tea Room regular, described it in an essay after its 2002 closing.

Today, the 2,520-square-meter town house is filled with decor that mimics early 20th-century Russia, with 28 antique samovars, crimson leather banquettes and vivid green walls. The menu still offers borshch and blinis with butter, caviar and sour cream.

A new chef, Gary Robins, is crafting dishes to satisfy nostalgic clients, creating his own borshch while "bringing in a more vibrant, more contemporary palate," he said. Translation: healthier, less buttery fare. Cheese blintzes are now "blinchiki," Russian-style crepes served with goat cheese, wild mushrooms and duck confit.

Also on the menu is an Iranian caviar appetizer, at $350 per ounce. But dinner can still be had for about $75, plus tip and tax.

The standards are high. Before its opening, one sous chef was heard in the kitchen saying a large pot of cauliflower flan should be discarded because the consistency was wrong; it was adjusted and saved.

Whether memories and new menu will mix in the right way to bring back the magic is culinary Russian roulette.

On the dog-eat-dog restaurant scene, said Tea Room spokesman Ken Biberaj, "it is a lot of pressure."

In the Tea Room's heyday in the 1980s, the focus was not on the food.

Lunchtime at this midtown Manhattan institution next to Carnegie Hall brought together theater, movie and book agents who made important deals happen over meals.

Collins first visited the Tea Room after her Carnegie solo debut in 1962. And then, like so many others, she returned for holidays, birthdays, everyday meals -- even takeout (lamb, bulgur wheat and a Caesar salad served on a plastic plate covered with foil).

In the early 1980s, Dustin Hoffman came for lunch with his wife and agent while preparing to shoot "Tootsie." The actor decided to turn up in his drag costume. Even his agent did not recognize him. The scene was repeated in the 1982 film with Hoffman as dowdy, middle-aged Dorothy accosting Sydney Pollack's character in the Russian Tea Room.

The many stories started in 1926, when a chocolate shop and tearoom for Russian expatriates was opened by former dancers of the Imperial Russian Ballet who had fled the Bolsheviks. Even now, the restaurant offers a house vodka whose Russian inscription on the bottle translates to "The Tsar's Gold."

The Russian Tea Room's golden era began in 1955, when it was acquired by Sidney Kaye, an exuberant man of Russian descent. His perky, name-dropping wife, Faith Stewart-Gordon, became a friend and confidante to some of the greatest names in the entertainment industry.

Leonard Bernstein composed the opening bars of his "Fancy Free" dance at the Tea Room. When actor Yul Brynner died, friends gathering to mourn him at the restaurant included Raquel Welch, Sylvester Stallone and Robert Mitchum.

Stewart-Gordon sold the property in 1996 for $6.5 million to Warner LeRoy, who closed it -- a stomach-wrenching affair for regulars who canceled other commitments to come for farewell meals.

LeRoy spent three years and $36 million redoing the interior, adding what Stewart-Gordon called "these wild, Ringling Bros. circus effects." They are still there: a 4.5-meter acrylic bear filled with parrot fish and a private dining room featuring a mechanical diorama of what is now Red Square at the turn of the 20th century, complete with miniature soldiers and a tsar.

The costs drove the restaurant into bankruptcy, and LeRoy died in February 2001. The Sept. 11 attacks put an additional squeeze on the local economy, forcing the Russian Tea Room to shut down in July 2002.

The restaurant was sold to the U.S. Golf Association, which failed to turn it into a golf museum as planned. Lieblich bought the property for $19 million but would not say what it cost to reopen it.

Days before the opening, workers were buffing a shiny ceiling painted in a color called security red.

The cliche "it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" does not apply at the Russian Tea Room, whose red and green colors make the restaurant look like Christmas year-round.

There are only a few truly original items behind the revolving entrance door at 150 West 57th Street -- including the old wooden door itself. Hand-etched on its glass panels are the letters that have greeted Russian Tea Room guests for many decades: "RTR."