- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) — It was amid the crimson, green and gold splendor of the Russian Tea Room that Dustin Hoffman, dressed as a dowdy, middle-aged woman in “Tootsie,” sidled up to his apoplectic agent, played by a sputtering Sydney Pollack.

Madonna once worked the coat check there. And boldface names such as Michael Douglas, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Barbara Walters, Woody Allen and Henry Kissinger went to the restaurant for their tete-a-tetes. It was the ultimate power meal, spiced with romance, until it closed in 1995. Then reopened. Then closed again.

Today, the Russian Tea Room opens 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 realm — “an anteroom to all the glamour and gifts, sizzle and pulse, art, intelligence and determination of New York,” as singer Judy Collins, a Tea Room regular, described it in an essay after its 2002 closing.

Today, the 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 offers borscht and blinis with butter, caviar and sour cream.

A new chef, Gary Robins, is crafting dishes to satisfy nostalgic clients, creating his own borscht 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.

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

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

In the early 1980s, Mr. Hoffman came for lunch with his wife and agent while preparing to shoot “Tootsie.” The actor turned up in his drag costume. His own agent didn’t recognize him.

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

Mrs. Stewart-Gordon sold the property for $6.5 million to Warner LeRoy, who closed it on New Year’s Day in 1996 for four years and $36 million in renovations, including the addition of a private dining room featuring a mechanical czarist-era diorama of what later became Moscow’s Red Square.

The costs drove the restaurant into bankruptcy. The September 11 attacks put an additional squeeze on the economy, and the Russian Tea Room closed again in 2002.

Mr. LeRoy died in 2001, leaving a restaurant that was sold to the U.S. Golf Association, which failed to turn it into a golf museum as planned. Mr. Lieblich bought the property for $19 million but would not say what it cost to reopen it.

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