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04-01-2010

09:17 PM: Welcome to "Russian Style Celebrations"

I'm always amazed at how different American and Russian parties and weddings are. Here's a glimpse into Russian partying over at Irina's blog www.columbia.edu/~ip71/w116/2006/06/partying-with-russians_29.html:

"Americans are boring. They don't know how to have a good time. Sophistication is often preferred to fun. A typical American wedding, for example, involves prim girls in conservative dresses, guys nursing the same glass of Merlot for several hours while talking to each other about the box score, and a bland choice between chicken or fish. Even a typical evening out is dull - a bar with bad music, or even worse, a lounge where you can "sit and talk." Bah! If you want to have a good time, you have to hop on the train to Brighton Beach and party with Russians. Here are some guidelines to get you started.

The atmosphere
The partying takes place at a restaurant, which is more like a combination between a disco night club, a cabaret, and an all-you-can-eat buffet. The word "restaurant" has different connotations to Russians than it does to Americans. An American restaurant is a place to eat; a Russian restaurant is a place to feast. The essential elements of a night out are: alcohol, food, and music. You will be seated at a large table, really depending on the size of your group. The tables are arranged around a dance floor and a stage, and food and alcohol are delivered to your table. The specifics will depend on the restaurant and your reservation.

The attire
Forget conservative. Spandex and glitter are your friends! For girls: the shortest skirt that you can find, the highest heels that you can manage, and a low-cut top that's a few sizes too small. For guys: no jeans, no sneakers, but a tie is not necessary either. A button down shirt will do, but try to avoid the Brooks Brothers look. You should really aim for something in the Webster Hall circa 1997 category.

The dancing girls
Russians love dancing girls! This is not really in the style of a strip club, but more like a cabaret, and it's a lot of fun. If your date is American or a feminist, she will probably take great offense, and blame the collapse of communism on such a despicable display of erotic debauchery. The dancing girls (referred to as "the show") will usually come some time midway into the evening. You should ask the waiters to give you a sign when it's about to begin, and plan to escort your date for a "breath of fresh air" for the duration of the program (about half an hour, usually).

The drink
Russians don't do mixed drinks. It's either vodka or wine. Girls can get away with mixing their shots with some coke or juice, but guys should just drink it straight up. Don't - under any circumstance - try to add ice to your vodka. (I really can’t stress this enough). Don't ask for scotch. Don't ask for vermouth. Don't ask for a "White Russian." The wine is really for the girls and those with heart/liver disease, and guys should be prepared to present some notarized proof of a serious medical condition if they intend to drink anything but vodka. There is no bar-tender, because there is no bar. Seltzer water, juice, or soda can be used as a chaser. The bottles are delivered to your table, and you are in charge of consumption and distribution. Whoever opens the bottle pours the first shot, and whoever is toasting pours the next shot. Try to keep up. Russians pace themselves well, and the trick is to eat and dance in between rounds. Also, once a bottle is opened, it has to be finished. And it’s often considered bad luck to leave empty bottles on the table. You have to drink “do dna,” meaning, don’t leave any alcohol in your glass.

The food
The one thing that leaves the greatest impression on Americans during their first outing to a Russian restaurant is the food. Mostly, the quantity. Expect it to just keep coming. The type of cuisine will depend on the restaurant, but the courses are always numerous. First come the appetizers, or "zakuska" - these might include blinis with caviar, potatoes and herring, salads, cold cuts, cheeses, and pierogies. Note that I said "and" not "or." Americans often mistake the appetizers for the main food, and fill up. This is their greatest mistake. Next, there will be the main course, or "goryachiye," which is likely to come in several iterations. The meat portion might consist of roasted lamb, shish kebob, pork chops, and chicken-kiev, with some fried potatoes. The seafood portion will likely have lobster, oysters, and some sort of shrimp. The food will be delivered on large platters, placed in the middle of the table, and you help yourself to whatever you want. There is also desert and coffee toward the end.

The toast
In some cultures, toasts are very important. If your company is from Tbilisi, Odessa, or Baku, you can expect the highest caliber of toasting. (By the way, Georgian style of toasting is very different, and particularly verbose compared to other regions). Some consider it an art form, which probably warrants and essay all on its own. Don’t drink without toasting, or you’ll be considered an alcoholic. Generally, the first toast is devoted to the occasion, the second toast is usually in honor of the host or the primary person at the gathering (or, sometimes, to friendship), the third toast is typically in honor of women or love. After that, anything goes. You should be prepared to give at least one toast, and "to life, to life, le chaim" will get you only so far. The best topics for a toast include: to our parents’ great wisdom, to a woman’s beauty, to academic prowess, to financial prosperity, to health, and to world peace (especially if foreigners are present). When you toast, it's good to have a story. The actual toast doesn't necessarily have to do anything with the story, as long as the story is sufficiently elaborate. Think along these lines: Once my 95 year old grandfather visited me in Odessa. I took him to the beach, and when he saw the water, he asked me, “what is that?” I told him, “that’s the Black Sea, grandfather.” To which he replied, “and what was there before the revolution?” So, let us raise our glasses so that we may live long enough to annoy our grandchildren with such stupid questions!

The music
Russian is the only culture that I am aware of (correct me if I am wrong, please) that has an entire musical genre known as “restaurant music.” This is not high class stuff, but it’s extremely fun, and especially good to dance to. You see, when you are partying, you can’t listen to anything too thought-provoking or socially significant, such as Vysotsky. Nor, can you listen to anything too nostalgic, like Bernes or Utesov. The music has to be light, and have a good dance beat. Some common themes for restaurant music include: alcohol, sailors, women, the privoz, the criminal element, as well as any combination of those. Very often, you will hear a series of songs from Odessa (since the best songs, just like the best jokes, are from Odessa). If there are people from Kishinev or Tiraspol, you are in for some circle dancing to 7-40. You will also hear some American songs, remixed to a disco beat. But remember, Russian pop culture is generally about 10-15 years behind the US, so you can expect some Angelo Venuto and a KTU remix of a Celia Cruz song. You can make requests (by walking up to the MC when he is not busy), but don’t do anything stupid like ask for “that Misfits song.” Stick to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and you’ll be ok.

The curfew
There is no last call. (Ha Ha). You can stay all night. Usually, people will start clearing out at the crack of dawn.

The best Russian restaurants in the US are in New York, of course. And the best Russian restaurants in New York are in Brooklyn. And of those, the best ones are on Brighton Beach. National, Rasputin and Primorski are the most noteworthy ones, in my opinion. There are some exceptions, however. The Russian Samovar on 52nd street in Manhattan is pretty good, but it really caters to the American theater-going public. The food is very good, though. Also in Manhattan, Firebird on 46th street is Ok (I haven’t been there in a while). There are definitely a few nice places in the Boston area, and in Jersey. But, they are hardly in the same league.

Finally, I feel it necessary to note that these are some general guidelines that I picked up after several years of… uhm… extensive research. Some specifics might be different in other cities, but I think that the gist is the same. Also, these rules don’t apply to small-group drinking situations, such as drinking while playing chess, drinking while doing Calculus, drinking while reading poetry, or drinking while resolving matters of state. That’s a whole different story."
 

 

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