Shots of house-infused horseradish vodka and sweet Russian tea-based cocktails flowed freely as influencers, critics, institutional partners and long-time customers kicked off Russian Tea Time‘s 30th anniversary bash last week in a pleasantly updated space that continues to draw patrons out for a day at the Art Institute of Chicago, an evening with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, an outing to the Auditorium Theatre or a nearby Broadway in Chicago Show.
The restaurant’s location in the cultural nexus of the south end of the Loop, along with the exotic appeal of its menu of brightly colored Russian delights from the green peas and mint seasonal soup to the red of the beet crepes, has helped it endure for three decades and counting. It helps to have offerings that cater to a wide variety of tastes and pocketbooks–including the $35 prix fixe menu offered at lunch and dinner Monday-Wednesday and traditional caviar service that can top $200. Of course, there are the many varieties of premium tea service on offer for the ladies, and gents, who lunch. And vodka. As the chalkboard set up outside the restaurant put it on party night, “You look like you need vodka.”
It’s heartening to see such a well-run joint thriving in the post-pandemic Loop, especially one that adapts to changing tastes with offerings like the delightful Beyond Eggplant dish, described as “Layered eggplant and Beyond Meat patties covered with a delicate, homemade eggplant Oriental sauce” and topped with microgreens. There’s hustle evident here. At the party, I spoke with a woman from the AIC who touted the restaurant’s partnership with the museum. One gets the sense that staying afloat as a restaurant in the Loop these days takes tremendous tenacity and creativity.
I confess that I have not been one of the diners keeping the registers ringing at Russian Tea Time over the years. My doctor’s office is in a nearby building and I regularly go to the AIC and other cultural institutions, so I see the sign quite often. But I’m a big fan of Miller’s Pub around the corner, so if I’m eating in the vicinity, it’s usually there. In fact, the last time I was at Russian Tea Time was for its opening-night party 30 years ago, before the world had even dreamt of the friendly social influencers who would be celebrating the place in style (plus curves) in future decades.
That was the first night I met Brian Hieggelke of Newcity, who was soon to become my boss and a close friend. That evening, I was a freelancer looking for a gig writing bar reviews. Brian and I got good and sloshed, which was a preview of quite a few nights to come. We’ve both mellowed considerably in the intervening years, but I was sorry to hear he’d be in Brazil for the 30th anniversary. I drank a couple of extra vodka shots at the party in his honor, and expect he’ll make himself available for the restaurant’s 50th, if we all survive that long.
Russian Tea Time is at 77 E. Adams St. in Chicago
Photo by Frank Sennett