Russians have forged their love affair with vodka over many centuries. Despite much controversy and historical facts linking vodka’s origins to Poland, the people of Russia have become de facto ambassadors for the “water” of Eastern Europe. I myself grew up in a Russian household where not a single holiday, moment of mourning or anything in between was met without the reassuring sound of glasses clinking.
To sit down and enjoy a proper meal, a complementary beverage must be present. By some cosmic coincidence Russian cuisine happens to pair perfectly with vodka. Salty cured fish, sour pickled vegetables, smoked meats, rich and luscious sauces—vodka is the like a necessary sixth sense for their true appreciation.
If you ride the B or Q train deep into South Brooklyn, you’ll find yourself in a world set apart from the farm-to-table restaurants of Cobble Hill, the hipster bars of Bushwick, the microbreweries of Gowanus and the fair-trade coffee roasters of Red Hook. You’ll be in Brighton Beach, a part of the city where time has changed more slowly, where a Russian way of life has been preserved, and where our vodka tour begins and ends.
Located on the bustling commercial strip of Brighton 7th Street, Skovorodka has remained a neighborhood Russian favorite for years, serving authentic fare in a theater-like setting. For those visiting Brighton Beach for the first time, it may seem like a members-only club with its windows draped in plush gold velvet curtains, hiding the secrets that lie within. Everything about the decor screams old country: deep burgundy-clothed tables, cerulean-blue glasses and fanned-out gold napkins. The understated bar sits quietly in the corner, stacked with glistening bottles of top-shelf vodka, while a multitude of frying pans dangle overhead (“skovorodka” means frying pan). The drinks menu boasts an array of high-end vodkas, which pair beautifully with the zakusi (hot or cold appetizers). After a flight of Russian Standard, Beluga and Balinoff, it’s clear to see why vodka is derived from the word “water.” Unlike the harsh drinking days of college, where shots of vodka were merely tolerated as a means to get smashed, these shots are smooth, crisp and clean, transformed into something even better through snacks of smoked herring with potatoes and blini with red caviar.
Tatiana stands as one of the last Russian banquet halls in Brooklyn that pairs dinner and a cabaret show. Located on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, Tatiana is also something of an anomaly. Note the absurdly lavish decor, the hybrid menu of traditional Russian food and American classics (for their mixed clientele), the sounds of the party that never dies mixed with the serene push and pull of the cascading waves—Tatiana stands alone. Unlike much of Brighton Beach, which has stood nearly impenetrable for decades, the central beach location of Brighton Beach has led to an evolution of menu. Their food ranges from traditional fare like borscht and salat olivier to tourist classics like chicken fingers and Caesar salad.
Tatiana’s vodkas rely more on familiar standards like Stolichnaya to Absolut, lacking the silky smoothness found in some of the other entrants. Fortunately you are able to chase down your drinks with an amazing pickle plate: sour pickled tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and mushrooms. Outdoor seating is provided year-round on the boardwalk, in their enclosed dining room. On a chillier night, slurp down a steaming bowl of borscht. And don’t miss the Julienne, a casserole-like dish consisting of sautéed mushrooms, sour cream and cheese. The wait staff is sassy and engaging; one waiter even chastises me, much like my own father would, for not downing each shot in one go. The best part of Russian culture: Once you sit down to a meal together, you are family.
Georgian House is a little different from our Russian stops, serving traditional Georgian food and drinks. Once you enter the wood-paneled doors, the atmosphere here is relaxed, tranquil even. The restaurant is flooded with soft blue lighting, the walls are covered in wood and exposed brick, and ’90s love ballads gently play from the speakers. A band plays on Fridays and Saturdays, as evidenced by the twin Casio keyboards set up in the “stage” area.
The restaurant imports a staple Georgian drink known as chacha, its potency similar to moonshine; it is a grape vodka, produced from the pomace of red or white varietals. Your waiter can point out the subtle differences between them, explaining the red is produced in the west, while the white comes from the east. Both varieties pack a bit of burn, but the red has a fuller body, making it seem almost creamy on the tongue. Try both types, along with the insanely tender lamb shish kebabs with plum sauce, and the Acharuli khachapuri, a highly addictive egg and cheese bread (trust us).
Located on the border of Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, Anyway Café lights up a nondescript corner with its festive striped awning and red twinkling lights. Famed for their infused vodkas (large tanks line the bar), the interior is more reminiscent of a French bistro than a vodka lounge. Soft jazz caresses the air, while steaming bowls of moules frites emerge from the kitchen. The walls are lined with vintage French posters and red leather booths, illuminated by flickering votives.
The extensive vodka menu ranges from from dill to cherry to ginger, from horseradish to chili pepper. Anyway Café has a list of custom martinis that pair with each variety, as well as custom Bloody Marys, available on weekends. The horseradish vodka has a pleasant bite to it, while the dill is light, almost fruity—not to mention dangerously easy to drink. The chili pepper shot you’re advised to drink with caution doesn’t hit hard at first, but the heat subtly creeps up the tongue and through the nose—tread lightly!
Chinar dominates well over half its block on Coney Island Avenue, cloaked in bleak beige and gray stucco. Its seemingly unimpressive exterior ensures maximum impact when you enter its doors. The ceilings are obstructed by grandiose shimmering crystal chandeliers that cast a bewitching light over everything. Every surface is adorned in gold, from the walls to the plush velvet couches. The pulse of the bass from the live band intoxicates each guest well before they’ve had their first sip of vodka.
Chinar is a place you go to for special occasions. It isn’t an everyday vodka lounge—especially considering the price tag that comes with admission. Run as a banquet-only establishment, the charm and elegance of French cuisine is met with the more garish tastes of Eastern Europe. Chinar’s menu runs the gamut from crispy brown quail stuffed with drunken prunes to whole salt-cured sturgeon on a sterling silver platter. Each table boasts a prodigious number of vodka bottles, ranging from Svedka to Tovaritch. If you call ahead they’ll even make sure that the most obscure vodka makes an appearance. After a few shots of Viru Valge (a highly palatable Estonian vodka), you might just get on the dance floor and join in the wave of people thrusting, bumping and swaying. Life is pretty good at Chinar.