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Borscht, pierogi and community: A revolutionary Russian restaurant nears its last days

Borscht is a popular dish at Russian House #1. (Bradley Cox/Russian House #1)
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JENNER, Calif. — Russian House #1 is unlike any other restaurant in the country.

It was started in 2015, inspired by both Burning Man and Fort Ross, a nearby vestige of the Russian Empire’s ill-fated 19th-century hold on Northern California. Perched here on the bluffs of the Russian River (named by English speakers who couldn’t pronounce the Russians’ Slavyanka River) in coastal Sonoma County — evocative of Russia’s own Altai region — the wooden structure’s huge windows and pastoral patio with big deck energy give off European chalet vibes. Inside, visitors find a buffet, a hodgepodge of Russophilia including traditional puzzles and a chart of every Russian leader dating back to Rurik, the 9th-century Varangian chieftain of the Rus who started it all, as well as a wild array of transcendental evangelism including consciousness studies, breath work and cosmology.

This one-bowl Russian apple cake reminds us of hospitality in difficult times

What visitors don’t find is a price list. With a menu that changes day by day, everything is free — at least, in a monetary sense. Signs encourage diners to “pay from your wisdom” or “pay what you think is fair,” but the manager finds it wholly acceptable for folks to come in, gorge on food and drink — even beer or wine — and walk out without paying a cent. And yet people choose to pay to the tune of $138,788 in 2019 and $71,280 in the pandemic throes of 2020 (still easily more than enough to cover its monthly rent of $3,500).

“For many people, it’s not a restaurant but like a home to be somebody’s guest — like my grandma’s home, my grandma’s cooking,” said that manager, Tatyana Urusova, who has owned the restaurant since August 2020 and whose official title since then is president (she presides over a small, rotating crew of cooks and servers, all of whom are volunteers). “They feel it’s not a capitalistic place where people just try to get money from everybody. If people complain, it’s just at the entrance from people who expect fine dining and don’t want a buffet. In Google reviews, people say they don’t understand this place.”

The effect is better than revolutionary; it’s revelatory: Russian House #1 is a philosophical hall of mirrors, the restaurant in the country best suited to self-reflection, but it won’t be around much longer. Until it closes in a few months, it’s a place not only of consumption, but also of conscience and character. To butcher Tolstoy, each hungry customer is hungry in their own way.

Sometimes a mother and son will enjoy only borscht and tea, but leave $100. The biggest-ever payment was $1,000.01 (a tech bro regular paid it to beat the previous top of $1,000 flat). Some folks pretend to leave money but don’t. Some pull up in Teslas, some on bicycles, and some on foot. Hitchhikers may show up to volunteer work for a week or two, living in a trailer out back. During wildfire evacuations, the restaurant offers takeaway meals and bathroom breaks. Their pierogi and pirozhki are especially popular. When a regular broke his arm, Urusova brought him meals twice a week. It is a place for poputchiki (Russian has a specific word for travelers who cross paths and open up to each other).

The layered Russian salad with a poetic name — and strong flavors

“It’s happened several times when people have crisis in their life they just show up here,” Urusova said over a postprandial nosh of imported Alyonka chocolate and fireweed tea, describing the vague anguish Nabokov flagged as toska. “One day I was sitting at 7 a.m. drinking tea three years ago and a French guy showed up — divorced, didn’t like his job, very unhappy — three days later, he moved here and stayed with us for a month, found a girlfriend and moved to France. Sometimes it’s homeless people, drug-addicted, but it gives them a chance to feel like part of a community and then they can move on. They leave when they have inspiration to do something.”

Yet this is no off-radar flight of fancy. It has some of the best street cred possible: When the District’s ambassadors were asked about their favorite local restaurants to eat when they are homesick, one heretofore unpublished response stood out. Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador, flagged his favorite Russian restaurant in the entire country: this rural echo of Mother Russia. Nikolay Lakhonin, then-press secretary for the Russian embassy, called Russian House #1 “the ambassador’s favored restaurant in the USA.” Did he mean Russia House on Connecticut Avenue? “For sure not,” Lakhonin clarified. (Antonov declined to participate in this article.)

Of course, human depravity mingles with the restaurant’s dignity. But even that is often charming. “Once, the jar of money was stolen — maybe $30 — that evening it was brought back because someone recognized it thrown on the side of the road,” Urusova said. “It was very sweet. For me, it was even more beautiful that it came back than that somebody stole it.”

For those who admit to indigence, accommodations are made: maybe they wash dishes, for example. Maybe they literally sing for their supper, accompanied by the piano near the buffet table.

“It’s much healthier for people to feel they contributed something,” Urusova said. “Better than feeling guilty. I believe if we give something, it’s good when people give energy back — and this energy doesn’t always have to be money. We have enough. We have enough food. We have enough everything.”

Where ambassadors eat when they’re homesick

A panoply of patrons during recent visits spoke with similar unlikeliness.

Andrew Hickman, a Coast Guard officer training at a local facility, recently returned with his Coast Guard compatriot, Jonathan Thompson, who experienced Russian House #1 for the first time.

“I was taken aback. Even a little apprehensive at them saying, y’know, dig in. What’s the catch?” said Thompson, before looking over his meal of borscht, cabbage salad, beef stroganoff and beer. “I’ve acclimated,” he added with a laugh.

As opposed to restaurant “corporatization” and the data-driven traps of Instagram or QR codes, “they have a vision here that’s attractive. It feels pristine and untouched,” Hickman said. “We’re military in our 20s. People our age in our line of work don’t really recommend restaurants. That’s people older, with more money, foodies. But doing this feels like what food can be if you don’t push it so much.”

“It’s so giving,” said Sathi Chowdhury, a mother visiting from San Ramon with a brood of eight, including family friends. “The hospitality, the views, the concept. We were awestruck. We actually were headed to a different restaurant and had to stay because of the views. It’s such a wonderful surprise to feel immediately emotionally attached. It has such purpose, such humanity.”

Her companion, Sauravi Mazumdar, agreed as she sipped wine: “It’s so community-minded. It’s like walking into a family. It’s love and service. And commitment. It’s comfort food served as if I was born in Russia.”

Alison Albers, a singer-songwriter who also works as customer success director at a start-up in San Francisco, compared Russian House #1 to El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s fanciful and remote restaurant in Spain. “Nothing else is there,” she said. “The landscape unfolds onto the patio, this unclaimed space. The whole thing feels a little uncharted.”

Albers expounded: “I appreciate someone holding on to what’s dear to them in light of all of the trendiness, especially in the Bay Area. Whenever you find people who are really dedicated to something, there’s always a longing to be that dedicated, to be that moved or devoted. I appreciate its unpretentiousness. There’s a fancy way of doing rustic charm that doesn’t feel authentic; that’s not this. There’s something about the humility of this place I like. You make conversation in a different way.”

There’s another reason to compare it to El Bulli, which closed in 2011: Despite securing a $67,000 federal grant for restaurant relief, which paid off overdue electricity and propane bills, Russian House #1 was unable to renew its lease this summer. Its final day of operation is scheduled for Dec. 31.

Urusova is optimistic about the restaurant’s next chapter. “Childhood passes. We are six years old,” read a pamphlet in Russian about their final anniversary, which was Aug. 1. And she has advice for people who are unable to visit (besides buying the restaurant’s cookbook).

“I want them to know that anywhere in their lives they can just start to speak with other people, see them as people, create dialogue on a human-to-human level,” she said, as she idly fiddled with her chunky peace-sign pendant. “Because food is something that attracts, but the next level is friendship and self-actualization. That’s why we have a Maslow pyramid at the entrance.”

Asked her source of optimism, she replied with a single word: “Borscht.” She explained with a laugh: “Not everyone likes the borscht, but everyone asks for borscht.”

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