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Tue, Jan 18, 2000
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Russian Tea Room reopens with more glitz than it had in glory days

NEW YORK — The Russian Tea Room, an old favorite of A-list celebrities, reopened, and the see-and-be-seen crowd was back to judge whether the restaurant still has it after a four-year, $22 million renovation.

The ladies who lunch streamed through the revolving doors "just left of Carnegie Hall'' beginning promptly at 11:30 a.m., greeted by waiters in red tunics pouring vodka and dishing caviar.

Reminiscent of the restaurant's glory days, the well-to-do were seated Monday in buttery red leather seats that look nearly identical to the vinyl ones once reserved for Jackie O. and Paul Newman.

Shiny hunter-green walls and gilded molding offset period Russian paintings and antique samovars, making the old crowd feel right at home.

Among those with reservations the first day were entertainment agent Sam Cohn, writer Sidney Sheldon, and the former owner of the Russian Tea Room, Faith Stewart-Gordon.

"It's beautiful,'' said Ms. Stewart-Gordon. "I was really stunned when I saw it.''

When the restaurant opened in 1926, it really was a tea room, and its patrons were largely Russian artists, especially dancers. Over the years, it became a full-service establishment that served up to 1,000 people a day.

Ms. Stewart-Gordon sold the restaurant to Tavern on the Green proprietor Warner LeRoy in 1995, after he promised a top-to-bottom renovation would preserve the soul of the place. The ground floor is a carefully recreated version of its former self.

A 700-pound ice sculpture modeled after St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow graced the entrance to the first-floor dining room Monday, its turrets filled with premium vodka and champagne. Two more like it will be delivered each day.

An 18-foot revolving aquarium designed for snub-nosed sturgeon welcomes second-floor visitors, who are seated on red velvet or green brocade upholstery beneath a 700,000-piece Tiffany stained glass ceiling. The aquarium dominates the room, but shares the spotlight with a towering gold-painted tree hung with 35 Faberge-inspired glass eggs worth about $500,000.

The upper floors are reserved for private use, and include a fireplace, sapphire-blue walls, domed ceilings painted in bronze, and a three-dimensional diorama of pre-revolutionary Red Square, complete with a little czar reviewing Russian troops.

LeRoy calls the food an American reinvention of Russian cuisine. He even enlisted a Russian history professor-turned-cookbook author to help.

The over-the-top style carries with it the risk that the once-venerable establishment will become little more than a pre-revolutionary Russian theme restaurant alongside Planet Hollywood, one of its neighbors on West 57th Street.

LeRoy isn't worried. He says the place is his fantasy come true.

"And restaurant going, I think, is a fantasy,'' he said.

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