Russian Restaurant with Rich History Serves Countless Celebrities, Beef Stroganoff and 26 Flavors of Vodka

Vlada Von Shats, owner of Russian Samovar, a storied family-run restaurant and piano bar in the Theater District, dishes on the famous faces she’s served from Ivana Trump and Nicole Kidman to Barbara Walters and Mel Brooks.

| 01 Apr 2024 | 03:37

“It’s easier to say who wasn’t there than who was,” said Vlada Von Shats of the notable names that have visited her restaurant, Russian Samovar.

“Tony Bennett, Cyndi Lauper, Isabella Rossellini, Judi Dench, Km Basinger, Nicole Kidman, Laurence Fishburne. Liza Minnelli used to come in, take the mic and start singing. Sting, Jeff Goldblum, Oscar de la Renta, Barbara Walters, Ivana Trump, Mel Brooks. When they were doing ‘The Producers’ next door, they were working on the show literally at the restaurant.”

Born in what was then the Soviet Union, Von Shats came to New York in 1978, when she was 12, and now lives on the Upper East Side. She started working at the restaurant when she was 21, and now runs it with her husband, Jacob, and two sons, Michael and Nicholas.

Her stepfather and mother, Roman and Lara Kaplan, were its original owners, with their business partners, famed dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and Joseph Brodsky, a poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature. When Baryshnikov starred in “Sex and the City,” he even used the eatery–located on West 52nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue–to film his first date episode with Sarah Jessica Parker.

The restaurant is steeped in rich history-and was previously the home of Jilly’s Canteen, owned by Frank Sinatra’s close friend Jilly Rizzo. Sinatra himself was known to visit with the Rat Pack, and the original banquettes where they all sat are still there today. Their bar is also the original, and was featured in the 1962 Sinatra film “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Russian Samovar is also known for its 26 flavors of vodka– which they have been infusing there since 1986. When asked to describe Russian food, like her signature dishes, Beef Stroganoff and Chicken Kiev, Von Shats said, it’s “comfort food and it goes well with vodka.”

How did your stepfather and mother know Baryshnikov and Brodsky?

Well, my stepfather has been in the arts world forever and he is a professor of literature and he left in 1975 from the Soviet Union. So he was working with all the artists and curating a gallery in New York. My mother is in the ballet world, so she knew Baryshnikov through mutual friends.

So Baryshnikov taped an episode of “Sex and the City” there?

They taped the episode for the first date [of Baryshnikov’s character and Carrie played by the show’s star Sarah Jessica Parker’s ]. I was there for the 14-hour shoot. They had to set everything up, they removed a lot of stuff from the walls. They had to redo most of the upstairs, except for the furniture. And another 10 hours to prepare, so basically a two-day shoot. It was a lot of fun.

Tell us about the history of the restaurant. It used to be owned by Frank Sinatra’s friend.

Before it became the Russian Samovar, it used to be Jilly’s. Jilly Rizzo was Sinatra’s close friend and bodyguard for years. Frank was there every time he was in New York, he had an apartment on the third floor. They played cards on the second floor. He brought all the Rat Pack and all his friends over. It was known to be the Rat Pack hangout. When Jilly retired and moved to Florida, we took over the space.

You kept the original banquettes there.

Yes, we kept the banquettes and we also found some other Jilly’s memorabilia. Behind the walls, when we were doing renovations, were people signing their names. It’s still there. I think there were some celebrities in there, but that’s way before my time, so I couldn’t really tell you. The bar is from the movie “The Manchurian Candidate.” They were looking for the Russian spy, so apropos, right?

Tell us what Russian food is and about your menu.

The food is very rich; it’s comfort food. A lot of the sauces and a lot of the dishes were stolen from the French during the 1812 War, I think. Our mashed potatoes were one of the 16 best in New York City [by the website Tasting Table]. There’s a lot of mashed potatoes in the city, so I think it’s an achievement.

What are your best selling flavored vodkas?

If you like savory, it would be ginger and horseradish. If you like sweet, it would be cranberry and pomegranate.

Tell us about some memorable events you’ve hosted there.

We have an amazing second floor which is a private space where we do most of our events. We do a lot of Broadway opening parties. We do poetry readings once a month. We have interactive theater upstairs sometimes. On Mondays, we have dinner and a show with different artists each week. We have a piano player every day. We do fundraisers, a lot of events with Lincoln Center, the MoMA. We do a lot of weddings. I’m actually an officiant, so sometimes I officiate them upstairs. We did a lot of fundraisers for the Ukraine in the last two years because we support Ukraine in this war. My husband is Ukrainian; my kids are half Ukrainian, their grandparents are Ukrainian. Because in the Soviet Union, everything was mixed. There’s not a family that doesn’t have Ukrainian and Russian mixed in them. We’re like brother nations. That’s why this war is so horrible.

What is the demographic of your customers?

We have people coming from all over the world to see us. We have a lot of European tourists, from France, Italy, Germany. The kids and the grandkids of the Russian people who used to come, that ran away from the Soviet Union when we acted as a safety hub for all the people who ran away from the system of Communism. This was a safe haven for all the people that left their homeland, running away from the regime. A lot of theater people, the actors, before and after their shows. When they’re done with the show, they come over to relax.

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My husband is Ukrainian; my kids are half Ukrainian, their grandparents are Ukrainian. Because in the Soviet Union, everything was mixed. There’s not a family that doesn’t have Ukrainian and Russian mixed in them. We’re like brother nations. That’s why this war is so horrible.” Vlada Von Shats, owner, Russian Samovar restaurant.