Next to the host stand at a restaurant on Austin’s Fifth Street sits a stuffed bear by the name of Misha wearing a USSR-era ushanka and a tight white “Keep Austin Russian” t-shirt.
Considered representative of the resilience of the Russian spirit, the bear is just one of many cultural peculiarities that Russian House offers. Established in October 2012, and currently managed by Roman Butvin, Russian House is an eatery and bar opened by a couple from Moscow who sought to bring authentic Eastern European cuisine
“They desired to bring a positive representation of Russia to the States,” Butvin said. “They thought a culturally active place like Austin was the perfect fit.”
To bring Russian culture to Austin, they decided to reflect Russian culture in its entirety — contemporary and traditional. Different areas of the restaurant are modeled after varying Russian time periods.
“The front room for large parties is fashioned in traditional folk style and the front bar is a showcase for local live Russian music,” Butvin said. “The dining area is meant to resemble old Babushka’s house in the early 20th century. There are some private rooms in the back that are like private Russian apartments.”
The attention to detail in portraying Russian culture has left patrons with more than just a typical dining experience. The front of the house displays Soviet-era décor such as flags and uniforms, some of which diners can wear throughout their dining experience. The rear dining room is quite the contrast: Russian artwork and classic trinkets such as Matryoshka dolls line the walls and quaint lace cloths cover the tables.
“It’s intended to not just be about the food, but rather the overall experience,” Vishnu Srinivasa, chemistry freshman and regular patron, said.
The restaurant attributes its culinary success to its executive chef, 25-year cooking veteran Vladimir Gribkov.
“I am in complete control of the menu, and prepare all of the drink and vodka infusions,” Gribkov said. “We use old and secret Russian recipes, with only organic vegetables and fruits.”
Russian House offers 101 nationally recognized house-infused vodkas, such as mango, elderflower and juniper. The consumption of all flavors has become a competition amongst regular patrons who flaunt their drinking of all the specialty vodkas with a shirt that proclaims their accomplishment.
“Last year, we were selected as one of the best vodka bars in the United States by USA Today for our selections,” Gribkov said. “People come from all over to try our vodkas.”
Contributing to the authentic atmosphere are the predominantly Eastern European workers, who carefully explain Russian dining etiquette as classic Russian waltzes play in the background.
“Russian House is so effective because those who work here understand and value the cultural experience immensely,” Butvin said. “The kitchen staff are Russian, Ukrainian and ex-USSR, while the servers include folks that are Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian and Serbian.”
Russian House not only seeks to bring Russian culture to Austin through décor, food and drinks, but through community outreach such as basic Russian lessons, which help to preserve a culture that is easily misunderstood. Butvin notes that Russian culture is something anyone can enjoy.
“There is so much that is universal and incredible about Russian culture — literature, ballet, or painters,” Butvin said. “The negative perceptions are often political, but when you speak of culture, there is much Russia has brought to the world, and it’s great that a diverse place like Austin can experience it.”