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Uncle Vanya Cafe

315 West 54th Street
Uncle Vanya Cafe 1 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West

We felt at home the second we stepped into the warm, cozy Uncle Vanya Café in the fall of 2016. Long-time Uncle Vanya team member Igor Reznik welcomed everyone with sweet kompot, house-baked bread with garlic oil, and bowls of steaming borsht. The delectable feast of traditional Russian dishes later continued with pelmeni, blini, and Salmon Kulibiaka (salmon, mushrooms and onions in a puff pastry). College interns with Manhattan Sideways, Lucy and Casey, whose parents are from Russia, noted that the food tasted almost exactly like their mother’s home-cooked meals. This makes sense because many of the recipes were developed by the owner’s grandmother. According to Igor, others were created by the former cook who in her sixty-seven years - without a formal education - had absorbed Russian culinary culture in a way that is not done anymore. Igor went on to tell us that duck is another big favorite at Uncle Vanya – it is slow cooked for three hours in its own juices with apples and onions so that it is very tender. At the bar, customers can find Georgian wines and Russian beers.

The culinary authenticity reflects the atmosphere of the restaurant in general. Since 1992, the eatery has retained its unique identity as a sort of “dive art café.” He described it as “a place like Cheers, where everybody knows your name.” In his ten years at Uncle Vanya, he has heard many people say, “I met my wife here! I met my husband here!” He referred to the restaurant as a “kind of social speakeasy kind of place.” The crowd includes many actors, theatergoers, and performers. Any time there is a Russian theater troupe in town, they can be can be found at Uncle Vanya. Even in terms of staff, the restaurant tends to attract people who are involved in the arts. A musician himself, Igor said he feels very lucky and blessed to have been thrown into something "as authentic and real" as Uncle Vanya.

When asked about the piano standing by the bar, Igor quipped, “if someone’s nice, I’ll let them play.” Igor’s hospitable, easygoing manner epitomizes the vibe of Uncle Vanya. He explained, “We’re very flexible, if you want to host an open mic night or do piano karaoke, just talk to the management. They even have modern Russian poetry readings and nights for Americans who are Russian literature lovers. Igor then added, "We’re very open to ideas - we are not just a cafe, but a cultural center."

The decorations and design further contribute to the genuine Russian spirit of the restaurant. There is Soviet art hanging that was given to Marina Troshina - the owner and former Russian actress - as a gift, including many Chekhov decorations. The walls are adorned with original photos from the first stage production of Uncle Vanya as well as posters from the classic Soviet film production directed by Stanislavsky, which Marina purchased at an auction. In an unexpected twist, a holiday card and letter from George W. Bush can be found on one of the walls. In the spirit of supporting art and creativity, Uncle Vanya sometimes hosts exhibitions, where they take the Chekhov pieces off of the wall and mount work from other artists.

When asked what distinguishes Uncle Vanya from other Russian eateries, Igor concluded “that New York conversation you can make here. This city is so dense, you're forced to talk to people - that conversation that can only exist here and nowhere else. Proudly, for better or for worse, we take our part in that culture. There are many places you can go but there's none that are as real.”

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Uncle Vanya Cafe 2 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West
Uncle Vanya Cafe 3 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West
Uncle Vanya Cafe 4 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West
Uncle Vanya Cafe 5 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West
Uncle Vanya Cafe 6 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West
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Uncle Vanya Cafe 8 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West
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Uncle Vanya Cafe 10 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West
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Uncle Vanya Cafe 12 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West
Uncle Vanya Cafe 13 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West
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Uncle Vanya Cafe 15 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West
Uncle Vanya Cafe 16 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West
Uncle Vanya Cafe 1 Russian Hells Kitchen Midtown West

More Russian nearby

Lost Gem
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Russian Tea Room

Stepping inside this iconic restaurant, after having not been for quite some time, the first thing I noticed was the dazzling array of colors. Red and green conjured up images of a dramatic Christmas party and the gold-leafed ceiling reflected the large collection of samovars placed atop the booths. Almost every inch of wall space was covered in dance-themed art and photography, likely a tribute to the restaurant's 1927 founders, who were members of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Ken Biberaj, the Vice President, took the Manhattan Sideways team on a tour of the enormous restaurant, which includes three private dining rooms and seats up to 450 people. Upstairs, I marveled at the sixteen-foot crystal bear aquarium, filled with gold fish, and felt like I was walking into a fairytale. Back downstairs, I learned that the glass-encased decorative replicas of the Faberge eggs, were made entirely of sugar by Zhar-Ptitsa Troika. As the chef continued to present a variety of Russian dishes, I recalled my dinner some three decades ago where I tried chicken kiev for the first time. When I commented about the array of food including the warm buckwheat blinis, red borscht made with pickled beets, the house-cured salmon gravlax and the beef stroganoff, Ken was quick to respond, "People come to the Russian Tea Room for more than the food - they come for the whole experience. " Indeed, a meal or high tea at the Russian Tea Room can be a momentous event as visitors join a crowd that spans generations. We had the pleasure of joining Ken Biberaj and Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, to discuss the official launch of the. nyc web domain. Watch our interview here.

More places on 54th Street

Lost Gem
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Cafe 424

It's her first venture in Manhattan and she's had to pick up some new skills along the way too, but hospitality veteran Nicola Campbell is feeling right at home in Hell's Kitchen as she opens brand-new Jamaican eatery Cafe 424 on W54th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue. Currently in soft-launch mode and open from Wednesday to Saturday 10am to 7pm, the team at Cafe 424 are planning a grand opening September 15 to 17, after which they will operate from 8am to 10pm Wednesday through Saturday, serving Jamaican-themed pastries, coffee, lunch and dinner. Nicola, known as “Chef Mom” grew up in Willowdene Estates in the parish of St Catherine, Jamaica, where she learned to cook alongside her grandmother. “I used to be in the kitchen with my grandma all the time, ” said Nicola. “Back then I didn’t love it — it felt like punishment, but as I got older I realized that I had natural talent. ”She moved to New York City in 1999, opening several Caribbean restaurants in Queens and earning a degree from the prestigious Institute of Culinary Education. “I started using the skill sets that I got from my grandmother, ” said Nicola. “I decided to go to culinary school to sharpen those skills, and the rest is history. ” Her professional nickname “came from culinary school and when I was graduated — my kids said, ‘What should we call you now? ’” All of her children have helped with the business through the years, including daughter Zhana Clacken, who works as her partner and technology expert at Cafe 424. After closing one restaurant in Long Island City due to damage from Hurricane Sandy and selling another establishment in Jamaica, Queens in 2016, “I swore that I would never do this again, ” said Nicola. But when she got the chance to collaborate with non-profit co-op Prime Produce, an organization dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs and artists with their multi-use space on W54th Street, Nicola decided to take the leap. “I met these fabulous people from Prime Produce who want to do good in the world, ” said Nicola. “Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of it? ”After signing on as the organization’s in-house concession provider and operator of the public-facing café, the next challenge for Nicola was to build the kind of environment that she hoped would attract regular neighborhood patrons. “We wanted to create a homey, relaxed vibe, ” she said. “We want you to stay — we offer free WiFi so that you can come on down and chill with us. ”Used to commercial kitchens, she was happy to find a convection oven to fit the smaller space, allowing her to develop a full menu of breakfast, lunch and dinner options cooked onsite. “I'm used to a full kitchen, ” said Nicola. “But from experience working in colleges and hotels, restaurants and catering, I've had to pull all those things together. ”Nicola and her team are happy to be able to offer freshly-baked, in-house seasonal pastries, including treats like apple pies, bread pudding and, come holiday time, a rum raisin fruit cake featuring raisins that Nicola has been lovingly tending to and soaking for five years. For lunch and dinner, she’s developed a small, constantly rotating seasonal menu with Jamaican classics like jerk chicken, oxtails, curry goat, seafood and jerk fried rice. Everything is cooked to order and they offer vegan options in their lunch, dinner and dessert menus. The process has allowed Nicola to experiment with Jamaican fusion cuisine, she added. “I try to mix up my Jamaican side and my culinary-training side and bring a little bit of French and a little bit of Italian-style to different dishes — oxtail cooked French-style and combinations like that. ” But when it came to creating the café’s beverage program, Nicola had a lot to learn. “I was challenged because I've never actually done a coffee shop before, ” she said. She got to work researching the coffee brewing process, and landed on using premium Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee for the café’s offerings. “I wanted specifically to stay true to my heritage, and Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee is what I was raised on — growing up back home in Jamaica with my grandmother, that's all we used to have, ” she said. “I wanted to go back to that tradition, so I went to a company called Jamrock Coffee to work with them and try different roasts. We’re offering dark roast because that's where the flavors were the most intense. ” Working with head barista Dovi Akouete, Nicola trained herself on the art of brewing, and proudly declares that while “it used to just be coffee to me, I learned so much about the beans and the roasting process and making these drinks that now I really know the difference between a Macchiato and a Cappuccino. ”Nicola is so well-versed that she’s proud to offer fully-customizable drinks (and dishes) based on a customer’s needs. “If you’re hungry or thirsty for something, we’ll make you a drink or dish especially for you, ” she added. “We don’t want to be cookie-cutter and we consider ourselves a boutique, niche café. ” Keeping in the spirit of experimentation, Nicola hopes to implement a private chef’s table tasting menu every Sunday starting in October, featuring a four-course, prix fixe menu perfect for group gatherings and special events. Nicola is excited for the road ahead, and bolstered by the amount of community support already shown to the café. “People are super excited we’re here, ” she said, just as several Hell’s Kitchen residents walked by and shouted “We can’t wait to come by! Welcome! ”. Reception from the local business community has also been warm, added Nicola — they’ve already connected with the owners of Jaz Indian Cuisine and Mamasita. “It’s on our list to circle all of the nearby businesses, ” she added. “It’s all about unity — we can’t do this alone, and that’s our model with Prime Produce too. We are a strong team, not just as a café, but as a community and a co-op. It’s all about team members. ” For now, Chef Mom is focusing on the lead up to their official opening weekend, and taking in the joyful, fast-paced energy of all it entails. “It’s a lovely space, with great people and a great mission, ” she said. “I’ve never operated in Manhattan, and this is a lovely neighborhood, so I was open to taking on the challenge, and as they would say, ‘jumping off the cliff! ’” This story originally appeared on W42ST. nyc as "Enjoy a Flavor of Jamaican Cuisine and Hospitality as Cafe 424 Opens in Hell's Kitchen" in August 2022.

Lost Gem
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The Neighborhood Playhouse

The Neighborhood Playhouse is both a great community resource and an old-fashioned reminder of the timelessness of great theater. Virtually invisible from the street, the only clue to its existence is a red, unmarked door and a modest sign. Once inside, however, I discovered that this almost one hundred year old building holds within it a proscenium theater, a full-size dance studio, and plenty of dressing rooms and classrooms. What a fascinating tour I was treated to by Emily Duncan, the admissions administrator, where I learned about their history and mission. The lobby, with its shabby elegance, features photos of famous graduates, as well as scenes from plays over the course of the school's history. The top two floors of the building are devoted to a beautiful dance studio with wood floors and soaring ceilings. A lover of dance, I was particularly moved when Emily announced that I was standing in the former domain of dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, who taught at the Neighborhood Playhouse alongside actor and teacher, Sanford Meisner. I was also enrapt by Christine Cirker, the librarian, who proudly discussed their vast collection of plays and theatre criticism. Incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the world of theater, she told me that she also teaches classes on script interpretation. Christine went on to explain the playhouse's claim to fame: the Meisner Technique, a method of acting that emphasizes that one should "live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances. " Sanford Meisner developed his famous improvisation-based technique at the Playhouse in the mid-1940s, which continues to train actors to this day. It counts among its list of prominent alumni names: Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall and Steve McQueen; and more recently, it has added to its roster, Allison Janney and Chris Noth. The playhouse trains about one hundred students at any given time, seventy-five first-years and twenty-five second-years who have been invited back as a result of a unanimous faculty vote. According to Emily, graduates have an easier time finding work than most aspiring actors due to their alma mater's extensive network of influential writers, directors, and actors. Much of the faculty is closely involved in the theater world, and as Pamela Moller Kareman, the playhouse's executive director, shared, "It's a big leap to become a professional actor; we want people to know that you can do this with your life. " And from the time that I spent here, it became apparent that the staff at Neighborhood Playhouse is there to guide and support students every step of the way.