D.C. restaurants can’t escape geopolitics

“Look at her nails,” the diner on the restaurant’s long bench said as he tilted his head toward his neighbor, while she tackled a plate of silky-skinned varenyky, her Ukrainian-flag mani a blur of yellow and blue.

The soft open of D.C.’s first full-service Ukrainian restaurant — Ruta on Capitol Hill — this week was full of diners there to make a statement.

“Strategically, it’s very important to have a Ukrainian restaurant right in the capital of the United States,” said Nadiia Khomaziuk, communications director for the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council, who on Tuesday night was just a homesick Ukrainian thrilled to eat real varenyky, known to most Americans by the Polish version, pierogi.

The crowd at Ruta this week was full of D.C.’s Ukrainians, but there were also plenty of folks there for geopolitical reasons. The man who noticed the diner’s blue-and-yellow nails was not Ukrainian, but he said he was intentional about how he chose to spend his money that night.

“Oh, for sure, we’re here to support Ukraine,” he said.

“And for the borscht,” added his date, a displaced New Yorker who was used to Eastern European food.

Let’s call it gastro-diplomacy — a pro sport in D.C.

Look at the love — a hug almost daily — that the Afghan restaurant Bistro Aracosia, got when Kabul fell.

Or the Washingtonians awakening to Uyghur pumpkin dumplings as the plight of their people in China made headlines. “I have to talk about Uyghur issues. I have to let people know who the Uyghurs are and where the Uyghurs come from,” Hamid Kerim, the owner of Dolan Uyghur Restaurant, told DCist.

Or the line all the way out the door and down the street at D Light, the Ukrainian bakery in Adams Morgan, right after the Russian invasion, according to the Washingtonian.

Unbridled, this kind of activism can be calamitous for a business.

Take the story of Russia House in Kalorama. (The key is that it’s not owned by Russians).

The place had been established in 1991 by Russian immigrant, nuclear physicist and Washington Times columnist Ed Lozansky, who created it as a private club where Russians in and out of Washington could hold court.

In 2003, Lozansky leased the bottom floor to two guys who wanted to make it a public restaurant, and they ended up buying the whole building.

For nearly two decades, Russia House was an iconic spot on the Washington social circuit, a cheeky homage to the ghost of the Cold War, toasted with caviar, vodka and borscht (which is equally loved by Ukrainians). Non-Russians imagined they were sitting on the very chairs once occupied by KGB agents.

For Aaron McGovern, it was the beginning of a career that helped shape the D.C. restaurant scene.

“This was my first restaurant, my baby,” said McGovern, 51, a U.S. Army veteran who was trained to fight Soviet T-72 tanks in 1990, when he was in uniform and we were in the twilight of the Cold War. “It paid for all my other restaurants.”

But as Washington was deep into Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of a possible Trump-Putin bromance, anti-Russian lather hit the Beaux-Arts facade of the famed Russia House.

“Tinkle Tinkle Puppet Czar, Putin Put You Where You Are,” read the stickers that someone kept plastering on the restaurant’s front door.

This was going on just as McGovern and his business partner, Arturas Vorobjovas (Lithuanian! Not Russian!) began sinking big bucks into a huge renovation of Russia House. They were aiming for less of a theme-park ode to the Cold War and leaning into an intimate, boutique celebration of luxe caviar and vodka, of the rich, Imperial flavor of Russian haute cuisine.

“It’s got French roots,” the foodie part of McGovern argued. “Think of beef stroganoff,” he said. “Beef bourguignon with crème fraîche . . . Or look at chicken cordon bleu and chicken Kyiv.” Washington foodies will love it, he thought.

“Two weeks later, the pandemic hit,” McGovern said. Like the rest of America’s restaurant industry, the business was devastated. Caviar in a plastic foam to-go box doesn’t hit the same, though McGovern thought about osetra-to-go. Instead, he hunkered down and put the restaurant in hibernation.

And just as D.C.’s restaurants began to emerge from the pandemic last year, and McGovern thought Russia House would be able to polish up the $20,000 in elegant flatware it had invested in, Russia became the world’s bully.

“All of a sudden, I saw rocks thrown through my building,” McGovern said. “I’m an Army vet; I didn’t have a golden spoon growing up. This was a self-made business for me.”

As he was sweeping the broken glass one morning after yet another attack, an activist got in his face about supporting Russia.

“I was like: ‘Do you really think that Putin calls me personally for geo-military, political advice?’” he said. The Russian immigrants are here to get away from that, to live the American Dream, he told the agitator.

“It was just as things were heating up with China and Taiwan. I asked the guy what happens if China invades,” he said. “There aren’t enough rocks to throw through all the windows of Chinese restaurants here.”

Not long after that, another overnight vandalism spree proved even more unnerving — the portico was plastered with ominous and violent political art. The FBI got involved.

And Russia House was put to sleep. The matryoshka dolls and Russian art went into storage, in hopes that the Russian threat will be extinguished and — for the restaurant’s purposes — blini will be acceptable again.

For now, they reopened the place as another branch of one of their successful seafood restaurants, Brine.

And they still serve caviar.

What’s next? How do we feel about Italy’s far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni? There are a lot of pizza joints in America.

“I’m not going to lie,” McGovern said. “I’m afraid American restaurants will become more mainstream. Safer.”

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