DANNY HO can't believe what he's seeing outside of the Key Club on a busy Saturday night.
"A Russian rapper is playing here tonight?" the 23-year-old asks incredulously of the doorman behind the velvet rope. When informed tickets start at $60, he scoffs: "Even if Eminem was playing tonight, I would never pay $60! If there are more than 100 people in there, I'd be shocked."
Kiev-born promoter and DJ Alex Ratushnyak, who rented out the Sunset Strip venue to showcase hip-hop star Seryoga, doesn't need Ho or his friends. The Key Club is already packed to the rafters with well-dressed Russian twentysomethings. "Tonight is a good night," Ratushnyak says, surveying the club. No kidding: In addition to a near-capacity crowd (some paying $200 for advance tickets), the 25-year-old's company, Planet-R, sold multiple VIP table packages to Russian high rollers for up to $1,000 a pop.
So it goes for Los Angeles' thriving Russian underground dance scene. The former USSR is officially hot in SoCal: From West Hollywood's bustling Soviet-chic Bar Lubitsch to Studio City's high-end steakhouse Romanov. And it's not just Russians who are indulging in some wild nights: Adventurous Angelenos are seeking out late-night clubs like Hollywood's Crystal and Encino's Il Paradiso that cater almost exclusively to a Russian crowd.
All good news for Ratushnyak: As a party promoter, he's uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between Russians and Americans in L.A.'s largely segregated nightlife scene.
Since 2005, Planet-R has been working with former competitors Russian Party Grounds to throw roving events at various L.A. clubs, all rivaling a night out in Moscow or Kiev.
While their goal has never been to explicitly seek out Americans, last month's party was special. More curious locals than normal were at the Key Club after finding out Seryoga (and his eight-person posse) had been flown to the U.S. for the first time. The "Black BMW" rapper has sold more than 1 million CDs in the former Soviet Union.
It's not like Ratushnyak needed a special musical guest: he's been producing events that cater to L.A.'s insular Russian community for years. "I have a mailing list of over 7,000," he boasts.
It all started in 2000, when Ratushnyak began throwing medium-sized gatherings in Orange County, offering all-night open bars to rave-happy Russian college students. "I lost a lot of money," he says of his early forays. "Russians like vodka."
Despite the losses, Ratushnyak (an IT tech by day) gained friends — and a loyal following.
The April 28 event featuring Seryoga was typical of Planet-R's parties (his next event is at Miyagi's over Memorial Day weekend). Euro dance music and American hip-hop were effortlessly mixed together, as barely dressed go-go dancers egged on wallflowers from the stage. And while both dance floors were packed, the real action was in the smoking area, where blonds in designer jeans puffed furiously on Capri cigarettes. English was seldom heard. Ratushnyak estimates his crowd is usually "75% Russian and 25% American."
"You feel like you are part of a community here — it's a special feeling," says Ksenia Koneva, 23. The Russian-born jewelry designer, who's been in California for four years, brought an American friend to the Seryoga show, which is typically the way locals arrive at Planet-R parties.
SoCal's sizable Russian community (estimated at 270,000 by Olga Kagan, director of UCLA's National Heritage Language Resource Center) has long been a fixture on L.A.'s nightclub scene. Century City's Russian Roulette, now closed, was a favorite haunt of many celebrities in the 1990s.
Now a new generation, proud of its heritage, is stepping out to reclaim its roots.
Planet-R go-go dancer Marina Skvir grew up in Los Angeles with Russian parents and wants to check out more Russian parties. "It's cool they like hip-hop," she says. "I'm pretty much a standard American, but I'm definitely interested in the scene and I could learn more about the language."
Back in the USSR
Ratushnyak isn't the only one cashing in on the Russia connection. The Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Shadow of Stalin" will draw fewer Russians than Americans, but it will certainly do a lot more in terms of cultural understanding. (See review, Page 11.)
Conceived by Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and billed as "an unprecedented exhibition of the music, film and art born in the shadow of communist oppression," "Shadow of Stalin" runs the gamut from straight classical performances of symphonies by the likes of Alfred Schnittke to DJs such as Ratushnyak and Amon Tobin remixing early 20th century composers.
Steven Martin, director of the 1994 documentary "Theremin: An Electric Odyssey," is even leading a 10-person theremin orchestra on May 26 in a portion of the series called "Pravda." That same evening more than a dozen DJs will present their own take on the Soviet oeuvre.
"There are so many opportunities to see music live in L.A., that artists are held to task more in bringing something compelling, inspired, and maybe even educational to their show," says Johanna Rees, the Philharmonic's special concerts program manager. "Hipsters want to be challenged — artistically and intellectually — and to come away with something that's been enjoyable and provocative."
Rees, who booked both "Pravda" and "Russian Chanson" (a May 24 show featuring Gypsy-rock band Devotchka and guests), knows that the primary audience for both events will not be Russians. But, she says the Philharmonic is "creating a show everyone can relate to, no matter what their musical orientation."
Nick Urata, Devotchka's frontman (heavily featured on the "Little Miss Sunshine" soundtrack), isn't Russian, but he's got a newfound enthusiasm for Russian street music — especially "chanson."
Urata describes it as "an underground music genre which was a response to the repression of the Stalin years, and the disappointment of Russian life."
Still very popular in Russia, its original romantic incarnation goes back to the late 19th century. "Many of the [chanson] songs originated and [were] passed around in prisons and often performed in secret to avoid punishment," says Urata. "They are anti-establishment songs that tell of life in the margins."
Urata hopes to turn on a more intellectual music fan — maybe a KCRW-FM or college radio listener — who would be attracted to the music's outlaw sensibility.
"To think that music could be controlled and smashed by the state [in Stalin's Soviet Union] makes playing for some crossed-armed, disapproving hipsters seem like a privilege," he says.
But for a new generation of Russians, such backward-looking explorations are perplexing. "I wouldn't want to go see that kind of music," says Irina Palevsky, a 22-year-old student and Russian techno fan. "I like to dance."
Wild Russian nights
Russians living in L.A. don't have to wait for Planet-R's monthly parties to have a good time. On any given weekend night, there are over a dozen restaurants across the city that turn into full-on nightclubs after midnight, replete with cheap lighting effects and disco balls.
One such venue, Encino's Il Paradiso, is a good example of this vibrant scene. The otherwise nondescript restaurant (ironically located next to an International House of Pancakes) attracts a well-heeled, good-looking crowd every weekend. One look at the BMW-jammed parking lot gives you a good idea of the clientele.
Just like in Moscow, .40 Glock-toting security guards (a sign you are at a good club in Russia) flank the front entrance. Women in their mid-20s — dolled up in tight-fitting Badgley-Mischka dresses — gossip and smoke outside, while their banker boyfriends speak animatedly in Russian at the bar. Green laser lights illuminate the tiny dance floor, as Russian house (often performed live on the small stage) plays into the wee hours.
If chain-smoking twentysomething crowds and the occasional bar fight leaves you colder than Siberia, you'll find a more sedate experience at Crystal, a West Hollywood restaurant located on the second floor of a complex on Santa Monica Boulevard at Fairfax. Crystal offers an authentic, sophisticated Russian dining experience. Patrons come early for a lavish multi-course dinner and stay until 2 a.m. on weekends, drinking and dancing to live music.
"This is the traditional Russian style," says Natasha Tsoi, who runs Crystal with husband Sergey. Russians, she explains, like their dining late. "You invite everybody to the table that is already set and enjoy each other's company all night."
It's the same scene at multiple restaurants all over Los Angeles on weekend nights — from Palm Terrace, just down the block from Crystal, to Tarzana's new Barin restaurant. It might seem a tad formal compared with the casualness of L.A. natives, but that's Russians for you. "They like to dress up," says Natasha Tsoi, "celebrate and share good times."
Za vashe zdorovye!
12743 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekends only. (818) 623-8844. This cavernous restaurant in Studio City can feel empty when not packed with a party crowd. Avoid this fate by coming late on Saturdays, when the chicken Kiev is hot and the crowd dances the night away to live Russian music. A dress code (no jeans) is enforced (for men, anyway).
15627 Ventura Blvd., Encino. 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekends only. (818) 730-6246. If you are seeking a true wild Russian night in L.A., look no further than Il Paradiso. This otherwise nondescript restaurant attracts a well-heeled, good-looking crowd on weekends (late at night usually). Don't be intimidated by the veal-tongue salad, the Glock-toting security guards or the BMWs out front — just dress to impress and dance the night away.
7901 Santa Monica Blvd., 2nd floor, L.A. 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekends only. (323) 654-1188. An authentic modern Russian dining experience awaits above a Starbucks. The restaurant has only one seating per night, so calling ahead is recommended (bar seating is possible later). In between courses, well-dressed (and increasingly tipsy) diners hit the dance floor. Dress code is enforced (no jeans) and there is a $20 cover charge.
7702 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily. (323) 654-1234. Although not Russian-owned, this bustling hot spot pays homage to its West Hollywood location with Soviet-inspired design. Cocktail waitresses here are decked out in Pravda red, and 1930s posters hang next to mirrors etched with Cyrillic to flesh out the Soviet chic concept.
13325 Moorpark St., Sherman Oaks. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (till 2 a.m. on weekends). (818) 981-0089. Appearing more like a strip club than a restaurant, Russian Nights' bizarre design scheme will amuse some. The odd pairing of neon (both outside and inside) and murals depicting rural Russian 18th century life gives diners a bit of kitsch with their chicken Kiev.
Little New York
7316 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekends only. (323) 874-0727. Located near a busy Trader Joe's, Little New York caters to a younger Russian crowd on weekends. But this hidden gem is mostly known as a cozy getaway that serves up classics like sturgeon and pelmeni, set against a somewhat garish wall mural of the New York skyline.
17209 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Noon to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (till 2 a.m. on weekends). (818) 783-6300. Red Square offers up Russian fare such as hearty mignon stroganoff and sweet wild black cherry blintzes. A one-man band sings Russian Top 40 songs with the help of a laptop and reverb-laden microphone on weekends, when things can get wild.
1714 Ivar St., L.A. Noon to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (till 2 a.m. on weekends). (323) 464-2216. New owners took over this Hollywood restaurant, which sits adjacent to the famed Knickerbocker hotel, in 2005. On Saturday, Las Vegas-style showgirls take over the stage. Popular food choices at Russia include Chicken Tabaka and Karsky (lamb chops). Massive historical wall murals of Peter the Great stare down diners.
6020 Reseda Blvd., Tarzana. Noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (till 2 a.m. on weekends). (818) 776-8474. A youngish crowd frequents Barin on weekends, feasting on Chicken Tapakan while eyeing the opposite sex in one of Barin's multiple dining areas. Exposed brick walls line the restaurant's dance floor, but it is so dark inside you won't notice.
— Charlie Amter
7300 Sunset Blvd., L.A. Noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. (323) 851-5531. Open for more than a decade, Troyka is located in an otherwise nondescript strip mall. The menu offers an array of Russian and Ukrainian food — from solyanka soup to blinchiki (pancakes with red caviar). Other popular dishes include vareniki (stuffed dumplings), Ukrainian borscht and cold herring salad.
1651 1/2 N. La Brea Ave., L.A. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. (323) 876-4646. Cab drivers and office workers alike fuel up for lunch at this humble Hollywood restaurant. Lamb khashlama and pork dishes are popular here with the Armenian set, as are the cold starters like their Stolichnaya salad.
12229 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. (818) 760-3177. Restaurateur Mikayel Israyelyan's new high-end Russian steakhouse has been impressing L.A. foodies of all stripes since it opened in March. Twenty-four-carat gold-leaf ceilings gleam above; Russian haute cuisine dishes like quail Kiev dazzle below. If you have a craving for real Osetra caviar, this is the place to get your fix.
349 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. Weekends only, call for hours. (323) 653-2475. Now better-known for its adjacent deli, this Fairfax fixture offers up what its calls "the finest European food in town." Unfortunately, the restaurant is now open only on weekends. Even then, it's best to call ahead in case the space is booked for a private party. Try the pork kebab or beef stroganoff, or simply stop by the deli and grab some chicken piroshki for a dollar.
18525 Burbank Blvd., Tarzana. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. (818) 705-6630. Don't let the tacky décor fool you; Odessa's limited menu of fish and meat kebabs keeps the faithful coming back year after year. The adjacent deli also is a must for those seeking real red Russian caviar from Kamchatka and other assorted imported foods.
531 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. Weekends only, call for reservations. (323) 653-7820. This second-floor eatery (open only on weekends; call ahead) has been open since 1971, serving lavish Russian fare such as baked flounder fillet to thousands over the years. Banquet-style dining only, so reservations are a must (usually $45-per-person minimum).
Ohotnik (formerly St. Petersburg Restaurant)
7998 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. Hours vary; call ahead. (323) 650-5657. Ohotnik is Russian for "hunter," so vegetarians consider yourselves warned. This small restaurant is not much for ambience, but its limited menu will appeal to the hearty. Usually open only on weekends, when a small stage hosts even smaller bands.
8151-A Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Noon to 10 p.m. daily. (323) 654-3030. This popular WeHo restaurant boasts a large patio overlooking Santa Monica Boulevard popular with cigarette-smoking ex-pats from Moscow. Patrons swear by the kharcho (tomato-based lamb soup), pelmeni and the grilled sturgeon. The friendly wait staff is a bonus for those new to Russian cuisine.
7077 Sunset Blvd., L.A. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. (323) 464-3663. Massive portions are the norm at Uzbekistan, where Russians, Armenians and curious Hollywood tourists "man up" to tackle hearty fare like plov with chicken and manti (steamed Uzbecki lamb dumplings). Live bands play on weekends.
— Charlie Amter
From Russia, with love
"Shadow of Stalin" series
Concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. (323) 850-2000. Schedule: wdch.laphil.com/misc/shadow_of_stalin.cfm
Green Umbrella: Music After the Thaw: L.A. Philharmonic, Alexander Mickelthwate, conductor. Gubaidulina, "Concordanza" and "In Croce"; Schnittke, Symphony No. 4. 8 p.m. Tuesday. $21 to $45.
Russian Chanson: Devotchka, Saul Williams, Petra Haden and other guests. 8 p.m. May 24. $30 to $38.
Music Before the Crackdown: L.A. Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor. Popov, Suite From "Komsomol: Patron of Electrification"; Shostakovich, Suite From "The Nose"; Mosolov, "The Iron Foundry." 8 p.m. May 25, 2 p.m. May 27. $39 to $135.
Pravda: An all-night event, with DJs and live musicians remixing the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and others. Amon Tobin, Cut Chemist, DJ Spooky, J-Rocc, Peanut Butter Wolf, Theremin Orchestra and guests. 10 p.m. May 26. $30 to $50.
Channel 1 Russia Presents: "Star Summer"
Russian pop stars Edita Pyekha, Irina Allegrova and Chai Vdvoem perform. Kodak Theatre, 6108 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 6 p.m. June 17. $48. http://www.panoramatickets.com .
West Hollywood Russian Festival
The 6th Annual Russian Cultural Festival celebrates the culture via art, food and music. Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. May 20. (Opening night party, May 16.) Schedule: http://www.westhollywoodrussianfestival.com .
Miyagi's Memorial Day Bash
Monthly dance party put on by Planet-R and Russian Party Grounds. Miyagi's, 8225 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. May 27. $20; 18 and older. (323) 251-1569; http://www.planet-r.com .
Temporary Russian-themed bar sponsored by Stolichnaya vodka. 1555 Ivar Ave., Hollywood. 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. only through May. Many nights invite-only. 21 and older. http://www.stolihotel.com .
The popular Russian comic parodies politicians, pop stars, opera singers and more. Kodak Theatre, 6108 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. May 26. $48. http://www.panoramatickets.com .
Russia: Four Generations
Exhibition featuring images from Oleg Dou, Sergey Maximishin, Alexander Samoilov and Dmitry Sokolenko. Duncan Miller Gallery, 10959 Venice Blvd., L.A. Opening reception 7 p.m. today. Ends July 7. (310) 838-2440.