By Stefanie Cohen
The singer clutches the microphone and belts out a Russian folk song, her long blond hair swinging side to side. Men in black and women in 3-inch heels and sparkling jewelry groove on a parquet dance floor. Thick Russian accents waft over the clatter of clinking vodka goblets, plates piled high with smoked salmon and caviar-lined banquet tables.
It could be a Saturday night in Kiev, but it’s not--it’s Brighton Beach, U.S.A.
Brighton Beach, known as Little Odessa, is technically part of Brooklyn, but you wouldn’t know it to walk down Brighton Beach Avenue, where the signs are all written in Cyrillic lettering and the women are dressed in head-to-toe fur. Jewish Russian emigres first settled the area in the 1960s, and the beachside center is now more Ukraine than United States.
The supper clubs are the soul of Brighton Beach, where guests watch stage shows, wash down Russian delicacies with vodka and dance all night. Anniversaries, birthdays, weddings and bar mitzvahs are all reasons to take the family to one of a dozen such clubs in the neighborhood.
On a recent Friday evening, Tanya Yalkanovich paraded around the dance floor of Rasputin’s supper club on Coney Island Avenue in a yellow strapless ball gown. The emcee, speaking in Russian, congratulated the pretty brunette on her 16th birthday as she smiled for pictures and adjusted her gown. Three generations of her family looked on, beaming.
“It’s perfect,” said Yalkanovich of the evening. “It’s exactly what I dreamed about.”
Rasputin represents the modern version of the supper club experience. The flashy club offers a scaled-down Las Vegas revue performed by scantily clad dancers. In one set, the singer clings to a swing, crooning “I am a woman in love” by Barbra Streisand as dancers in mermaid tails propel her across the dance floor.
“Russians can’t just celebrate. It has to be an event. It can’t be just a luncheonette. If you are throwing a birthday, then it’s a birthday,” said Eugene Morgovsky, a manager at Rasputin.
“The nightclubs are what make Brighton Beach special,” said Pat Singer, head of the Brighton Neighborhood Association.
If Rasputin is Vegas, the National on Brighton Beach Avenue is Broadway. The show here is less risque, and children scamper between tables while their parents dine on smoked eel and blinis.
“Tonight we have a 5-year birthday, a 60-year birthday, and two 25-year anniversaries,” explained Edward Izro, a jovial National waiter, as he pointed to tables festooned with birthday balloons.
But despite its proximity to Coney Island, where tourists gape at the sideshows while eating world-famous Nathan’s hot dogs, and despite the lure of the supper clubs, Brighton Beach is sorely overlooked by tourists visiting New York.
Tourists from the United States and Europe are drawn to Coney Island’s Cyclone roller coaster, but the Brighton supper clubs are filled, for the most part, with Russians. The specialty grocery stores and boutiques that line Brighton Beach Avenue cater to Russians. Being in Brighton Beach is like being in another country--but one bereft of outsiders.
“Unfortunately, this is not a tourist area,” said Angelica Roytvayn, owner of the Atlantic Oceana supper club, which holds up to 600 people and has had Olympic figure skaters on Rollerblades, Russian movie stars and contortionists as part of its floor show. “That’s been a topic that we’ve been concentrating on for years. Why don’t a lot of groups want to come? What is scaring them off?”
Some say a lingering reputation as a shady underworld of mafia kings doesn’t help attract tour buses. “People don’t come here because they have an image of the Russian mafia being here,” said Singer, “but I am not stepping over dead bodies to get to my office.”
Others say the quaint neighborhood is too far away from the city. “It takes too long to get out there, and it’s a pretty insular place,” said Joyce Gold, a historian who leads tours throughout the city--but not in Brighton Beach. “Tourists don’t express much interest in Brighton.”
But one person’s insularity is another’s exotica. In addition to dining and dancing in the supper clubs, tourists can stroll the boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean and watch old men play chess, their backs to the sea. They can cruise the aisles of the M&I International grocery store and order smoked meats and fish, dumplings and cakes, and pickles and potato pancakes from stern-looking women who preside over the deli counters like Red Army generals.
The “spine” of the neighborhood, Brighton Beach Avenue, runs 15 streets, from Ocean Parkway to Corbin Place. The elevated subway rumbles past as slats of light filter through the tracks to the street of clothing stores, gift boutiques, bookstores and cafes. Crates of produce spill onto the sidewalk, while caviar kiosks beckon. A wrinkled man plays “Auld Lang Syne” on the accordion. For some change, you can hear any song you want—provided you know how to ask for it in Russian.
“Without even leaving New York, you can get a very good geography lesson,” said Yelena Makhnin, head of the Brighton Beach Business Improvement District. “The best way to learn about us is to come to the Russian neighborhood and eat with us, dance with us and party with us.”