RUSSIAN HILL AND Russian River say nothin' about dancin'. Named for eastern European immigrants of the gold rush era, both are namesakes of the city's longstanding Russian community, but neither knows how to party. A walk down Geary Street between 19th and 25th Avenues is proof enough that those fleeing the eastern European nations' current political unrest are flocking to San Francisco once again, adding around 2,000 more people, some say, to the previous population of almost 10,000. And with this second wave, San Francisco's streets buzz with an unprecedented Russian nightlife scene both eclectic and entertaining.
Rather than getting involved in the fur trade or panning for precious metals, San Francisco's new Russians are acclimating to city life and making it their own. As a result of their permanency and regaining of some of the wealth they left behind, Russian San Franciscans are showing signs of life beyond the piroshki. So if you can't make it to Moscow this year, slip Euro-style into your sunglasses at night, starch that three-piece polyester Armani knockoff suit, and take a gander at the multitude of ways to have a night on the town, Russian-style.
The ultimate in modern Russian entertainment is the once-a-month disco party the Russian Lounge. The second Saturday of every month, anywhere from a few hundred to more than a thousand Russians, Europeans, and Americans pile into the 80 percent Russian crowd at 525 Howard. "If you're Russian and you go to any other club in town, they're gonna think you're a dork," event organizer Roc Shamilov says. He says his attendees are often programmers or engineers who don't go out often but always mark their calendars for the familiar fun of this unique night out. Downing vodkas and dancing to the thumping Euro-beats of Russian dance and trance music, 21- to 30-year-olds dress to the nines to meet, dance, catch up with friends, and look for love. In addition, Shamilov says, the club always spends money on a spectacle: fire-eating, stilt-walkers, fashion shows, or cash-pumped dance contests. "Russians love eye candy, the really Vegas stuff, and I give it to them," he says.
For a slightly tamer, more traditional night out, several of San Francisco's Russian restaurants, including Russia House, Russian Renaissance Restaurant, and Russian Bear, feature weekend bands and big dance floors surrounded by ample tables and chairs for large crowds. These spots, the Russian equivalent of a supper club, provide a place for the 40-and-older Russian community to eat, drink, dance, and sing along with ballads and standards from the old country, oddly mixed with a few Top 40 hits and adult contemporary numbers. Diners and dancers also get a chance to show off their best threads: many pass for Russian mafia in conservative, stiff suits, flashy jewelry, and generous dollops of hair gel and cosmetics. Skip the food, as the best stuff is really at the delis, but drink copiously and you'll realize you know every song. While Russia House may be a bit off the beaten path, it is the most elegant of the three, with crystal chandeliers, marble floors, and window seating so stunning you'll forget the traffic on 101 is whizzing by. Often these places are reserved for private parties.
For a different cultural experience of the Slavic sort, check out Slavyanka, the S.F.-based Russian men's chorus named after the original moniker for the Russian River. The lively troupe of silver-haired and tuxedoed gentlemen belts out folk, traditional, and secular music in Russian, though speaking Russian is not a requirement for membership in this amateur, nonprofit chorus. Slavyanka performs more than a dozen shows a year, many in San Francisco and the East Bay and others throughout northern California. Though they are a hometown favorite, the group has also performed to sold-out crowds in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Pskov. For those not fortunate enough to attend one of the Bay Area outings, the chorus has also recorded nine albums for anytime listening pleasure.
While not a permanent S.F. happening, starting March 18 the Officers' Club Exhibition Hall at the Presidio will open the art and artifact exhibit 'Unseen Treasures: Imperial Russia and the New World,' which will run until June 15. Tickets are on sale now for the opening night reception, sure to be a swank gathering of the Russian community. Present throughout the exhibit will be Russian art lovers drawn to what the Presidio promises will be a "sumptuous" collection from the 18th and 19th centuries.
If you're not one for discos or high art events, you might try to create a rich Russian cultural experience at home. Several shops with videos, CDs, and books catering to Russian speakers will not disappoint. Biroska, on Geary Street, is mainly a Russian deli, but it also has a vast selection of modern and classic media. A special hint for English-only speakers: you won't find Biroska by looking for the sign, because it's only in Cyrillic, so be sure to jot down the exact address.
Farther down Geary, Arlekin Bookstore features a wide selection of media and also occasional readings and musical performances. Stop by for upcoming events both in the store and citywide.
For those who just want to practice typing in Cyrillic, the Yahoo! San Francisco Russian Community club isn't the most chatty bunch of people, but it does provide a way to hang with other Slavs at home. Topics include jobs, host families for visiting expats, event announcements, English lessons, and tons more. Whatever you want, if it's Russian, you'll find it. Just don't go looking in Russian Hill.
Russian life in San Francisco
Russian Lounge www.russianlounge.com.
Russia House Fri. and Sat., live bands and special events. Call for schedule. 2011 Bayshore
Russian Renaissance Restaurant Fri., Sat., Sun. nights, live music starting at 7 p.m. $3 cover. 5241 Geary, S.F. (415) 752-8558.
Russian Bear Fri., Sat., Sun. nights, live music. $20 cover. 939 Clement, S.F. (415) 752-8197.
Officer's Club Exhibition Hall at the Presidio 50 Moraga, S.F. www.atthepresidio.org.
Biroska #tk Geary, S.F. Phone tk.
Arlekin Book Store 5909 Geary, S.F. (415) 751-2320.
Yahoo! San Francisco Russian Community club If you like the kind of nightlife you can stay home for, this buzzing local Russian community will keep you as entertained as an entire bottle of Stoli. clubs.yahoo.com/clubs/sanfranciscorussiancommunity.
Russian Center of San Francisco The site is a bit out of date, but it's a good place to find out about the city's annual Russian festival, often held in early February. The center also hosts a bunch of other activities throughout the year, such as nighttime volleyball events, and has a children's book library and a small museum of Russian culture. 2450 Sutter, S.F. (415) 921-7631, www.russiancentersf.com.
Russian Times Web Network This is the calendar with the best comprehensive listing of everything going on in town: sporting events, private parties, Purim discos, smaller classical music events, church fundraisers, and more. www.russiantimes.com/SanFrancisco.