Food Arts presents its September 1991 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Faith Stewart-Gordon, guardian of a legend, keeper of the flame.
As the venerable Russian Tea Room prepares to celebrate its 65th birthday, owner Faith Stewart-Gordon carries its banner forward into the nineties. Since she took over the RTR after her first husband's death in 1967, she has resisted fashions and fads, the vagaries of politics, prejudice against a woman doing a "man's job," please to change the restaurant's name and pressure to relocate.
Though the RTR evolved from a modest tearoom and pastry shop for homesick European émigrés like Arthur Rubinstein and Sol Hurok into one of the top grossing restaurants in the United States, Stewart-Gordon's constancy of vision and brave bucking of trends have kept its identity intact. She has taken risks by always improving and polishing the jewel on 57th Street—"six minutes and 23 seconds from Lincoln Center and slightly to the left of Carnegie Hall"—by hiring top-flight food consultants, sinking capital into a stellar art collection, instituting in-house cabaret nights and off-site catering and doing her own radio advertising.
Today the people meeting, greeting and making deals at RTR are the movers and moguls of stage and screen, publishing and the art worlds. The likes of Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli populate the red leather booths, as do as many as 1,400 other people each day who come for the samovars, the Stolichnaya and a glimpse of the stars.
Growing up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, dreaming of becoming an actress, Stewart-Gordon never envisioned a restaurant in her future. She headed for The Great White Way, landed a part in the Broadway musical "new Faces of 1952," then married the late Sidney Kaye, owner of The Russian Tea Room.
Kaye's will stipulated that his widow had three months to decide whether to keep the restaurant; he had advised her to sell it. "I had become very attached to the restaurant," she says. "It was home to me. I felt I could do it. It felt like a theater to me."
In the late '60s, "running a restaurant was still considered a man's job," says Stewart-Gordon, who didn't have an easy time of it: "I don't really know how I did it. I was persistent. I guess I had some guts. They really did try to get me—dealers, people who worked for me, a bad accountant."
There were perilous periods when all things Russian were unfashionable and Soviet vodka was a product to boycott. "In politics, things come and go," Stewart-Gordon says. "It would have been very trendy to say we're no longer Russian."
Then, a few years ago, the RTR was threatened by the building of the two neighboring skyscrapers it's now sandwiched between. "We were offered $12 million to relocate," Stewart-Gordon recalls. "But I couldn't think of building a new Russian Tea Room and it was too early for me to retire. That's when I really learned I liked doing what I'm doing. Theater was my first love. But the theatrical elements are what I love most about what I do."