Russian Standard: Drinking Vodka in NYC’s Brighton Beach

The Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach has long been a place typified by its overwhelming Russianness. So what's it like to drink there? Regan Hofmann bags a bottle of vodka and rides the B train straight into the bedazzled heart of Brighton Beach nightlife.

I’ve always wondered where you drink in Brighton Beach. Unlike in every other New York City neighborhood, Brighton Beach Avenue, the central artery of Brooklyn’s Russian enclave, is home to not a single bar—just old-school restaurant after old-school restaurant interspersed with low-slung deli counters selling smoked fish and enormous loaves of dense, dark bread. There are pharmacies and liquor stores, laundromats and dentists—but no bars. Where’s the vodka?

As it turns out, it was under my nose the whole time. Russians don’t drink without food—a smart move for a nation that consumes nearly 14 liters of vodka per person annually—so it’s those restaurants that dominate the main stretch that, in fact, double as the bars. They’re also the nightclubs, event halls and, on weekends, Vegas-style show palaces that feature anachronistic, spectacular floor shows unlike anything else in the city. And while they’re all happy to sell you a drink, they’re just as happy for you to bring in a bottle yourself.

Brighton Beach, I learn, has the highest concentration of BYO restaurants in New York City. Servers will lean in conspiratorially to mention this to patrons who show up empty-handed, “for next time.” As a WASP-y Canadian and a third-generation New Yorker whose Russian-Jewish family stopped spending time on south Brooklyn beaches over 50 years ago, we are hyper-aware of seeming like outsiders. We will come prepared.

For just this reason, at the foot of the subway stairs is Ocean Wine & Liquor, a dazzling reminder that no matter how much we may ignore it, vodka is still the goliath of the global spirits industry. Makeshift cardboard displays line the store’s main aisle, packed to the hilt with vodkas from every corner of the world. Massive plastic handles of Poland Spring-branded vodka jostle slim French columns of Ciroc, which are crammed up against bottles with names like Imperial Collection and Legend of the Kremlin.

A frosty half-bottle of Russian Standard goes into a telltale black liquor store bag and gets tucked into my purse, its secret heft swinging under my arm for the rest of the night. I have to keep reminding myself this isn’t high school and I’m not stashing a cheap pint of whatever I could convince a stranger to buy for me on the way to meet my friends in a public park. This is what everybody here is doing.

Over a platter of smoked fish, rye bread and a martini glass filled with salmon roe we eavesdrop on the neighboring table. A thickly accented, heavyset man is advising two ill-at-ease Americans on how to commit international corporate fraud, offering to help get their overseas business off the ground by “arranging” things with the right officials. He drinks a tumbler of vodka. The Americans drink cabernet and pick up the check.

Before setting foot in Brighton Beach, it’s important to understand that everything Russian is a little bit bonkers. It is a country of more is more is more, and who can blame them? As a nation, they only got to begin experiencing modern wealth late in the 20th century, after decades spent gazing at the prosperity outside their borders. The most nouveau of the nouveau riche, former-Soviet chic is so distant from our Western aesthetics of luxury it’s as if they have retreated behind yet another curtain—not of iron this time, but of gold lamé. For those of us used to the New York scene, where new bars are all painstakingly set-designed and every opening announcement cites the design firm, Brighton Beach feels like another planet.

Case in point: Gambrinus, our first stop, a seafood restaurant kitted out like a nine-year-old’s Pirates of the Caribbean fever dream. Not one, but two statues of Long John Silver stand in the entryway, one of whom has a dollar-store “Come In, We’re Open” sign balanced precariously on his cutlass-wielding arm. The bar, which takes up a corner of the main dining room, is shaped like a Spanish galleon, rigging and all; in a corner of the back party room a life-sized statue of a pirate maiden climbs a ship’s mast, crop-top riding up suggestively. The garden has a cannon pointed out at the sidewalk below.

We decide to leave the bottle in my purse until it becomes crucial and order icy tumblers of Russian Standard vodka from our server, who wears a T-shirt printed like a sailor’s square-collared uniform. Over a platter of smoked fish, rye bread and a martini glass filled with salmon roe we eavesdrop on the neighboring table. A thickly accented, heavyset man is advising two ill-at-ease Americans on how to commit international corporate fraud, offering to help get their overseas business off the ground by “arranging” things with the right officials. He drinks a tumbler of vodka. The Americans drink cabernet and pick up the check.

Compared to these two, we feel like Brighton Beach natives. Gathering our vodka-warmed confidence, we move on to National, the grandest of the neighborhood’s multifunctional entertainment palaces. Inside we are greeted by a family-style meal of mayonnaised salads, blintzes and more smoked fish under massive crystal chandeliers and velvet drapery. The main event is a dance troupe in gaudy costumes and headdresses performing comic burlesques of Russian songs and recent pop favorites. It’s time to deploy the reserves: we pour glasses, down and repeat until we are joining the massive birthday parties and entire families—from babies all the way up to grandmothers—in singing and clapping along ecstatically.

After the show, National shifts into nightclub mode, those babies and grandmothers hitting the dance floor themselves. In need of some air and lighting that doesn’t strobe, we take off and head instead to the Velvet Rope Lounge, one of the very few straight-up bars in the neighborhood. It’s karaoke night here, which means something very different than it does in the East Village. One binder of selections lurks at the corner of the bar; up in a loft is a man working the sound booth, and it’s unclear how to reach him to make your request. Instead, a burly man appears from the back room every once in a while to sing a Russian folk song with heartfelt emotion, then disappears as soon as it’s over.

Behind the bar is a standalone display of the most exensive selection of flavored vodka I’ve ever seen; we count eight flavors of Stoli, two Grey Gooses and a handful of Smirnoffs, and that’s only half of it. We order from an extensive cocktail list that includes “exotic martinis,” a full page of coffee drinks and four variations on the Long Island Iced Tea. It’s clear that the craft cocktail movement hasn’t made it this far down the B line, but after a night of straight vodka, the too-sweet drinks are soothing, not cloying. We order something laced with coconut Ciroc and a cappuccino martini and once again feel mildly illicit—like somehow, somewhere I’m being judged for this.

But not here. Daunting though it may seem, the overwhelming Russianness of Brighton Beach works to the outsider’s advantage. The diversity of ethnic backgrounds in Russia itself helps—it’s impossible to get pegged as an outsider until you open your mouth. No matter who you are, you will be addressed in Russian. When you respond in English, if you are mildly apologetic and friendly, they will switch to whatever English they have at their disposal, and together you will try to figure out just what it is you want. So complete is their cultural control of this outcropping at the edge of Brooklyn that they see no point in trying to make outsiders feel unwelcome—the hour-plus subway ride is itself a crucible that proves your worth.

Later that evening on the boardwalk, two young men rap in Russian over a beat echoing tinnily from an outstretched iPhone. A mother rollerblades past, her toddler racing ahead on a tricycle; fifteen feet away, a group of elderly women have clustered their tennis-balled walkers together to sit and look out at the darkness where the Atlantic Ocean must still be. It’s a cool night and the beachfront restaurants have pulled down plastic sheeting down to shield the outdoor tables where raucous 30-somethings are bundled up in complimentary blankets. Looking at the scene as if it were preserved in a snow globe, we realize we were just like them a mere hour ago, pouring vodka, singing and laughing. There is nothing foreign about any of us.

The Itinerary:

Ocean Wine & Liquor | 514 Brighton Beach Ave.
Don’t go anywhere in Brighton Beach empty-handed; stop here first and pick up a bottle of vodka for the road.

Gambrinus Bar & Restaurant | 3100 Ocean Parkway
Russians love their smoked fish, and this theme-park pirate ship of a restaurant serves the widest variety.

National Restaurant | 273 Brighton Beach Ave.
On weekends, this catering hall becomes the Big Fat Gypsy Wedding you always wanted to attend, complete with Europop-soundtracked dancefloor.

Tatiana Restaurant | 3152 Brighton 6th St.
If you prefer your showgirls with a side of sea air, Tatiana’s patio is directly on the boardwalk. Its weekend floor show is heavy on the dazzle, with pyrotechnics and acrobatics.

Velvet Rope Lounge | 3212 Coney Island Ave.
Karaoke nights are Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at this disco ball-decorated bar.