On February 24, the day Russia began its brazen military assault against Ukraine, Anya El-Wattar looked out into the empty dining room of her two-week-old Russian restaurant, Birch & Rye, in San Francisco’s Castro district. Before it even opened, the restaurant had been booked a full month out, with a waiting list. But as the shocking news of Putin’s invasion reached the US, diners canceled their reservations and El-Wattar, a first-time restaurateur, began to panic.
Restaurant owners across the country share a growing sense of shame and discomfort about being branded as Russian at a time when most of the world is vehemently against the war. Many of these restaurateurs and chefs, including El-Wattar, have been among the most vocal in their support of Ukraine. Yet despite the unequivocal condemnation and charitable initiatives, Russian restaurants in the US now face stigma, bullying, and steeply declining business.
Fallout from the war has caused restaurants like Kachka in Portland, Oregon and Tzarevna in New York City to remove imported Russian ingredients from the menu, rename dishes, and in some cases, reimagine their entire concepts. Despite it all, these restaurateurs see their restaurants as vital in helping counter the many tropes that associate Russia with aggression and evil.
El-Wattar was only 18 years old when she moved from Moscow to the United States with her family, and she’d grown accustomed to living with the stigma of being Russian in America. As a young immigrant, she would often hesitate to identify herself as Russian, knowing how many American stereotypes exist about Russians as communists and spy villains. But the burden feels heavier now. Her dream to introduce the San Francisco community to her modern Russian cuisine has become a reality, but now, the walls feel like they’re caving in.
On a personal level, the war has stirred up familiar feelings of shame, emotions El-Wattar battled all her life as she struggled to find a sense of belonging in America. She began raising money for Ukraine almost immediately when the war began. Birch & Rye hosted a $2,500-a-head charity dinner for World Central Kitchen with chef Dominique Crenn, donated sales from a special cocktail called “Olena’s Flowers” (named for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s wife) to Doctors Without Borders, and papered the restaurant’s social media accounts with messages condemning the Russian government.
Despite her anti-war sentiments, El-Wattar says that her restaurant has been unfairly targeted. Negative reviews and comments have started surfacing online from dubious sources. Birch & Rye’s social media accounts were bombarded with messages like “Go back to Russia” and “You don’t belong in San Francisco” from people who claimed to be supporters of Ukraine, and “Not really a true Russian restaurant” from apparent Putin sympathizers. The trolling escalated with messages like “Death to the occupiers!” and now requires daily moderation to remove violent comments and block users.
A similar story played out at Tzarevna, a Russian restaurant in New York owned by Ricky Dolinsky and his business partner and wife, Mariia Dolinsky. The restaurant faced a deluge of trolling—threat calls, graffiti on their signage and outdoor dining area, lewd messages on social media, and fake reviews. Dolinsky and his team promptly covered up the graffiti with paintings of Ukrainian flags, but vandals continued desecrating the area. Earlier this year, a rowdy customer was being disruptive in the dining room, yelling anti-Slavic slurs at Russian-speaking guests and filming them with his cellphone. The Dolinskys had to call the police when he refused to leave.