Words by Kaylee Dugan, Photos by Armando Gallardo
Falling in love with Russian food has been quite the slow burn. The first time I tried it was in November of 2012 when I saved up enough money to take my then boyfriend to Russia House for a very belated anniversary dinner. I was a 20-year-old student who had to save up for dinner at a restaurant where the wallpaper was actively peeling around us and the Moscow Mules were served in unchilled martini glasses.
And, say what you will about Russia House and their dining rooms that look as if they’re crumbling and sinking into the ground before your eyes, but in my memory, the food was sublime. Hearty and warm and filled with almost nothing but meat and heavy cream in different applications. Exactly the sort of meal a broke and hungry college student is destined to love.
Of course, this was when Russia House was the only place to get Russian food in D.C. Mari Vanna wouldn’t open until a full year later, and it when it did, my interest in Russian food felt validated. This was about the time I seriously began to get interested in D.C.’s food scene, and it felt like the rest of the city started caring along with me. It was exciting. I was very young and living in a city I loved so much and I wanted so badly to be able to explore this new burgeoning food scene. But I was also broke as hell. I was a full time student who had a part time job and a part time internship and I lived in a basement.
And slowly, I forgot about the meal that originally sparked my interest. I graduated, moved out of D.C., moved back to D.C., and finally started writing about food in a semi-serious way, but I still had never been to the one other Russian restaurant in our city. I could blame a lot of different things, I was too busy, I was eating out all the time for work already, but none of those are good excuses. I could have cleared out a Friday night, made a reservation, and tried to see if I still felt the same way as I did that first time all the way back in 2012. But I didn’t.
Until last year, when my boyfriend took me there as a surprise for Valentine’s Day. I’ve been lucky to eat at amazing restaurants in D.C. I’ve been invited to meals and have had dishes that I would not be able to experience otherwise, and I’m very grateful, but this meal stands out for so many reasons. Not only because the food was good (and it was), but also because it felt like a long time coming. As silly as it sounds, making those reservations at Russia House and actively saving up the money to afford a nice meal out (and the luxury of a cab ride to and from the restaurant) kicked off my interest in D.C.’s food scene. And I’m wildly thankful for that.
Finally having that dinner at Mari Vanna made me feel like I had come full circle, and I had come out victorious. I had become the knowledgeable person I wanted to be. I was actively doing something I loved and it was going well. I’m sure the many vodka shots and the heaps of pirozhki’s helped. So did the old man in the corner who was alternating between playing Beatles covers and the Titanic theme on accordion (He may have switched to a guitar at one point. I consumed a lot of vodka).
I went back to Mari Vanna this weekend for brunch with a photographer. We wanted to capture the cozy and homey feel of the restaurant. A place that feels like it was decorated by everyone’s grandmother at the exact same time. They still had their Christmas decorations up. They’re still serving stupidly good food. The kind that feels filling and homey in unexpected ways. The kind of food that feels like something your mom would make even though your mom is definitely not Russian. The staff is still amazingly kind. They’re still very welcoming.
What I’m saying is, if this is our new national cuisine, this might be the only thing we have to look forward to.