Finding a meal of borsch, pierogies and vodka in the Washington, D.C. area can be tricky — Russian dining spots are few and far between in the District. One of the few is Mari Vanna, an international mini-chain, which first opened its doors here in January 2013. The Connecticut Avenue restaurant and lounge specializes in all three of the above, plus many more Russian staples. It's also a big spot for nightlife. Particularly if you happen to be Alex Ovechkin. Sergii Andriushchenko shares some stories.
How long have you been a manager at Mari Vanna?
I moved to D.C. in February 2013 and the reason I got this position is because I used to work at Mari Vanna in New York. I've been a manager in D.C. for a year and a half.
How did you get into the hospitality business?
I'm a person who likes to talk to people, who likes to greet people. I'm a social and creative person so I think the hospitality life is better for me. That's why I've chosen the restaurant business and especially Mari Vanna.
How does New York City Mari Vanna compare to the D.C. one?
It's different types of people. It's advertised different. In New York, people like to hang out a lot. People like to go to the clubs, have fun. Compared to New York, [D.C.] is a little slower. When I first visited D.C. in 2009 and compared to 2013, the restaurant business went up a lot and still more restaurants keep opening up in the city. We're one of the only Russian fine dining restaurants in D.C. and I think we're doing a great job because we know the standards of the hospitality. We have six locations — three in the United States. The first one was in New York four years ago, then D.C. and then last year we opened in Los Angeles. There are three, actually, in Europe. The first one was Mari Vanna St. Petersburg, then Moscow and then London. So this is the chain of the restaurant that is really, really fine dining and high quality food and hospitality.
You get a fair amount of celebrities at Mari Vanna. I hear Alex Ovechkin comes in just about once a month?
Yeah, he's one of our best customers. He's famous and popular and he brings his guests and fans to the Mari Vanna restaurant, like Evgeni Malkin from the Pittsburgh Penguins. He likes to have his favorite table, he has his favorite seat on the second floor. It fits about 12 people. He came a few times to celebrate his birthday. He got a really nice bottle of Dom Perignon to celebrate with champagne with his friends. Another time, he came with his fiancé to celebrate her birthday. And sometimes they just hang out with their friends after games, having some borsch. He comes in often and is a really good friend of Mari Vanna.
What other celebrities have you had at the restaurant?
We've had a few more. Most of them are politicians. We've had people that are on TV like Jonathan Cheban, who is a real good friend of Kim Kardashian. He came for dinner with his friends. We've had Paula Abdul come for drinks and appetizers. Omar Epps. The Real Housewives of New Jersey, they came for VIP in the lounge. We've had private events for the people of the government as well, who just run into D.C. It's different from New York, where everyone is a celebrity. Who comes to D.C.? Some celebrities, but it's most of the politician types.
You said Malkin comes to the restaurant. Is it popular with Russians on visiting hockey teams?
Yes, Malkin came a few times already. When the Penguins played the Capitals one time, he came for dinner. He's a really big guy in hockey in Russia and he actually came to the dinner with the head coach from Moscow. So, it was a really big deal. They got a key from the restaurant. We have Key Mondays, where at nine, we close the doors and you need to be a celebrity or regular in order to get in.
Outside of the celebrities and politicians, do you have regulars that come for bottle or VIP service?
Yes, most of them come in for drinks, like the office workers who work 8-5 and then come in for cocktails. But, we usually have people that come into our lounge for bottle service. They have caviar. They get really high-level stuff. They purchase the black caviar and get a bottle of Dom Perignon and have just a really good time in our lounge. We have a DJ in there, we have a bar. It's beautiful for private events.
What is the most popular bottle ordered at Mari Vanna?
People always purchase Dom Perignon or Cristal. Because, you know, the guys like to hang out with the women and they drink champagne. When they're buying the vodka, we have about 16 different flavors of vodka and it's based on Russian Standard. So, the Russian Standard Platinum by the bottle because it goes with the mixers. Or Grey Goose. And sometimes they order the caviar. The caviar is expensive. We have different types of caviar: we have the house one, there's a Siberian, Caspian and Golden.We have a package of three called "troika" which means trio in Russian. It's a trio of caviars. It comes with a side of blinis and a side of sour cream, butter, parsley, lemon, scallions. It's a really big generous plate and costs $475 for one person, so you have to share. They like to drink champagne and eat the caviar. It's really popular.
Of all the infused vodkas you serve, what's the most popular one?
The most popular vodka is the horseradish. Because the horseradish is really good and smooth. People can drink it by it by itself or mix it. They'll have it with borsch or the dumplings (pelmeni). It's because it's unsweet.
The sweet one that's most popular is, of course, the cranberry. We have 16 different ones. My favorite is the black currant — it really tastes good. The strawberry is a smooth one. A lot of people also like cucumber and dill, which is an unsweet one.
The variety [of flavored vodka] goes with the season. We take the seasonal approach with the infusers.
What would you say is the split between people coming to Mari Vanna to eat and people coming to just drink?
Most people come to hang out to drink and have appetizers. It actually depends on the time frame. We have an amazing happy hour from five to seven, so people will have some appetizers and cocktails. But mostly, of course, with fine dining and the summertime when it's really busy, people go the restaurant around six and stay until 11. And then around midnight, they go upstairs to the lounge and have drinks and bottle service. It's actually more for dinner and fine dining.
What's your favorite dish at Mari Vanna?
Hmm, my favorite dish? [laughs] I have a few of them. But of course my favorite is the borscht — it's the russian signature. It's really, really, really good with with sour cream and ground pepper. From the appetizers, it's the red or black caviar. From the main course, the chicken kiev is amazing too. They have butter, parsley and dill inside, so when you cut the chicken it goes around the plate. From desserts, what's really popular and famous is Napoleon cake and a honey layered cake called Medovik.
What's the most expensive night you've seen someone have at Mari Vanna?
It was a big night out, it was in the fall of 2013. We had about 100 people and for the dinner and drinks and they spent about $60,000.
Yes, yes, yes. The bill was like $50,000 plus gratuity, so it was more like $58,000-60,000 for dinner from, say, 5-8 p.m. I have one regular guy who comes in often and he celebrated his birthday. He rented out the third floor for his birthday from six to nine with only about 20 people and he spent $7,500. He got a lot of food, caviar and bottle service. They were just chilling. It was a really generous gift.
Do you ever get any special requests from guests?
For the private events, yeah, sometimes people want to see something different. If they do, we have to discuss it with the chef. If they want to have something we don't have, of course, we're going to try and have it for them. Like truffles and stuff, we don't really sell. So we can't really do that.
What's with the "secret code" to get into Wednesday night karaoke?
[Laughs] Karaoke is every Wednesday night from 9 p.m. - 2 a.m. So, we have a lot of shots, that are complimentary for the first hour until 10. So they come up to the third floor and they are asked the secret code. Sometimes it's different. Sometimes it's "babushka," sometimes it's "Mari Vanna." So we ask them the secret code. They say "Ok, ok, it's Napolean." So they get a complimentary shot of, say, cranberry vodka. And then people go inside. It's amazing, we have a DJ and the sound engineer. We have the bar. And we have two screens that show Russian cartoons and movies, especially for the karaoke. We have a karaoke girl who has a really talented voice who's there helping people. It's really, really fun.
What happens if someone comes up the steps and doesn't know the secret code? Do you send them away?
Actually, no, we don't send them away. We just tell them next time, they need to know the code. So we explain them what's it about. But mostly, we'll let them in.
What's the craziest night from your time at Mari Vanna?
Once, we had 10 birthdays on a Saturday night in the lounge. People were ordering the bottle service and we do a small tiny cake when people have a birthday. It was so crazy, we had to close the restaurant door for an hour because we couldn't squeeze anybody else inside. That was the craziest I've seen so far.
What are the busiest nights of the week at Mari Vanna?
Depends on the season but mostly on Friday, Saturday, Sunday brunch and Karaoke Night Wednesday.
Is there one event during the year that stands out from all the rest?
The most popular event is the New Year's Eve. Last year, we had the Russian Santa Claus walking around giving presents to the young kids and their parents. It's actually karaoke night, because it's New Year's Eve and we sing a lot and dance a lot. And have a good time. It's an amazing night.
We also have a party for Mari Vanna's birthday on January 20. Every January we do the party. We send an email blast to all our VIPs and regulars and invite them to the restaurant to treat them to our food. It's a really, really fun and good time for them. We try to bring the crowd together, so they can know each other better and then we treat them to complimentary stuff and thank them for coming out to celebrate.
A Russian Santa Claus? What's the difference between the Russian and American Santa?
[Laughs] Ok, so the Russian Santa Claus has a niece. So it's actually two people who make the rounds and who give out the presents. But the thing is, to get the presents, you're supposed to tell him a poem about himself. And then you get your gift from the grab bag.
For Mari Vanna reservations, contact the front desk at 202-783-7777. For larger parties, contact via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.