When Igor Litvak’s mother, Irina, died suddenly in 2017, he didn’t know what to do: With her apartment, with her paintings, or with her restaurant, Red Tavern. The business at 2229 Clement Street, one of just a handful to serve traditional Russian food in San Francisco, was her most prized possession.
“Nothing was prepared,” says Litvak. “I was just emotionally broken down trying to figure out everything in mom’s life.” The only child of a single mother, Igor Litvak had just moved to New York with his wife when Irina passed away. She was 52.
Concerned customers began to call: Would Red Tavern close, they asked? Igor reassured them that it would not: Irina’s business partner, Dina Schpak, stepped in to maintain the quality of Red Tavern’s cuisine, and all the staff stayed on. These days, Litvak says, Red Tavern’s food, like borscht, pelmeni stuffed with chicken and veal, and a signature beef stroganoff served in a puff pastry with kasha, is as good as it’s ever been — particularly when enjoyed with Georgian wines or dark Russian stouts and porters.
But to keep pace with the food and to uphold his mother’s legacy, Igor decided to invest in a major makeover at Red Tavern. A new logo, a new paint job; New tables, chairs, light fixtures, and awnings.
“We’ve gotta give this a solid go, and do right by my mom’s memory,” Igor remembers thinking. The business never closed, but Igor declared it “reopened” with a new look earlier this month. Irina Litvak’s collection of paintings now adorns the walls at Red Tavern, and the restaurant even boasts a social media presence — something she may never have pushed for, personally, but a near necessity in today’s age.
Irina Litvak immigrated from Russia to San Francisco in 1988. She brought a three-year-old Igor with her, arriving in the area of the Richmond District sometimes called Little Russia. Here, she opened several restaurants over the course of her career, like Flying Pig Bistro and a now-closed Treasure Island banquet hall called Danilov. In 2011, she and Schpak opened Red Tavern, her most personal effort.
“This was something very special to my mom,” says Litvak. With big tables and a banquet menu for traditional Russian dining, it’s also been important to the neighborhood.
“There’s still huge a Russian community in the Richmond,” says Boris Nemchenok, another son of Russian immigrants to the Richmond who runs SF restaurants Uva Enoteca, Fiorella, and Violet’s Tavern.
Russians, Ukrainians, and others from former Soviet countries have emigrated to the Richmond District in waves, particularly during periods of political turmoil. Many first and second generation immigrants still flock to traditional businesses like Cinderella Bakery and Royal Market, as well as social hubs like the area’s Russian Orthodox Church and Jewish temples. But other Russian dining staples, like Katia’s Tea Room, have struggled or closed. That’s why rejuvenating Red Tavern could be so valuable.
“Keeping the tradition of the big tables, the big family style food that Russians are used to — it’s great for the neighborhood and the community,” says Nemchenok.
Red Tavern is open daily from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.