Linda and Nikolai Alenov will be saying “dasvidaniya” this weekend to loyal customers of the Russian Tea House, the St. Paul stalwart that has served piroshki and borscht for 40 years.
The restaurant went on hiatus in February after Nikolai, 69, had a heart attack. The Alenovs thought they might reopen once Nikolai recovered; instead, their homey, one-day-a-week spot is closing for good after a farewell weekend of service, May 3-4, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (1758 W. University Av., St. Paul, 651-646-4144, Facebook).
“It’s really hard to say goodbye,” said Linda Alenov, 70. “But everything is different. People have to go through changes. This is a different stage in our lives and we’ll have to get used to it.”
The Alenovs first opened the Russian Tea House in what was once their home in 1978. It was a practical decision at the time. They were both graduates of MCAD, artists struggling to earn a living during a recession.
Nikolai’s father, who was Russian, owned the University Avenue building and gave the couple a way out of the starving artist life.
“He said, ‘You can use it,’ ” Linda recalled. Nikolai’s brother Peter opened a guitar shop in the same building.
The restaurant was crammed into the bottom floor at first, while the Alenovs’ children played upstairs. When their son would yell for Linda, she’d run upstairs, sing him a song, and come back down to wait on customers.
“Our kids would run around and we would watch our customers’ children grow,” Linda said. “It was very much of a friendship, a family-type of relationship with the customers.”
They eventually moved out and expanded the restaurant to the second floor. But it always retained the personal feeling of being invited to dine in a friend’s home, which was one of the restaurant’s selling points.
“People like the feeling of living in a small town even if they live in a big city,” Linda said. “They don’t want to be invisible.”
When the Alenovs first began cooking their Russian/Ukrainian food for the Twin Cities, there wasn’t much of it — or much of anything that veered too wildly from what Linda perceived as “bland” fast food. They took a different approach.
“We decided, we’re going to go with the garlic, go with the spice. I said, ‘Let’s give people a chance.’ And all of a sudden, Arby’s is doing jalapeño things, and people started going to Mexican, Chinese and Thai. It became popular to spice up.”
They’ve seen other Slavic restaurants come and go over the years, and admit it’s a surprise they survived the light-rail construction along University. The building of the Green Line took over access points and parking, and it hurt. That was when they switched from full-time serving to just Fridays.
“We muddled through,” Linda said. “Our people hung in there and always managed to get in.”
For this weekend’s last call, the Alenovs will be selling Russian tea cakes and bags of frozen piroshki and quarts of borscht and stroganoff. Don’t expect a warm plate of crêpes or cabbage rolls; those have been retired.
“Mostly we wanted to leave the Tea House open for people who want to come have a cup of tea and say goodbye to us,” Linda said.
Just like at a friend’s place, the tea will be on the house.