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Faith Stewart-Gordon, a Carolinian Who Once Didn't Know from Borscht, Is Czarina of the Russian Tea Room

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Once past the glass-and-brass doors of Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room, all sorts of rites and rituals are observed for today’s czarist class. Farrah Fawcett, for instance, must be instantly relieved of her packages when she arrives to lunch on broiled veal chops with Ryan O’Neal. When the Aga Khan is in town, his table is served his beloved beluga caviar in its 14-ounce tin (for $462). Monaco’s Princess Grace (who is partial to hot borscht with sour cream) is never allowed to navigate solo to the powder room, but is provided a “handmaiden,” who insures the public is kept at a proper distance.

The unlikely restaurateur responsible for this oasis of belle époque splendor is a former actress from Spartanburg, S.C., Faith Stewart-Gordon, 48. “Downstairs is where a lot of people like to see each other,” she says, and she personally ensures that territorial rights are enforced. The choice spaces are the side booths. Jackie Onassis rates one when she comes in at 3 p.m. on Wednesdays for pelmeny Siberian (chopped beef and veal dumplings in consommé with fresh dill and mustard sauce), a dish whose aficionados also include Mike Nichols and Helen Gurley Brown.

A front dining room table is her friend Rudi’s spot, and a drink (vodka with crème de cacao) is now named the Nureyev in his honor. Elaine Kaufman, of Elaine’s eatery, takes her busman’s holiday at a large round dining room table. A booth near the bar is where Woody Allen sits, eating, as one waiter noted, “simple dishes, as you can see by looking at him.” Those who find the crowd maddening tend to retreat to the new, less crowded second-floor cafe preferred by Alan Arkin, Joan Fontaine and William Styron. Liza Minnelli and Misha Baryshnikov gave a party there after their 1980 TV special.

“The Russian Tea Room is a private-professional club where the public is allowed,” explains violinist Isaac Stern, who has grown portly on its blini. The 55-year-old institution next door to Carnegie Hall also serves more than 1,000 meals a day to lesser-known if trendy shoppers from Bendel’s and Bergdorf’s and to knowing out-of-towners. Moderately rich ones, of course. Table d’hôte dinners run $11 to $22.50.

No one questions the excellence—or authenticity—of the Tea Room’s Russian cuisine. But anyone wishing a member of the staff a rousing “Dobriy den” would get an answering “Good day” in one of 22 different languages, but rarely in Russian: That’s the native language now of only two on the staff of 150. Among them is emphatically not Faith herself. Even after two trips to the Soviet Union, she gives herself failing marks in Russian.

“But I found that my background in the theater was very helpful,” adds Faith, recalling the day when her first husband, Sidney Kaye, died, leaving her with the Russian Tea Room to run on her own. “It helped in dealing with the public. And I was used to working backstage—and working pretty hard.”

Faith had majored in drama at Northwestern, and graduated into a touring company and then the 1954 film of New Faces, which also introduced Eartha Kitt and Carol Lawrence. Soon Faith moved on to New York to play in Broadway’s Ondine. There in 1957 she met and married Kaye, a former chemistry teacher turned restaurateur, and had her daughter, Ellen, two years later.

The restaurant she inherited in 1967 had come a long way from the simple tea shop and bakery opened by Russian immigrant Jakob Zysman in 1926. But to improve it further, Faith decided to “get rid of the haphazard look and make it elegant.” In went new carpets, mirrors, mahogany, marble, brass and more samovars. She contemplated removing the Art Deco chandeliers, then just hid them with the trademark Christmas tinsel and red balls that adorn the establishment year round. Helping with the planning for the past 12 years is Faith’s second husband, James Stewart-Gordon, 63, a bon vivant and roving editor for Reader’s Digest. “Faith altered the restaurant from a seedy, rundown place to what you see today,” he says proudly.

Next in the Stewart-Gordons’ expansion plan is a move into retail and mail order, and already Bloomingdale’s is hawking Tea Room pastries. But the focus remains the restaurant. “James and I keep trying to make it better, to make people happy and enjoy being there,” says Faith, who is there herself 40 hours a week. “There’s just no end to it.”