By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA – Start with the knowledge that Tatiana Restaurant and Night Club isn’t the typical South Florida dinner and evening out.
That is unless anyone can identify another venue where one can dance to Russian rock and pop performed by a singer in a genie costume while dining on Siberian pelmeni and borscht.
Or where an eclectic variety show begins with a figure wearing a menacing cat mask descending from the ceiling in an egg-like pod, peaks with a high-tech laser-bending act and concludes with faux snow falling to the backdrop of a scene out of Doctor Zhivago.
The oddity of the experience is the reason to go there. Or not.
To us, the appeal is that Tatiana is an exotic trip without venturing far. Make no mistake, you’re entering a different world, seemingly misplaced in an unassuming strip-shopping mall along Hallandale Beach Boulevard.
The façade is a portal to an Eastern European setting, an expansive ballroom with gold-leaf ceilings, drapery and chandeliers befitting a style suggested by the Fabergé eggs in a display case inside the lobby.
It is unabashedly glitzy and quaint with an old-world look and an air of post-Soviet decadence. Also an element of danger that is part of the allure.
That was the impression on the first visit when we stumbled upon the place by chance. A Russian nightclub? Sure, why not.
The scene inside was quite extraordinary, the other patrons mysterious in the dim lighting. Our imaginations took dark turns as we speculated on the stories of those around us.
Something about the group two tables over screamed Russian mafia, at least in our minds. Whoever they were, they were racking up an unimaginable tab by the look of the giant bottle of vodka in an ice bucket and the accompanying caviar.
A 4-ounce serving of black caviar is $250. Or you can get the red for $39.
Even though we steered clear of both, our own bill landed with a painful thud after an extended evening with appetizer, entrées drinks and dancing.
As much as we enjoyed the show – both on stage and at the surrounding tables – we didn’t return for a couple of years until noticing a Groupon for the dinner show. It was a half-price deal for two and included a bottle of wine for $44. (Admission for the show appears to fluctuate as I’ve subsequently seen the same deal for $52).
The cabaret show was the center of controversy when it featured a caged Bengal tiger on stage. A petition drive initiated by a college graduate student urging the restaurant to remove the tiger from the act generated about 150,000 signatures, according to news reports. The tiger was eliminated from the act in October 2015.
That may account for the presence of the peculiar character in the cat costume, which after being lowered to the stage engaged the audience with a chilling stare before exiting. It reminded me of the creepy assassin who wore a similar cat mask in the short-lived Amazon Prime series “Mad Dogs.”
Whatever the purpose, it set an attention-grabbing tone for the 45-minute production of song and dance mingled with some circus acrobatics and magic that ranged from old world Russian to quirky avant-garde.
It left us with a feeling of, well, that was very different – so very Russian.
So was the long, drawn out presentation of cakes and posed photos for every group celebrating a birthday. It seems that Tatiana is the in place for Russians in South Florida to gather for birthdays.
This wasn’t the wait staff at Olive Garden gathering for a quick round of “Happy Birthday.” Each celebrant – and there were at least a dozen that night – got their moment in front of the stage, accompanied by family and friends, while the same quaint background music was repeated.
This was proof that a night at Tatiana is foremost a cultural experience.
Most impressive about the entertainment is the hardest-working house song and dance troupe we’ve seen anywhere. The four primary singers and dancers opened with a set before the cabaret show, then returned to carry the evening deep into the night, the two women somehow holding up to the frantic pace on impossibly high heels.
With barely a pause between songs, which included some recognizable American and Latin tunes but primarily Russian pop, they kept the music pulsing for the next three hours with only one short break.
We were strategically situated next to a birthday party attended by two dozen young Russians, which gained momentum the more the vodka flowed. There were several bottles on the long table fueling the festivities.
Caviar and platters of various foods kept arriving at regular intervals, served family style, and were quickly devoured.
Relentless dancing seemed to stoke their appetites. The vodka melted inhibitions and brought out the personalities and sense of comradeship in the group.
To us it was the essence of Tatiana, the most intriguing entertainment to be found in the surroundings. We shared the dance floor with our neighbors, but mostly kept discrete watch on the activities at the next table.
It really was a scene out of a movie, a wild and crazy Eastern European cliche.
They were still going strong when we called it a night at 2 a.m., the music still pulsing through the cavernous hall, leaving our ears ringing for some time after.
Understandably, the Tatiana experience has niche appeal. Customer reviews on social media diverge more radically than for most night spots.
A reviewer from Denver wrote: “Unbelievable experience!!! Delicious food and amazing show.”
The next opinion was: “I felt like I was in the middle of someone’s distasteful wedding. Food taste like TV dinner.”
The food is pricey (entrees start at $24 and many are $30 and up) and the menu is unusual. Being our second visit we made it a priority to keep the cost of the evening reasonable. We opted for shish kebab, among the lower priced items, and an appetizer of Siberian pelmeni, which are Russian meat dumplings with minced meat of pork and veal.
Some reviewers take issue with the service, but our waiter was attentive, returning often to refill our water glasses. He likely wasn’t pleased that we stretched the wine that came with the Groupon deal all evening.
He didn’t complain, though, and we had none either. If you go to Tatiana, understand that it’s about having an experience outside the norm, a chance to get a glimpse of another world without having to go full-blown Anthony Bourdain.