Igor Litvak is practically a San Francisco native, having come here as a toddler from Moldova in 1988. Until two years ago, he had never lived anywhere else. He had just moved to New York City in 2017 when his mother, Irina Litvak, died suddenly at age 52. She was a partner in the Richmond District Russian restaurant the Red Tavern, and Litvak, now 33, made the unusual decision to help run the restaurant from New York with his mother’s friend and business partner.
J.: Tell me a bit about your San Francisco upbringing.
Igor Litvak: I spent my childhood living in both the Richmond and Sunset districts. My parents were both entrepreneurial. My mother used to import and export chickens to Russia, while my dad has always been an electrical contractor. His business is called Volk Electric. I briefly went to Hebrew Academy as a kid, and then one day I came home and started kissing my tzitzit, and my mom right away put me in public school. I became bar mitzvah at Emanu-El and then we belonged to Rabbi Shimon Margolin’s community of Russian-speaking Jews. While attending the University of San Francisco, I belonged to Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity [at S.F. State].
J.: Your mom was drawn to the restaurant industry even though she didn’t cook much herself, right? She also had an art gallery in Sausalito, and a lot of that art is now at the Red Tavern.
IL: She and her partners opened their first restaurant, Fandorin, around 2003 [in Burlingame]. It was a huge success. It could hold 300 people and would have traditional Russian banquets with live music and dancing and was the largest Russian restaurant on the West Coast. Even the Russians in New York knew about it. When the lease expired, the landlord wanted to raise the rent and they had to close it. Then she opened another one called Danilov on Treasure Island in 2017, but there was soon an issue with the landlord. He said he had added us to the liquor license but never had, so we were shut down. There’s now a lawsuit and my dad is still fighting it.
J.: What’s the history of the Red Tavern?
IL: My mom and her business partner, Dina Schpak, opened it in 2011. Dina is the executive chef, all of the dishes are based on those of her mother. It’s the best Russian food I’ve had anywhere. My mom was the manager. After she died, I felt that I didn’t want to let all of my mom’s hard work go into the ether. In memory of my mom, I wanted to give it the old college try. But there were some things that needed to be changed, so now everything is brand new, from the doilies to the napkins. I wanted to modernize it to make it friendlier to young Americans. Russians will come anyway for the food, but I wanted Americans to see it as a young, hip place. Recently we closed it for a week and did a complete renovation. We’re also on social media now.
J.: It doesn’t seem easy to run a restaurant from across the country, especially while being a busy bond trader.
IL: I probably put in three to four hours a week and Dina does the rest. My job is marketing and Instagram. A friend comes in and takes photos; I post them with all the proper hashtags and emojis and all that silly stuff that millennials want to see, hopefully letting people know that everything’s cool here. The biggest problem is getting people to try the food, but once they do, they’ll be asking, “Where have you been my whole life?” People need to try it.
J.: What do you most recommend?
IL: We’re probably best known for our beef stroganoff, which comes with a layer of puff pastry on top and a side of kasha, and many love the vareniki, which are sour cherry dumplings that are common in Russian restaurants but difficult to find elsewhere. But my favorite are the pelmeni, dumplings filled with veal or chicken, even though I rarely eat them because I’m Paleo. Of course, both the pelmeni and vareniki are better with sour cream.
J.: You are also quite the food lover yourself.
IL: Yes. When I was young, going to Sizzler and Red Lobster were events, but fast-forward to today. I keep an Excel spreadsheet. I’ve been in New York for two years now, and have been to 240 restaurants already. In San Francisco, I’ve been to 400 restaurants. I’m very much into the scene and like to know what the best is, and do they deserve the accolades they’re getting. While I’m not a critic, I definitely know food.