Evening Service

Evening Service

On Temple Street, just south of Chapel, there’s a chapel. It has a pulpit, intricate woodcarvings, even a Madonna of sorts. And best of all: it serves vodka.

The Russian Lady’s cavernous but also wending interior looks like an old-style country church was thrown into a drink shaker along with beer, TV monitors and a troika of pool tables, and that’s not too far from the truth. The interior was salvaged from an old Scottish church and shipped to Connecticut to buttress the walls of the Playwright—the Irish pub that operated out of the location until 2010. To prove it, I was taken to the “Club Room” in back where, on a small balcony overlooking the main dance floor, the salvaged church’s pulpit now functions as a DJ stand, with a historic plaque.

“This Pulpit was presented to the Rev’d M.G. Easton, D.D. by Robert and Alexander Morton of Gowanbank as a mark of their respect,” it reads, “and of their appreciation of his labours among the community of Darvel and of his Christian sympathy with their mother. 1st Nov. 1885.” According to the managers of the Gowanbank House, a bed-and-breakfast in Ayrshire, Scotland, Alexander Morton (1844-1923) was a textile tycoon who brought a prolonged era of prosperity to Darvel and the surrounding valley by sparking the growth of the Ayrshire lace industry. Parks and landmarks in the valley still bear his name.

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Jerry Fornarelli, owner of The Russian Lady, is an aspiring tycoon in his own right, not in textiles but in nightlife. He entered the bar world 23 years ago as a bartender and now owns five establishments. Three of them—the Rocking Horse, The Tavern Downtown, and the original Russian Lady—sit side-by-side in Hartford.

The original Russian Lady wasn’t Fornarelli’s brainchild but that of his one-time boss, John Rimscha. The first Russian Lady abdicated her position in Hartford in 1997, and the antique decor that made up the bar’s trademark aesthetic was sold at auction, including its iconic “Mother Russia” statue that sat above the club’s entrance.

In 2011, Fornarelli sought to bring back the old Lady he remembered. He managed to track down many of those dispersed antiques. But the marquee statue depicting queen Katherine the Great with the Madonna and Poseidon on either side, which sold to the Dream Hotel in Manhattan for $250,000, had moved into New York City’s upper crust, where she still holds court. Undeterred, Fornarelli had an artist make copies of the statue, placing one in the Hartford Russian Lady and the other in the New Haven location when it opened in 2012.

Seeking to expand his nightlife empire beyond Hartford, Fornarelli was attracted to the site for its antique feel, conjuring the vibes of the first Russian Lady. Seeking to expand the Lady’s brand, he took over the bar from the short-lived Wicked Wolf Tavern and re-shuffled architectural details to give it the feel of a “Romanov-era church,” according to Randi Bachelor, the bar’s new sales and events manager.

But expanding came with special challenges—one in particular. “It’s a large space,” says Fornarelli. “You need to figure out ways to keep people entertained.” In front there’s the main bar room, with some tables for sitting and a stage for live music, and in the back is the main dance floor, where hip hop and top-40 reign, with a limited bar for fast service.

Between them on the ground floor are those pool tables, and between them on an upper floor is the “Vodka Room,” which provides an especially Russian feel. It’s filled with futuristic lighting, electronic dance music and—you guessed it—vodka, alongside other refreshments. But the room is currently closed until the fall. “It’s New Haven in the summer,” explains Fornarelli. “Business is slow.” When school is back in session, patrons will have a menu of often wacky house-made vodka flavors to pore over, from Cucumber to Wasabi Pea to Twizzlers to Sour Patch Kids.

If vodka isn’t your kind of drink, or you have a more confidential gathering in mind, the KGB Room might be a better option. An underground bar room that’s typically closed to the public, it can be reserved for private events and special gatherings, secret or otherwise.

Meanwhile, there’s an impressive range of entertainment options offered throughout the week, from dueling pianos to salsa dancing to football games to themed parties. The Lady regularly holds party nights for a wide-range of demographics: “Little Black Dress” parties for young professionals, “Glow” parties for the college crowd and an annual Halloween costume bash.

For those who prefer more traditional dance floor antics, The Russian Lady hosts a popular salsa night every Wednesday. Beginners are encouraged to attend the starter class—8 till 9:45pm—and stay for the social dancing that lasts until 1 a.m.

And while lately The Lady’s been getting a day of rest each Sunday, that changes during football season. Watchers can choose from 20 TV screens, 39 beers on tap and game-day fare like wings, tacos and sliders.

Consider it a different kind of Sunday worship to go with that DJ stand pulpit and those old church beams.

The Russian Lady
144 Temple St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 4pm-1am, Fri 4pm-2am, Sat 5pm-2am
(203) 691-7276

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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