Eating and schvitzing at the reborn Division Street Russian Baths | Bleader

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Eating and schvitzing at the reborn Division Street Russian Baths

Posted By on 02.21.13 at 07:32 AM

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хорошая еда, the pickle plate at Red Square Lounge
  • Mike Sula
  • Xорошая еда, the pickle plate at Red Square Lounge
I regret never having visited the original Division Street Russian Baths, which closed three years ago. Still, it's possible to summon up some swells of vicarious nostalgia by reading what Algren, Bellow, and Neil Steinberg have had to say about it.

Here's Bellow in Humboldt's Gift:

"The patrons of the Russian Bath are cast in an antique form. They have swelling buttocks and fatty breasts as yellow as buttermilk. They stand on thick pillar legs affected with a sort of creeping verdigris or blue-cheese mottling of the ankles. After steaming, these old fellows eat enormous snacks of bread and salt herring or large ovals of salami and dripping skirt-steak and they drink schnapps. They could knock down walls with their hard stout old-fashioned bellies. Things are very elementary here. You feel that these people are almost conscious of obsolescence, of a line of evolution abandoned by nature and culture. So down in the super-heated subcellars all these Slavonic cavemen and wood demons with hanging laps of fat and legs of stone and lichen boil themselves and splash ice water on their heads by the bucket. Upstairs, on the television screen in the locker room, little dudes and grinning broads make smart talk or leap up and down. They are unheeded. . . . There may be no village in the Carpathians where such practices still prevail."

The old fellows in their woolen banya caps have returned to the newly remodeled bathhouse, now called Red Square. They shout at each other in Russian in the eucalyptus-perfumed Turkish sauna, scrubbing each other down, and beating the holy hell out of each other with birch branches. If you're the kind of person who's afraid to get naked in front of strangers and a scene like that doesn't chill you out, there's no hope for you. Nobody cares about your belly fat, your junk, or your greening yakuza tattoos.*

I can't compare the gutted and newly rehabbed place to the old one (though Steinberg can). But I can tell you it's bright, clean, and comfortable, a lot less grungy than Paradise Sauna in Lincoln Square, and not as supersized as King Spa in Niles (though unfortunately it's not open around the clock). The phone reception in the locker room is lousy—even if you're tempted to check your cell, you're out of luck. So there's no reason you shouldn't be able to relax. The women on the mostly young, friendly, coed Russian staff will tell you ruefully that their side isn't as big as the men's, though there's a comfortable common dry sauna and lounge broadcasting a Russian video channel. The saunas are a lot hotter than those at King Spa, and the chill-out pool is a lot colder, and after a few rounds of that sort of metabolic whipsawing you're going to need to eat and drink.

Yeah, you can drink. In fact it's one of the only circumstances I can think of under which it's acceptable to drink vodka, though they do have Rittenhouse 100 behind the full bar, along with a handful of Russian beers if you can't bring yourself to that. (You can drink in the locker room if you like, too, on chaise lounges in front of a bank of TVs.)

I wish they served the salami and salt herring from Bellow's day in the upstairs restaurant, but they do have an overwhelmingly Russian-style menu, with beefy red borscht, plump pelmeni, and a generous pickled vegetable platter, pierogi, beet salad, kebabs, and more universal things like chicken liver paté, marinated mackerel, scallops, grilled salmon, and deviled eggs crowned with salmon roe. The dining room is designed like a train's dining car, complete with curtained "windows" opening on a video screening the Russian countryside whipping by. Just imagine yourself taking a rail tour of banyas across Mother Russia, and then head downstairs for another schvitz.

Red Square, 1914 W. Division, 773-227-2284

* And don't worry about this happening either.

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