The tiny, not-so-mysterious restaurant on Rehoboth Avenue
I receive an average of 50-60 emails every day. Topics range from legitimate questions about Cape Region restaurants to compliments/complaints about food or service all the way to ridiculous rumors and gossip. I used to fall for those … but after 15 years of doing this I’ve learned to research everything. People like to pretend they’re in the know - even when they’re not (which is often the case). And that leads me to my point: In spite of my printing an article similar to this one almost seven years ago, silly chatter continues about a tiny restaurant in downtown Rehoboth Beach. That restaurant is Red Square.
Much of the innuendo thrives in spite of the fact that the owner is a longtime resident with two sports-loving sons - both of whom were Rehoboth lifeguards and excelled in area schools. Is Red Square an unusual restaurant? It sure is. It follows a very specific model that’s nothing like the crabcake/burger, pizza/shrimp‘n’grits fare. So enough already: What’s up with Red Square?
Founder Tom Kopunek was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Pennsylvania. He moved to this area in1984. As a research chemist, he was sent to work in Russia where he met the strikingly attractive Victoria, a Russian-language professor at Kharkov State University. In 1991, Tom returned to the United States with Victoria. They married shortly thereafter, giving rise to their two sons, Ruslan and Philip.
Sadly, during the summer of 2013 Tom passed away quite unexpectedly. Regulars to their softly lit eatery remember him as being happiest behind the bar; offering tastes of his premium vodkas to appreciative customers. During an early interview he told me, “We do something a little different. We’re not competing with anybody. And enough people appreciate what we do to keep us there to enjoy this dining tradition along with them.” Even with the passage of time, Tom’s hospitality is still missed.
Back in ’97, Tom and Victoria opened a PostNet franchise in Midway Shopping center, providing business services to local residents. But Victoria had a dream. She missed the ritual of leisurely fine dining so prevalent in her home country, where special occasions commanded the finest of everything served in opulent surroundings. And thus, in 2001, Red Square was born.
In the tradition of Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room and Washington, D.C.’s Russia House, well over 100 different vodkas are stocked behind the bar. Traditional Russian cuisine is accompanied by imported black caviar. There are no TVs, no Buffalo wings, no Keno, and certainly no NFL specials. Russian music plays softly in the background. I ask Victoria why they made such an investment in a beach town known for peanut butter fudge and fried flounder. “We did it here because we love the beach. And those who like what we do - many of whom are from Washington, D.C. - are faithful customers.” One of the reasons the restaurant appears uninhabited when most people are strolling The Avenue is that the caviar/vodka crowd is generally a late one. The Russia House in D.C. stays open until 3 a.m. on weekends!
In 2002, the Kopuneks opened JavaByte in Midway Shopping Center, combining live entertainment and high-speed internet services. “It was everything a café was supposed to be, but without the alcohol,” said Tom. In 2007, they folded the PostNet shipping/printing services into JavaByte. Victoria earned her real estate license in ’07, and she still sells properties up and down the Delaware coast for RE/MAX Realty Group.
Victoria continues to be amused by (most of) the silly rumors that fly around town. People who have done nothing more than walk by whisper excitedly that it’s a front for the “Russian mob,” and that who-knows-what is moving in and out of the back door. Victoria laughs: “People say we’re in the mob. I tell them we are a very friendly mob. Oh, and we don’t even have a back door!” But she stops laughing when I mention that some of the local chatter suggests more unsavory activities. “That offends me, and it’s not funny.” She shakes her head and I change the subject.
The smiling and quick-with-a-joke Tom admitted to me long ago that, on sunlit days, the glass façade and the south-side Rehoboth Avenue location can make Red Square look a bit dark and mysterious late in the day. But as evening falls, Victoria’s hand-picked Swarovski crystal chandeliers cast a soft glow over the crimson booths and silver serving pieces. When I mention that the place never looks crowded, she responds rather animatedly: “We have 36 seats. Our kitchen is tiny. I only have one oven. I don’t know what I’d do if all those seats were full.”
In my original interview with Tom and Victoria, they summed it up best: “We do something a little different. You have to have choices. We’re not competing with anybody. We don’t need to turn tables, because our concept is to recreate traditional Russian fine dining at a leisurely pace. We buy the best of everything, and it’s definitely expensive. Is it for everybody? Of course not. But enough people appreciate what we do to keep us open so we can enjoy it along with them.” Regulars to Red Square agree: There’s no doubt that Tom’s generous spirit is still behind the ornate bar.
I truly hope I don’t have to print this again in another seven years. In the meantime, if you like departing from the ordinary with quality caviar, a mellow atmosphere and unusual vodkas, give Red Square a try. Then tell your friends and you’ll get an idea of what my daily email box is like.