As a former waiter, I am thoroughly embarrassed by our attempt to annoy the living hell out of the staff at Rudar Soccer Club, a Croatian-Istrian bar and restaurant in Astoria. Four of us—including a legendary shark-eating Slovenian and an American dude who is abnormally chummy with orangutans—showed up at around 5:00. A fifth diner appeared at 7:00. About 25 more of our friends–mostly Slovenians—trickled into the restaurant between 7:30 and 9:30. And then we stayed until midnight.
I mean, really: how annoying is that? We’re total pricks. Four people walk in without a reservation, occupy a table for six, and then slowly turn into a table-camping party of, like, 27 people who occupy the restaurant for seven hours. Not cool. Don’t ever do this to a restaurant, especially not to a small establishment like Rudar Soccer Club. It’s pretty chaotic and cruel, even though we didn’t actually bring our orangutan friend.
Despite the chaos, the servers and manager of the restaurant were unbelievably welcoming and accommodating. They patiently put up with our mayhem, and even offered to split up our checks. Amazing. Rudar Soccer Club is apparently run by a bunch of friendly Istrian Zen Masters.
The thoroughly lovable club is phenomenally easy to miss: it’s in a mostly windowless, industrial-looking building on a relatively quiet street in Astoria. The place was founded in 1977 as a private social club for a team of soccer-playing coal miners from the Croatian segment of Istria, a region of the Balkans that covers the northwestern corner of Croatia, as well as a few bits of Slovenia and Italy.
The “soccer” part of Rudar Soccer Club seems to be a misnomer these days: the club is basically a place where Istrian-Croatians drink heavily. When you walk in, you’ll immediately encounter a not-terribly-attractive bar, filled with groups of craggy old European dudes who will stare at you for a little bit longer than you might like—even if you’re not an orangutan.
But once you get past the craggy old dudes, Rudar Soccer Club has a secret: there’s an inviting little Istrian restaurant in the basement, filled with friendly Croatian servers, tasty Istrian wine, amazing handmade pasta, and bite-sized fried fish that resemble fish-flavored popcorn.
At the beginning of the evening, there were four of us at the table, led by the legendary shark-eating Istrian-Slovenian who acted as our Food Dictator. At the Food Dictator’s urging, we started with the grilled calamari. Calamari is always a little bit risky, in my humble opinion: if the squid is either badly cooked or has that not-so-fresh feeling, then it ends up being rubbery and unpleasant. The stuff at Rudar was outstanding—minimally rubbery, and grilled in a thoroughly addictive lemon-garlic-butter-parsley sauce.
Our other appetizer, called girice, was my personal favorite, at least for novelty value: an enormous plate of very small deep-fried fish with their heads and tails still attached. Girice’s purpose in life is as a snack food for drunk Istrians—basically, a very fishy version of popcorn or potato chips. I thought they were great, though my companions were all either disinterested or allergic; after eating half of a heaping plate, I gave up, and eventually brought them home to my very bewildered (and naked) fiancé, who demanded that I throw them out before they stank up our entire building.
Our other dishes were also pretty damned solid: chicken sautéed with mushrooms, thinly-pounded grilled veal, swiss chard sautéed with potatoes, and an amazing stew called jota, made with barley, white Romano beans, bits of pasta, and sauerkraut… basically, an absurdly hearty minestrone with a pleasant hint of cabbage-y sourness thrown in. And my personal favorite was the fuzi, a ridiculously soft handmade pasta topped with a veal sauce.
For dessert, we had some fried calamari. (Really, squid makes a great after-dinner treat. Kind of like a mint, except that it makes your breath even worse.) The calamari was just as pleasantly non-rubbery as the grilled stuff; our legendary hakarl-eating Istrian-Slovenian Food Dictator insisted that it was the best fried calamari in New York. We also ate apple strudel, Istrian crepes (palachinke) filled with walnuts and fruit jam, and cheese strudel stuffed with ricotta cheese and topped with powdered sugar. (Our Food Dictator claimed that the cheese strudel was evidence of a terrible cultural crime, since a proper Istrian strudel should be stuffed with farmer’s cheese, not ricotta; the rest of us saw no reason to complain.)
We had arrived at 5:00, and ate slowly. After whining to our Croatian Zen Master waitress about the cheese strudel, we paid our bill at 8:00. We’re really annoying. But our Croatian Zen Master waitress just smiled, and thanked us for being there. We tipped well, and then a few of us tried to leave.
And then all hell broke loose.
It turns out that our hakarl-eating Istrian-Slovenian Food Dictator had casually emailed a few other Slovenians, who causally emailed a few other Slovenians, who apparently emailed a few more Slovenians. By 8:30, the little Istrian-Croatian basement restaurant was crawling with 25 Slovenians… nearly all of whom were obscenely well-educated. I met an African Studies professor, an astronomer, several owners of technology start-ups, a brilliant Ghanaian-American who managed to learn Slovenian in her spare time, and a bunch of other people who speak more languages than I’ve even heard of.
By the time the Slovenian geniuses completely conquered the tiny restaurant, I was already sloshing with wine and strudel and calamari, but I lingered with the gang of absurdly brilliant Slovenians until 11:30, drinking Croatian beer and nibbling that the platters of crepes and strudel that the Croatian Zen Master staff offered our party.
I’m not sure that the genius of the Slovenians rubbed off on me. But by the time I left, I’m pretty sure that the Croatian beer and Istrian wine had rubbed off on me. I’m also pretty sure that I had consumed enough fish and calamari and strudel and crepes and beer and wine to be thoroughly flammable, in a cloyingly sweet, pungently fishy, non-brilliant sort of way.
But apparently, it’s all good. I surely stank and had obviously stayed too late, but our Croatian and Istrian hosts just smiled broadly, and thanked us for coming. I love Istria! And Slovenia! And Croatia! And orangutans! And fish! (Burp.)
Rudar Soccer Club
34-01 45th Avenue, Astoria
Subway: Steinway Ave. (R train)