‘We like what we do, and we love the beach’
Small towns are notorious for gossip. People like to pretend they’re in the know - even when they’re not (which is often the case). And Rehoboth Beach is the official poster child for rumors about local businesses, especially restaurants. I get so many emails about one particular place that I had to create a subdirectory just to store them all. I call it “What’s Up With Red Square?”
The nasty innuendo thrives in spite of the fact that the owners are longtime residents with two sports-loving sons - both of whom are Rehoboth lifeguards - excelling in area schools. Is Red Square an unusual restaurant? It sure is. The owners have a very specific model that’s nothing like the crabcake/burger, pizza/shrimp‘n’grits fare more typical of beach resorts. So enough already: What’s up with Red Square?
Tom Kopunek was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Pennsylvania. But he’s lived in this area since 1984. As a research chemist, he was sent to work in Russia, where he met the strikingly attractive Victoria, a professor teaching Russian as a second language 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, 20, and Philip, 18.
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, was born Red Square.
In the tradition of Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room and Washington, D.C.’s Russia House, more than 180 different vodkas are stocked behind the bar. Traditional Russian cuisine is accompanied by genuine imported black caviar. There are no TVs, no Buffalo wings, and 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 chocolate fudge and fried seafood. “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.”
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,” Tom smiles. In 2007, they dissolved PostNet, folding the shipping/printing services into JavaByte. Victoria earned her real estate license in ’07, selling properties up and down the Delaware coast for RE/MAX Realty Group.
Tom and Victoria are amused by most of the silly rumors that fly around town. People who have never ventured inside 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. And we don’t even have a back door!” But she stops laughing when I mention that some of the local chatter suggests prostitution. “That offends me, and it’s not funny.” Tom shakes his head and I change the subject.
The smiling and quick-with-a-joke Tom (inexplicably dubbed “that surly bartender” by suspicious onlookers) admits that, on sunlit days, the glass façade and the south-side Avenue location can make Red Square look a bit dark and mysterious. 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!”
The Kopuneks sum it up: “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.”