South-Western Sauna and Tea Room
We have visited South-Western Banya two years in a roll now for Mon Cheri's birthday celebrations. Although this banya does not do group reservations or discounts (somewhat understandable considering their size), they do let you know the peak time. If you come before their rush hour, Fridays that is at 8pm, you will have no problem getting a bigger group in. We asked our twelve guests to come for 7pm and had no problems getting everyone in.
The signage off the plaza did not at all mention this little gem. In addition, the obscure entrance on the side of the Moores building was hard to find even when one knows where to be looking. Your perseverance will pay off eventually, my friends. In addition, there was plenty of parking all around.
From the outside, the main attention grabber was a small red awning with their lengthy yellow wordmark which was lit up at night by a single light bulb. This awning adorned a single door in front of with a concrete slab of a step.
Once inside, the spartan setting included a sofa to the side and a counter right in front. Tickets were brought there and a convenient magnet bracelet assigned. Visitors also get a towel, a robe and a brief introduction - if requested only, of course. There was also a rack of small containers to the left - scrubs you can purchase for $3 and use in the wet sauna.
Once that is dealt with, clients proceed to the change rooms. There interior was a German log-house theme with the dark wooden beams contrasting the white walls all throughout. A warm, comfortable ambiance was further enhanced by the incandescent lights. The insides of the ladies change room was not private and rather small. Surprisingly, they squeezed in a sofa by the mirror with hairdryers. I found that an odd spot to wait in, as you will be watching all the ladies change by their lockers. I think all would have appreciated the extra changing space or perhaps a full vanity area. The bracelet magnet was used to open an assigned locker and also keep track of your purchases which turned out to be quite convenient. Forgot your flip slops? Nothing to worry about, they have plenty of ones to borrow.
or ladies there was no direct way into the sauna from the change room, while the boys did enjoy that luxury (a mixed blessing though - door opens wide into the main area with limited opportunities for privacy). We need to exit the change room and go through a door where the relaxing area is. This was a darker room, open concept as it connects the saunas, restaurant and main entrance. The beige walls adored with framed photos and dark cushy sofas all around, TV, a chess board, magazines, etc.
We went straight for their spa area to rinse ourselves in their showers. That's right, the showers they were separated from the change rooms, so keep that in mind for when its time for the final beauty shower. This set up is rather basic, no space for pampering yourself, but still functional. The sauna area itself was a large open room with a slightly elevated split section, adding some visual and experiential variety and interest. There were three basic showers, a small dry Scandinavian sauna, a larger wet Turkish variety, and the main large Russian smokey dry one. There was also a corner with a small barrel raised high with a chain where you could take an unsupervised ice bucket challenge potentially involving the sitting crowd nearby in this refreshing activity. Another option to cool oneself was a barrel with a ladder for a cold water dip. In between the cold water and hot sauna area, there were two communal relaxation spaces - one fitted with Muskoka chairs as well as a wooden long bench by the barrels.
Outside the main sauna you will find a metal bucket or two with some bunches of branches. This is where the Russian traditional veniks were soaking. They are used for a kind of massage inside the Russian dry sauna, to intensify the experience and really get your blood rushing. It did look hilarious as a scene from the side - casually taking a seat in one of their relaxation areas, all you see is two sweaty big guys follow one another into the room with a venik, followed by elaborate beating movements inside, the small window on the door giving enough detail to let your imagination fill in the gaps. Looking beyond that, getting a treatment with the venik was a unique experience, ideal for submerging in the culture and worthwhile to try at least once.
We eventually made our way to their restaurant. We passed by a tall dining area, which continued the German log-house look. Furthermore, one of the walls was filled with their elaborate teapot collection - from old brass ones to more recent colourful porcelain ones. In addition there were a bunch of podstakannik - nickle-plated glass holders - unique objects often used in soviet-area trains to help stabilize the glass with hot tea. An odd part of the wall was a line of laminated images pinned to the wood. It turned out that this was how they posted the dishes available for tonight. We agreed that it was quite useful having photos of the many unknown Russian dishes and their prices, however placing them up was not a well-thought out choice. We had to stand and wonder in the way of all the passers by. I could only imagine how stressful this experience would have been when this room was filled with people sitting all around. Some of us learned, the hard way, that the mouth-watering dishes mentioned on the website are not available every evening - so don't get your hopes too high up. There were nine dishes available this evening though, so it gave us a decent choice to pick from.
The restaurant section of the sauna was spread over three rooms. We went to the middle, second room, for their complimentary tea area with some wood on the walls, as well as rough stucco imitation textures. There were a few framed stamp as well as money bills collections. The tea selection was quite generous (and free) all neatly arranged in cork lid jars. We even had a regular visitor near by recommending us ones to mix. Grab a teapot, scoop your herbs in, and add the hot water. Cups were also there, as the teapots were large and ideal for sharing. A mini bar area nearby where to purchase alcohol and food by giving the code on your magnetic bracelet. Alcohol-wise, there was, the selection was on a long sheet nailed to the wood on the side with a proud title"Medicine". Plenty of Russian-themed cocktails to choose from and every item had a quirky sentence description
We ordered two of their beers - Lvivske 1715 and Baltika. These two beers were pale lagers and we found them plain and lacking enthusiasm. Supposedly they were both popular in their countries of origin (Ukraine and Russia). Someone from our table ordered their Kvass drink, which everyone seemed to agree was not the best. It was a fermented beverage made from rye bread and non-alcoholic. Throughout the evening we had the following dishes - Shuba, Bourguignon and Boiled Dumplings. Do note that the amount of people increased our wait time closer to 30 minutes for some dishes. Their kitchen is tiny, after all. The dumplings filled with a mix of pork and beef are called pelmeni in Russian. They came topped with sour cream, green onion and a bit of oil. We enjoyed this simple dish a lot. Next we tried their Seledka Pod Shuboi which literally translates to Herring Under a Fur Coat. This lovely dish looks like lasagna at first sight, but turns out to be made of layers of herring, beets, pickled veggies, eggs topped with mayo and green onion. A complex, unique and delightful mix of ingredients. Lastly we had the Beef Bourgeoisie - another popular dish in Russia. It came in a plate consisting of three bows connected by a handle. One bowl had boiled buckwheat with unique spices which I was not familiar with and some people found repelling. Second container had Greek salad, and lastly one with beef. The meat was warm, it came in a stew sauce, topped with parsley. While tender and quality selection meat, it was not much of a stew as we expected, but plenty of chunky cuts instead. On our table throughout, there was always a basket or two of rye bread. Great to much on, even by itself.
Lastly to mention, ladies at the bar were fluent in both English and Russian and the service was quite friendly.
Looking for a washroom? That's tricky, one needs to go all the way back to the entrance, near the initial counter. It is an awkward interior layout, however the beauty of it is that it helps keep an eye on who is coming. In a way, walking by the front in your bathrobe almost serves as an advertisement for those walking in.
In reality, we really enjoy this banya - bathhouse. It is not pretentious, as some other ones we visited before. People are friendly, the service is good, food is reasonably priced and authentic, and of course, there are enough amenities to keep the crowd busy. From older men, to moms with children and twenty-something year olds, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.
emember to give your bracelet at the end, as you are to walk out. Once again, this is how your bill is kept track of so you can settle it at the end.