Ukrainian restaurant still thriving in New York’s East Village


The exterior of Veselka, a popular Ukrainian restaurant on Second Avenue. Photo credit: REBEKAH MINTZER

When Tom Birchard, owner of Veselka, a well-known Ukrainian restaurant in New York’s East Village began working there as a waiter in 1967, Veselka was a newsstand and candy shop with a few tables and a small counter that catered to Ukrainian immigrants. Today Veselka is a Zagat-rated restaurant with a lengthy menu that sells its own branded cookbook and tableware and caters to a crowd with far more hipster pretensions than its traditional clientele.

“We have a very diverse clientele,” Birchard said. “When I first came here it was mostly Ukrainians. If you came in and only spoke English it was a challenge to order and communicate.”

Following World War II, the area roughly bordered by Manhattan’s Second and Third Avenues and Sixth and Ninth Streets, dubbed Little Ukraine, was home to up to 60,000 Ukrainian immigrants. Although much of the population has left, a handful of Ukrainian businesses survive, each of them struggling to meet the neighborhood’s changes while still maintaining their ethnic authenticity.

Birchard may own one of New York’s most famous Ukrainian restaurants, but his own heritage is far from Ukrainian—his father’s family came to the U.S. from England in the 1650s. Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, he hardly ever saw a clove of garlic before he began working at Veselka, which was then owned by his former wife’s father, an immigrant from Ukraine named Wolodymyr Darmochwal.

“I think he was initially a little disappointed that his daughter didn’t marry a good Ukrainian fellow,” said Birchard.

However, Darmochwal warmed to his new son-in-law, taking him under his wing and teaching him about Ukrainian cuisine. He opened up a whole new world to Birchard, who fell in love with pierogis, kielbasa, and other delicacies and still eats at least one meal a day at Veselka.

Now, Veselka has more American than Ukrainian customers, but that does not mean the American patrons don’t appreciate the ethnic food and nostalgia the restaurant provides.

“That type of Eastern European comfort food is part of peoples’ growing up and traditions,” said Birchard. “It’s what they remember their grandparents cooking whether they are Ukrainian, Polish, or Jewish.”

“My grandfather was first generation from Czechoslovakia, so I remember some of the things he would make for us that you can find the equivalent to here,” said Cain Semrad, who stops in Veselka from time to time for some borscht or chicken soup.

According to Christina Pevny, archivist for the Ukrainian Museum, a modern building a few blocks from Veselka that houses Ukrainian folk art, costumes, and paintings, there have been a few major waves of immigration from Ukraine to New York. Immigration began at the start of the 20th century, peaking after the Second World War, and ending with the most recent influx after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Much of the Ukrainian population, said Pevny, left the East Village for the suburbs or the outer boroughs when the neighborhood went through a rough period in the 1970s and 80s.

“Many people would like to return, but it’s too expensive,” Pevny said, adding that most new Ukrainian immigrants nowadays choose to settle outside Manhattan, but come to the East Village to worship at the local Ukrainian Catholic Church or bring their children to Ukrainian school.

Veselka back when it was a newsstand and candy store with only a few tables. Photo credit: REBEKAH MINTZER

With most Ukrainians coming to East Village more as visitors than as residents, Birchard had to change the way the restaurant does business. Veselka, like the neighborhood, had fallen on hard times in the late 70s, and Birchard knew the place had to evolve to survive.

He began by adding new cooks to his staff, which at the time consisted of a group of Polish women who were not trained to cook quickly.

“I hired a couple of really good short order cooks and put more breakfast items on the menu,” he said.

Adding eggs, waffles, pancakes, and home fries was a way of reaching out to American customers—Ukrainians are more accustomed to eating simpler morning meals. However, American breakfast items still come with a Ukrainian twist at Veselka. Eggs, for example, are served with kasha, an eastern European buckwheat porridge.

This concept of Ukrainian and American fusion at Veselka has grown over time. The restaurant has added salads and vegetarian borscht to its menu, as well as what Birchard calls “new world pierogis” with fillings like goat cheese, short ribs, and sweet potatoes.

“I’d say we’ve adapted just enough to satisfy our local markets but at the same time, stay very true to the dishes that we opened up with that people love,” Birchard said. “Our borscht is basically the same as it was in 1954, but you can get goat cheese pierogis.”

In the mid 1980s, Birchard made another change when he decided to keep the restaurant open 24 hours a day, an adjustment that has been successful with a younger, less Ukrainian crowd.

Early one Saturday at around 2 a.m, the restaurant was hopping, thanks to a young crowd of around 75 people that filed in from nearby bars. Sky Dylan-Robbins and Courtney Spiller, both 23, sat at a table along the back wall eating and chatting.

“This is our spot after late night escapades,” said Dylan-Robbins, as she ate her mushroom and tomato omelet. “The food is warming and comforting.”

To discourage rowdy late night customers, Veselka employs Kenneth Taylor, who spends the evening sitting by the door watching the room.

“My job is to make peace and make sure they pay, make sure they don’t fight,” he said.

No major incidents happened on Saturday but Taylor said that in the past he has had to show some drunk customers and unwelcome loiterers the door.

A handful of other Ukrainian stores and businesses still survive in the East Village, including Surma, which sells Ukrainian specialty items like Ukrainian language books and music, Easter eggs, traditional clothing, and Christian icons.

Markian Surmach, who runs the store, said that in the current financial climate, Surma does not always have it easy.

“We’re not immune to the rise and fall, the tide is coming and going for everybody,” he said.

Financial uncertainty plagues the Ukrainian American Sports Club, a soccer club founded in 1948 that owns a building on Second Avenue, and runs its own bar for members and guests on the ground floor.

“It’s hard to keep up the club because property taxes are $80,000 or $90,000 a year,” said the club’s vice president, Oscar Verbitsky.

Back at Veselka, Burchard’s ability to adapt while maintaining some tradition shows in the morning clientele shift. A few hours after the 20-something bar and club crowd has gone home to bed, some members of a different group come to Veselka—the Ukrainians who were its mainstay for years.

Daria Genza, a Ukrainian folk dance and music teacher in the neighborhood, came to New York from Ukraine via Germany in 1955, and remembers visiting Veselka as early as the 1960s. She is well aware of all of the changes that have happened in the East Village, but said that she still feels like part of the Ukrainian community in the area.

“I feel very comfortable here,” she said. “I’d never want to move somewhere else.”

As for Veselka, which she visits every morning, she is certain that the food is authentic Ukrainian.

“You cannot get this at Dunkin Donuts,” she said with a smile.


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