At Home in the East Village: Veselka Serves up Ukrainian Fare
November 4, 2015

Veselka at it was, a newsstand and lunch counter and so much more.

The moral of this story is: you never know where the next fraternity party is going to take you. The moral of this story is also: never underestimate the power of good home cooking – even if the home isn’t yours.

There are plenty of restaurants in New York City that claim to be the original of something or the most authentic. When considering the many Lower East Side restaurants in the running, Veselka wouldn’t be everyones best guess. For starters, Veselka is run by a man named Tom Birchard. How authentic can a Ukrainian landmark be if it is run by a guy from New Jersey with Pennsylvania Dutch heritage? Well it’s kind of a funny story. When he was at college at Rutgers University, Tom went to a fraternity party. We can safely assume that Tom hoped to meet a pretty girl. Well he did, and he married her.  What Tom probably didn’t expect is that when he married her, he married Ukraine. The young woman was the daughter of Wolodymyr Darmochwal, who had moved to the United States after being displaced from Ukraine when Soviet powers took over the country after World War II.

Veselka's welcoming borscht. Photograph courtesy of Veselka.

Darmochwal had quite the trying tale of his own before settling down in the United States. He lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany before settling in New Jersey and opening a special little corner store on the intersection of Second Avenue and East 9th Street. At first, Veselka was a combination of a newsstand, a tiny lunch counter, and an impromptu community center.  The hearty and traditional Ukrainian food hit the spot, and Veselka began to expand into the 24-hour New York institution it is today- thanks in large part to Birchard. Birchard began working for his father-in-law in 1967, a relationship that lasted longer than his marriage. Though the marriage ended, Birchard’s ties to the Ukrainian community only deepened.  Birchard is now the owner of the thriving restaurant and over the decades he has successfully navigated through the neighborhood’s many transitions. In a neighborhood as marked by change as the East Village, this perseverance is quite a feat.

While some New York institutions gain their reputation from being exclusive, Veselka’s trick always seems to have been – and continues to be-  inclusion. During the height of East Village counter-culture, Veselka dished out honest servings of hearty Ukrainian fare to any and all comers.  Penny Arcade, a performance artist and an East Village fixture herself, recently told Julia Moskin of The New York Times, “It had the Village Voice before anywhere else, a row of phone booths, smokes for a dime, and cheap good food that never changed.” Moskin even reports that Darmochawl put up with an anarchist who squirted breast milk at him when he protested her breastfeeding at the table (that debate continues as well).

Delicious Ukrainian classics from the Veselka kitchen. Photograph courtesy of Veselka.

Birchard has continued to celebrate the artists’ among the rest of the East Village community as well as the expatriated Ukrainian community. Ukraine, like other territories in Eastern Europe, experienced vast political upheaval during the Ttwentieth century. Prior to World War II, Jewish communities fled religious oppression; after the war Ukrainians of all kinds fled political oppression.  For a time the East Village had one of the biggest Ukrainian populations outside of the country. Eventually immigration slowed during the late Soviet period. Today, young people arrive at Veselka everyday looking for work at a restaurant that some claim is famous all across Ukraine. You can bet that alongside the few kale salads and salmon poached eggs are deeply traditional varenyky or dumplings, stuffed cabbage, borsht, kielbasa… all made by Ukrainian chefs and largely served by Ukrainian waiters.

So stop into Veselka, still on the corner of East 9th Street and Second Avenue. We’re sure you’ll feel at home.

 

–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator