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A beloved New York restaurant becomes place of unity for Ukraine | New York

In New York’s East Village neighborhood, home to a wide array of popular restaurants and bars, is a decades-old staple in the city’s famous food scene. Veselka, located in a smaller pocket of the area once known as “Little Ukraine”, now sits at the corner of food and international politics.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has displaced millions and forced ordinary citizens to take up arms, or flee across borders to safety. Those problems aren’t just affecting the people of Ukraine, but thousands of their loved ones abroad – including some at this beloved New York restaurant.

The violence, which began on 24 February, has struck a chord for New Yorkers, Ukrainian or otherwise. Throngs of anti-war protesters waving blue and yellow flags have held demonstrations in Times Square, the West Village and Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach (home to a large Ukrainian-American community), since the violence began.

Here at Veselka, those at a loss for how to help, do what they know best: eat.

On a Wednesday morning at 10.30am, a line is already forming around the corner. The menu – which boasts pierogies, potato pancakes and borscht – isn’t normally considered brunch food. A homemade “Ukraine belongs to Ukrainians’’ poster greets customers as they walk in. Flyers urging customers to support Ukraine are distributed and taped to the building’s towering windows: “Eat Borscht – Stand with Ukraine” – reads a poster, signaling that 100% of proceeds made from the restaurant’s famous bright-red beet soup are being donated to help Ukraine.

People wait outside of Ukrainian eatery Veselka in New York, New York on 27 February 2022.
People wait outside of Ukrainian eatery Veselka in New York, New York on 27 February 2022. Photograph: Sipa US/Alamy

A woman visiting from Los Angeles named Havva, waits patiently at the back of the line.

“We love Veselka. We’ve been here many times. We just thought we’d come and support the community,” she says.

Artie Athas orders borscht to go for his friend, prior to visiting him in the hospital. Athas lives a few blocks away from the restaurant and is a frequent customer, but said recent events have compelled him to visit more.

“I was here Saturday afternoon and the line was stretching around the corner. I come regularly but it certainly [has] a different meaning now. It’s so heartbreaking and hard to see,” he says, referring to the war. “But [it’s] wonderful to see the support for this establishment.”

Veselka is small by most restaurant standards, but large for New York’s prime East Village neighborhood. Colorful art adorns the pink walls of the bustling establishment. Its tin ceiling is painted a dark-green.

The hostess, named Zen, has worked at Veselka for the last five years. She tells a man inquiring about a table that there is “a bit of a wait, but it shouldn’t be more than ten minutes”.

Veselka is small by most restaurant standards, but large for New York’s prime East Village neighborhood.
Veselka is small by most restaurant standards, but large for New York’s prime East Village neighborhood. Photograph: John Nacion/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

“Things pick up around noon,” she explains, although it’s difficult to imagine what it would look like if things were any busier.

Veselka’s owner, Jason Birchard, is a third-generation Ukrainian-American. He said the invasion of Ukraine turned him from a longtime optimist into a pessimist.

“I just hope peace will prevail. I mean, I don’t want to go on a rant, but the Ukrainian staff really feels abandoned. They feel helpless. Why is Ukraine being sacrificed? Because of the threat of a nuclear bomb?” he asks.

Birchand refuses to refer to Vladimir Putin by name when he speaks – instead, he frequently calls him a “mad man”.

“He doesn’t deserve the recognition,” explains Birchard, of the decision not to call the Russian President by his name.

Veselka, which means “rainbow” in Ukrainian, was started by Birchard’s maternal grandfather, Wlodymyr Darmochwal, who escaped Russian oppression in the late 1940’s. Upon arriving to New York, he opened a small newsstand in 1954 that eventually evolved into Veselka.

Today, the restaurant is raved about by celebrities and food critics alike, including the late Anthony Bourdain. Birchard was not originally sold on entering the family business after he graduated from Suny Albany in 1989, but eventually called the decision “a no-brainer”.

The last two years have been devastating for the global food service industry because of the Covid-19 pandemic and Veselka was no exception. Birchard painfully recalls completely shutting down for eight weeks in 2020. Today, Birchand feels grateful for the influx of customers showing support, but feels sadness for his staff experiencing emotional distress about their loved ones back home. Birchard’s own aunt lives in a remote village in Ukraine and he is concerned about what life will be like for her under Russian rule.

Birchard said it was the staff, almost half of which is Ukrainian, that began efforts to collect donations for the war. The restaurant is collecting items like batteries, socks, underwear, and diapers to ship overseas to Ukraine. Veselka also partnered with the human rights non-profit, Razom.

But some staff want to do more for the cause.

“Some of the younger Ukrainian males have expressed interest [in going back home to fight.] They’re perplexed about how the next days are playing out,” he says, adding: “I tried to offer them words of support.” He thinks the best way to help is to raise funds and send them abroad, but he adds, : “If they want to go, I’ll support them.”

Like clockwork, the line begins to wrap around the corner of the restaurant just as it is approaching noon, exactly as Zen said it would. Birchard begins to get up to get back to a busy day of work.

People dine inside Veselka in the East Village on 25 February 2022, in New York City.
People dine inside Veselka in the East Village on 25 February 2022, in New York City. Photograph: Jeenah Moon/AP

He ends with a melancholic plea for optimism: “I’m hopeful that there’ll be larger protests, not only here but around the world,” he says. Birchand is particularly grateful to those protesting in Russia – applauding the bravery it must take to stand up to Putin at home. But, he adds with caution: “How long will they last? And will they make a difference?”

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