Let’s dial back to the 1980s, when the East Village was a far different place. It was a time when hippies and even beats still walked the psychedelic streets; when every other nocturnal pedestrian seemed to be lugging a guitar; when the ghost of Charlie Parker still hovered over Tompkins Square; when Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol were common sightings; and when, at the Nuyorican Poets Café, the poetry slam was just being invented.
Back then, people didn’t eat out nearly as often, and when they did, it was often just a slice of pizza. Most restaurants in the East Village were small affairs, and tended to be Ukrainian, Polish, Puerto Rican, Jewish, or Sicilian; there were probably 30 to 40 in total. Only a small proportion were open after 6 p.m., since most restaurant meals were consumed by workers who ate a quick breakfast or lunch, but went home for dinner.
Odessa, the East Village’s long-running late-night diner, was one of the neighborhood’s most prominent refectories back then, a space casually frequented by working-class stiffs and their families — as well as counter-culture types, who were a little self-conscious about going inside.
The original location closed in 2013, and the Odessa that remained was closed in mid-March for the pandemic. It reopened in early April for carryout, but apparently has had trouble making a go of it. On Sunday, July 19, the place will serve its last plate of potato pierogies with sour cream and applesauce.
Named after a port on the Black Sea and reflecting the neighborhood’s Ukrainian immigrant population in the latter half of the last century, Odessa has been located right across the street from Tompkins Square Park in one form or another since at least 1980, and is now owned by Mike Skulikidis, who is currently also the landlord. He bought the restaurant in that year, and by the aughts, a bar had been added right next door. It is that space that currently houses the restaurant.
While much of the menu was standard for a Greek diner, Ukrainian food has always been a co-specialty, and in 1980 it dominated the menu. This fare included breaded cutlets of veal and pork, stuffed cabbage, potato pancakes, and pierogies and blintzes with various sweet and savory fillings. Famously, during much of its existence, the Odessa was open 24 hours on weekends, which was unusual in a neighborhood where nearly every restaurant closed by 10 p.m. or midnight at the latest.
At the time, there were 10 or 12 Ukrainian and Polish cafes in the East Village serving a virtually identical meal, consisting of a main focus like meatloaf, kielbasa, pork chops, or paprika-roast chicken, all ladled from a vertical steam table that had drawers like a dresser, from which steam billowed out as plates were assembled. Alongside came two scoops of mashed potatoes and a canned vegetable of your choice (pick green beans). Buckets of brown gravy came on the side or poured over the top, at your discretion.
The Odessa was prominent among those places. It, along with an establishment called Leshko’s (1957 to 1999) a few storefronts south, and the Kiev (1970s to 2007), over at Second Avenue and Seventh Street, were the neighborhood’s sole late-night dining choices in 1980.
At any of these three Ukrainian places, which were small oases of light late into the night, you would nearly always bump into friends while downing a cheap meal. One could sit at the formica counter in one of these places and eat a belt-busting spread served with rye or challah (itself representative of the neighborhood’s lingering Jewish presence) for $3.50 or $4. None served alcohol at the time, if I recall correctly. Each place had its adherents. Leshko’s was slightly cheaper, but it was also filthier. Its bill of fare was more adventuresome, and its cabbage soup and boiled beef were the stuff of legend.
Kiev was more consistently open later, and was more popular among musicians. One could see members of Sonic Youth there, or saxophonists Henry Threadgill and John Zorn, along with rafts of students carrying leatherette portfolios from Parsons, SVA, and Cooper Union, the art schools that seemed to suck up a large proportion of Alphabet City’s cheap housing.
I always felt that the food was not as good at the Kiev, which over the decade annexed two or three more ground-floor apartments in adjacent tenements, as it sought to expand and dominate the East Village’s hip dining scene. Eventually, beer was served. I found the mashed potatoes a little too anemic and gritty, and came to dread seeing past musical associates there and having to piece together conversations with them while tripping on psilocybin.
So, during the 1980s, Odessa was my place. I can’t say the food was consistently good. It wasn’t. Most of us didn’t expect our food to be great back then, and didn’t seek out dishes that had been prepared in chefly fashion. But the combination of convenience and familiarity was a powerful lure, and when cheapness was added, the compact was sealed.
In 2015 I made my last visit to the Odessa, with an art student friend visiting from Vietnam, to whom I wanted to show what food had been like in an earlier East Village. It was a blustery winter’s day in late January, and the premises, much larger than it was in 1980, was about one-third filled with diners, many choosing to keep their bulky coats and hats on while dining.
Drawn from the standard diner menu, the tuna melt was fine, though the tuna underneath seemed a little tired. The Odessa special ($13), however, was fantastic, and we both fell upon it like rabid dogs. It consisted of tomato-drenched stuffed cabbage, a crisp potato pancake, four fried pierogies, and a hank of kielbasa, oozing paprika oil and flinging off strong smells of garlic.
It was like a time capsule and a love letter to the East Village of three decades earlier. But even then, I could see that the restaurant’s days were numbered. Not only was the value of frontage on Tompkins Square zooming, but this kind of food was becoming increasingly less popular. Yes, you can still get it at places like Veselka (opened 1954), but now the troika of Kiev, Leshko’s, and Odessa will all be shuttered, depriving the East Village and its arts scene of an important vestige of its culinary history.