The line to get into Veselka in the East Village is long these days. It sometimes stretches down East Ninth Street and wraps around Second Avenue. This is not unexpected, as the pierogi-slinging diner now functions as a rallying point for solidarity with Ukraine amid an unprovoked Russian war against the Eastern European country. On Saturday, at least one party displayed “Free Ukraine” signs as they waited; others brandished mini blue-and-white flags.
What’s a bit more unexpected, however, are the yellow flyers on each table, displaying two QR codes. They are not, as is the case so often during the pandemic, links to online menus. The flyers instead direct patrons to sites where they can support the Ukrainian army, helping supply them with lethal aid to repel the superpower bombing their residential neighborhoods, killing their civilians, and forcing the displacement of over half a million people to nearby countries.
New Yorkers have patronized Veselka for nearly 70 years, occasionally for trendy reasons — to relive moments from Gossip Girl or Ocean’s 8 — but normally for the purpose of enjoying affordable Ukrainian and American fare. Think: Hot bowls of crimson borscht; steaming pierogies filled with potato, sauerkraut, and short rib; and what I’m told is a pretty good burger. As Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression continues, however, the restaurant has transformed into a cultural hub of a different sort, nourishing folks seeking reminders of their besieged homeland, and letting those not of Eastern European descent find a space to channel their empathy and support as well.
Birchard is using that outpouring of emotions — and the crowds — to encourage philanthropy in very specific way. Restaurant-related giving and activism is common enough; chefs have long served as champions for hunger charities, and have raised funds for a variety of causes. Over the past week in particular, it’s been heartwarming to see the hospitality industry voice messages of support for Ukraine.
Veselka’s call to raise funds, by contrast, is a bit more blunt than some of its peers. The moment you see a menu, you’re also greeted with a call to aid the army of a country under attack. One of the QR codes, for the non-profit Razom, leads to a link that lets folks transfer money to help Ukrainians procure ammunition. Other links are for helping citizens buy military-grade vests, helmets, and tactical medical backpacks.
Purchasing deadly weapons of war are likely not what some folks expect to read before tucking into a giant mound of holubtsi, a classic Ukrainian dish of meat stuffed cabbage slathered in mushroom gravy. Then again, eating a meal in complete mental peace sometimes comes second to, well, literally everything else. “We gotta get the word out,” owner Jason Birchard told me during a phone interview on Friday. “It’s not just a war against Ukraine; it’s a war against the free world.”
Few, if any, European countries suffered like Ukraine did during the 20th century. In the 1930s, millions died under Stalin’s forced collectivization and subsequent famines, known as the Holodomor. Millions more perished under the Nazi occupation, including as part of Hitler’s systematic murder of Jewish populations. The republic of nearly 42 million people, freed from Soviet rule in 1991, now faces a new humanitarian disaster, as Russia launches a war against the country under false pretenses of “denazification.” Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish; three of his great uncles were executed during the Holocaust, the Washington Post reports.
The part of the city that Veselka resides in is no longer called Little Ukraine, but New York is still home to the country’s largest population of residents from that country, numbering about 150,000 or so. Across the street on Second Avenue is the East Village Meat Market, a Ukrainian butcher that sells assorted sausages and paczki. And next door to Veselka is the no-frills Ukrainian East Village Restaurant; on Saturday a line stretched well past the neon-lit entrance, something this restaurant rarely sees.
About 40 percent of Veselka’s staff is Ukrainian, and, as I reported early on in the pandemic, it’s not uncommon for them to send back money to their families overseas. Employees are now seeing their fathers and brothers called up to the front lines, according to Birchard. He says the sentiment among staffers ranges from frightened to scared to angry, though a lot of them want to be around one another to commiserate. One manger is feeling burnt out, Birchard says, while another staffer recently asked to delay coming to work to attend church services and pray.
Birchard says he received a round of applause as he hung up the Ukrainian flag in the dining room last week.
The fact that a place like Veselka exists at all constitutes a feat. It is a perennially packed, family-owned diner in a city where those affordable institutions are dwindling in numbers. And it is a diner that resists the generic tendencies of those everyday institutions, thriving instead with a menu that specializes in affordable Ukrainian food. One of the most expensive dishes, the $20 meat plate, includes four pierogies, a large stuffed cabbage, a slice of kielbasa, and a cup of borscht teeming with sweet beets and heady short rib. It’s hard for me to think about how everything tastes during times like these, but what I will say is this: The meat plate will feed you.
As banks replace coffee shops and as independent restaurants sometimes give way to fast food chains, one can’t help but wonder what New York would feel like if there wasn’t a Veselka, a so-called third place to let folks gather, eat, grieve, and maybe relax just a bit — especially as the very existence of Ukraine remains in jeopardy. That relaxation, of course, will not occur without awareness. Even those who order takeout via the website will have to first close out of a pop-up that directs folks toward supporting the Ukrainian army and other causes related to the invasion. At Veselka, the war is front and center.