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

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In New York’s East Village neighborhood, home to a wide array of popular restaurants and bars, has been a staple of the city’s famed food scene for decades. Veselka, located in a small pocket of the region once known as “Little Ukraine”, now sits on the corner of food and international politics.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has displaced millions of people and forced ordinary citizens to take up arms or flee across borders to safety. These problems affect not just Ukrainians, but thousands of their loved ones abroad, including some at this beloved New York restaurant.

The violence, which began on February 24, struck a chord with New Yorkers, Ukrainians or not. Crowds of anti-war protesters waving blue and yellow flags have staged demonstrations in Times Square, the West Village and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn (home to a large Ukrainian-American community) since the violence began.

Here in Veselka, those who don’t know how to help do what they know best: eat.

One Wednesday morning at 10:30 a.m., a line is already forming around the corner. The menu, consisting of pierogies, hash browns and borscht, is not normally considered brunch. A homemade poster “Ukraine belongs to the Ukrainians” greets customers as they enter. Leaflets urging patrons to support Ukraine are handed out and pasted to the building’s towering windows: ‘Eat Borscht – Stand with Ukraine’ reads a poster, noting that 100% of recipes made from the famous borscht soup The restaurant’s bright red beets are donated to help Ukraine.

People wait outside Ukrainian restaurant Veselka in New York City recently. Photography: Sipa USA/Alamy

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

“We love Veselka. We have been here several times. We thought we were just coming to support the community,” she says.

Artie Athas orders borscht to pick up his friend, before visiting him in the hospital. Athas lives a few blocks from the restaurant and is a frequent customer, but said recent events have forced him to visit more.

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

Veselka is small by most dining standards, but big for New York’s East Village neighborhood. Colorful artwork adorns the pink walls of this lively establishment. Its tin ceiling is painted dark green.

The hostess, named Zen, has worked in Veselka for five years. She tells a man inquiring about a table that there’s “a bit of a wait, but it shouldn’t be more than 10 minutes.”

Veselka is small by most dining standards, but big for New York's East Village neighborhood.
Veselka is small by most dining standards, but big for New York’s East Village neighborhood. Photography: John Nacion/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

“Things pick up around noon,” she explains, though it’s hard to imagine what it would be like if things were busier.

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

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

Birchard refuses to refer to Vladimir Putin by name when speaking – instead he frequently calls him a “madman”.

“He doesn’t deserve 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 1940s. , he opened a small newsstand in 1954 which eventually evolved into Veselka.

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

The past two years have been devastating for the global restaurant industry due to the Covid-19 pandemic and Veselka has been no exception. Birchard painfully remembers being completely closed for eight weeks in 2020. Today, Birchard is grateful for the influx of customers showing their support, but feels sadness for his emotionally distressed staff over their loved ones back home. Birchard’s own aunt lives in a remote village in Ukraine and he worries about what life will be like for her under Russian rule.

Birchard said it was the staff, almost half of whom are Ukrainians, who started efforts to collect donations for the war. The restaurant collects items such as batteries, socks, underwear and diapers to ship overseas to Ukraine. Veselka has also partnered with Razom, a non-profit human rights organization.

But some staff members want to do more for the cause.

“Some of the young Ukrainian men have expressed interest [in going back home to fight.] They are puzzled as to how the next few days are going,” he said, 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 adds: “If they want to go, I will support them.

Like clockwork, the line begins to wind around the corner of the restaurant just as it approaches noon, just as Zen had said. Birchard begins to get up to resume a busy day at work.

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

He ends with a melancholy plea for optimism: “I’m hopeful that there will be bigger protests, not only here, but all over the world,” he says. Birchard is especially grateful to those protesting in Russia — applauding the bravery it takes to stand up to Putin at home. But, he adds cautiously: “How long will they last? And will they make a difference?

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