The warmly painted walls inside Veselka envelop the room in folky florals and traditional Ukrainian symbols. Hanging from the ceiling are glowing milk glass globes that seem to replace the sun or moon depending on the time of day — and it could be any time at all, as Veselka is open for twenty-four hours, seven days a week, serving a smorgasbord of pierogis, bowls of borscht, and other expertly prepared comfort foods — Ukrainian and otherwise. Wlodymyr Darmochwal planted roots for Veselka when, as one of the founders of the neighborhood Plast organization (akin to the Ukrainian boy scouts, teaching survival skills and Ukrainian language), he was asked to create a weekend study program for the boys. In response, he opened a five-and-dime style counter at the corner of East 9th Street and Second Avenue where the boys could buy paper clips, cigarettes, lighters, and, notably, bowls of borscht and other basic Ukrainian foods. The business expanded into another storefront on East 9th Street a decade later. After Wlodymyr’s passing in 1972, it was taken over by his stepson, Tom Birchard, who was later joined by his son, Jason. Today, having worked at the restaurant since he was a teenager, Jason has “done every single job possible here except cook the borscht. ”When Jason joined the team, one of his first projects was to find out, “How late can we stay open? ” It turns out the answer was “all night. ” As Tom and Jason once again prepare to expand the restaurant into an adjoining storefront on 9th Street, they are eager to continue serving the next generation the kind of traditional Ukrainian food that Wlodymyr would have had at his counter more than sixty years ago.
We decided to grab a quick bite in this historic site while walking one day. Needless to say, the menu was your typical diner fare, the people were all very nice and it was fascinating to hear more about the urban legend surrounding this property. The Mad Hatter, a tea salon, is said to have actually been at this same address frequented by many a scholar and artist. It is believed that this is where the West Village began to adopt its bohemian character. In the mid-1800's the land surrounding the diner, which is now The Golden Swan Garden, was the Golden Swan Cafe, run by Irish prizefighter Thomas Wallace. Among the writers and artists who frequented the saloon was playwright Eugene O'Neill. It is thought that his Iceman Cometh was influenced by those he met at this legendary bar that he and other patrons later coined the "Hell Hole. " Of course, as tales often go, we were unable to get a firm confirmation or denial of any of the fine details. And so, it shall remain the stuff of legends.
Under chef Brando De Oliveira, Brooklyn Diner serves grand portions of "Brooklyn cuisine, " endeavoring to have a menu as diverse as the borough itself. The chef is particularly proud of the kitchen's baked mac & cheese and Chinese chicken salad. The restaurant is decorated with historic Brooklyn paraphernalia, along with a mural of Ebbets Field.
Johny Pilatos started his luncheonette when he was only twenty years old. His father, Larry, had a restaurant down the street, and when the space nearby became available, Johny leaped at the chance to open a business of his own. Though Larry stopped in regularly to help Johny manage the lunch rush or cook specials, this bustling spot known for its breakfast and subs is largely Johny’s brainchild. He began with a simple menu consisting of a handful of American dishes. Yet as inspiration for new recipes came to him, he was quick to expand his offerings. “After a long day, I’d put stuff together at home, and if it was good, I’d sell it at the restaurant. ” All of his sandwich creations are named after his loved ones and pets; luckily, he has a surplus of names to choose from, as he is the doting father of eight children. Of course, he used his own name for his personal favorite — the Sloppy Johny — though he is pleased to say that visitors latch onto any and all of his inventions with equal eagerness.
Many who stand on the corner of 112th Street and Broadway will immediately recognize the facade of Tom's Restaurant. Its iconic sign (minus the "Tom's"! ) was used as the exterior of Monk's Cafe in the television sitcom, Seinfeld. The name of the eatery should also be familiar to those in the folk-pop world: Suzanne Vega wrote a song about Tom's, choosing to call both the track and her album "Tom's Diner. " That is where most people's knowledge stops. After visiting, however, I discovered that it also represents a slice of timeless New York life, with a history of its own. Inside, the diner appears to be identical to how it must have looked fifty to seventy years ago. Tom's Restaurant has existed since the 1940s, when the previous owner, whose last name was Kane, sold it to Thanasi, a Greek immigrant whose name is Anglicized to Thomas. Before the change in ownership, little is known about the establishment. I spoke to Mike Zoulis Sr., who said that based on an old, somewhat blurry photograph, he believes that the place was called "Kane's. " Tom was a hard-worker who, according to Mike, had been in restaurants his whole life. "He worked so hard he had back problems. " One day, Tom hired two Greek employees, one of whom was Minas Zoulis, which is how Mike's family got involved with the business. The restaurant continued to grow, in terms of followers, profits, and physical size: Tom bought the lot next door enlarging the restaurant to twice its original size. As Mike pointed out, however, the kitchen has remained the same - tiny compared to the rest of the space. Eventually, each member of the Zoulis family was given a share of the company. Mike Sr. took over in 1980. I found it interesting that Mike Jr., rather than being Mike Sr. 's son, is his cousin: "In Greece, the first-born takes the name of the paternal grandfather, so there are a lot of Mikes. "As Mike spoke to me, he sat behind the old fashioned cash register, surrounded by a wall of international currency. The sight rivaled that of the cases of muffins on the bar, as well as the red and cream booths, for nostalgia value. Suzanne Vega and Seinfeld memorabilia covered one wall, but otherwise, the diner functions as a neighborhood watering hole, where Columbia students, hospital workers, and local residents can come by for a bite to eat at almost any hour of the day or night. "We're getting people for the food, " Mike said. Instead of Seinfeld and Suzanne Vega fans, the diner gets dedicated diner-lovers. "It may seem surprising, but not to me, " Mike stated, noting that patrons have come to eat at Tom's from as far away as Australia. Mike credits the food quality with what goes into the dishes. After traveling through Europe, he realized, "The purer the ingredients, the better the food. " The pancakes, for example, are still made using the same formula that was created in the 1940s, involving fresh buttermilk and real olive oil. The only thing that has changed is the toppings with the addition of blueberries, chocolate, and banana nut pancakes in the 1990s. As for savory foods, Mikes calls the burgers, "equivalent to the best burgers in the city. ""Tom's is an institution here, " Mike asserted at the end of our conversation. He told me that whenever there is a tragedy or an event that disrupts normal life, whether it is the blackout in the 1970s or 9/11, Tom's is there. "We feel an obligation to the neighborhood, " he said, recalling that a lot of the elderly in the surrounding blocks had nowhere to eat, so Tom's stayed open for them. "Literally generations have grown up here, " Mike said. "Many still think of this as home. "
EJ's Luncheonette has mastered the art of American comfort food... and beyond. This was the go-to spot for my kids in the morning, whenever they spent time with us in our East 73rd Street apartment. The eatery churns out perfectly toasted bagels, omelets, homefries, French toast and pancakes. When in the mood, my family members also appreciated their greasy hamburgers (meant in the most loving way), and my husband was a huge fan of the milkshakes.... while I always appreciated their healthy, vegetarian choices. Sadly, I now live on the Upper West Side, so we do not get here as often, but visiting EJ's with the Manhattan Sideways crew was a real treat. On one visit we met Eric J. Levine, also known as EJ. Despite the fact that his initials are “EJ, ” the restaurant name is also a combination of his plus that of his partner, Jay Silver. While sitting at the counter, he talked about his background, which is also partly his father’s story. Eric explained that his father wanted to open a restaurant/bar in his later life “like every other Jewish businessman with a mid-life crisis. ” Unlike many other men, however, he went through with it. He left his job in the garment district and fell into the restaurant business at fifty-five years old with Dock’s Oyster Bar and Seafood Grill. Growing up, Eric worked in various restaurants, but when he reached adulthood, he tested out a series of different paths. He dropped out of college and became a stockbroker for four years, during which time he “worked 100 hour weeks. ” He then went back to college at NYU. When he dropped out, he told me, “The only business I knew was the restaurant business. ” He opened EJ’s on the Upper West Side in 1990 and became one of the pioneers in resurrecting Amsterdam Avenue. “We were busy day one, ” he said, and the business kept accelerating from there until they sadly closed in 2013 after the lease expired. Although the luncheonette appears to come straight out of the 1950's, Eric opened his second EJ's on the East Side in 1991. His team was comprised of people he had met while spending time at Dock’s. Jay, for example, was the chef at Dock’s and their other partner, Robert Eby, was the General Manager. Eric admitted, “My father was always involved by extension. ” Eric was also inspired by his father, who helped open the restaurant Carmine’s and Angelo & Maxie's Steakhouse. “That’s the whole tree of life, ” Eric said with a smile, reflecting on the two intertwined careers. Eric has branched out to other restaurants throughout the years. He and his partner started a consulting company and owned a few pizzerias that he has since sold. EJ’s on East 73rd, however, is at the core of everything he does. “I guess this is my baby, ” Eric admitted. He is proud to be an independent business, despite how difficult it is. “Being the mom and pop guy... it’s a different environment, ” he said soberly. This is especially the case for a breakfast, lunch, and dinner restaurant. “You always have to be on your toes, ” Eric stated. “People gotta eat! ” He is open every single day of the year. He is often busiest on holidays including Thanksgiving and Christmas, since EJ’s is “the only game in town. ” Eric confessed, however, that he enjoys being at EJ's on the holidays. “It’s the best day to work – people are in great moods. ”EJ’s also has a healthy delivery and catering business, though Eric much prefers it when people come in to eat. He also admitted that while EJ’s is lauded for its breakfast, he would like more people to know about his dinner specials. “All our food’s home cooking, ” he said proudly, adding that EJ’s is the closest thing the Upper East Side has to a casual seafood restaurant – it is one of the few places where a customer can get a fresh piece of fish for $20. EJ's menu continues to evolve in an effort to suit people’s taste. Eric sited an example of having recently removed the egg cream from the menu, since no one was ordering it anymore. He has now added a power smoothie with flax seed and greek yogurt. The cooking staff presented us with their latest endeavor - gluten-free pancakes, along with their classic spaghetti and meatballs. “There’s a lot of love and attention put into it... We make food to make people happy. ” When I questioned Eric about his continued passion for running the restaurant, he reigned in the emotion like a true New Yorker and quipped, “It’s better than being in a dentist’s office! ”
A beloved relic of New York history, Old John's Diner has served comfort food and smiles since 1951. Originally nestled on the corner of 66th and Broadway, this unassuming eatery quickly became a haven for stars and locals alike. When the building was acquired by Barnes and Noble in 1998, Old John's was forced to relocate just one block north to 67th street. After weathering nearly 70 years in business, the diner was another casualty of the pandemic, shuttering in 2020. But die-hard fans and a former employee refused to let this gem fade into history. Louis Skibar, who first served tables at Old John's as a teen, reopened and revitalized the diner in 2021. Staying true to its Art Deco roots, Skibar preserved touches like the original mosaic tile floors and ceiling while giving the space a brighter, lighter feel. The revamped bar area and menu offer a fresh take, but Old John's remains the cozy, familial restaurant generations have loved. With longtime staff welcoming customers like old friends, Old John's continues being a home away from home on 67th street. This Upper West Side fixture has earned its place in New York history.