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.
Concealed in the basement of the St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, Streecha Ukrainian Kitchen sits, unassuming and quiet; the only indication that it exists is a small sign on the window listing the hours of operation. Inside, however, I found a welcoming little treasure. A fundraising operation run by a small group within the church community, Streecha is like the cozy home of a Ukrainian grandmother. The beige walls are decorated with religious paintings, and there are old photographs and traditional pottery atop shelves with lace coverings. Decorative crosses hang on the walls, an old grain press sits covered in doilies and bundles of wheat are beside the door. It almost felts as though we were at someone else’s family home, a guest for Sunday dinner. The Manhattan Sideways team ordered the varenyky with onions, a typical Ukrainian dumpling, buttery, doughy and filled with potato. As we sat munching on our treats at one of the long, communal style tables, a television in the corner of the room reported the daily Ukrainian news.