Shortly after Russia launched its full-scale war on Ukraine, the Veselka restaurant in New York City decided to donate the proceeds of every bowl of borsht sold to the Ukrainian war effort.

The move was a success – even though Veselka (which means “rainbow” in Ukrainian) was successful even before the war.

For a solid 70 years, the Veselka restaurant in Manhattan has held something like a legendary status, offering New Yorkers and tourists, as well as Ukrainian diaspora, an authentic taste of Ukraine. Every day, 3,000 varenyky (handmade dumplings), are prepared there, along with potato pancakes and of course, massive pots of borsht.

It started as a newsstand and candy shop near the corner of East 9th St. and 2nd Ave. on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Bought in 1954 by Volodymyr and Olha Darmochwal, refugees from Ukraine who came to the United States after World War II, the newsstand catered to the Ukrainian community that was flocking into the neighborhood in those years, eventually acquiring the nickname “Little Ukraine.”

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One of the first Veselka murals by artist Arnie Charnick.

 

Over the years, the Darmochwals bought the adjacent luncheonette and began serving traditional Eastern European fare. The neighborhood had always been a magnet for immigrants, but in the 1950s it began attracting bohemian artists and the Beat generation. Poet Allen Ginsberg was a frequent customer after poetry readings at the legendary St. Mark’s Poetry Project two blocks away.

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In the 1960s and ‘70s the hippies came, often after a show at the Filmore East on 2nd Ave. between 6th and 7th Street, and continued where the Beats left off. By the 1980s, when it was open 24/7 the coffee shop was almost a second office for punk stars like Debbie Harry (aka Blondie) and the Ramones, who would come for a meal after late-night gigs at CBGBs a few blocks away on the Bowery.

By the time Veselka celebrated its 50th anniversary, it was an established institution – arguably the hippest old-school diner in the hippest neighborhood of America’s hippest city.

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Veselka in the 1970s. Photo: Veselka Facebook page.

 

Today Veselka is still a family-run business. Since 2020, it’s been owned by Darmochwal’s son-in-law, Tom Birchard, who began working at Veselka in 1967, and run by the founders’ grandson, Jason Birchard. The founders’ son, Mykola Darmochwal, maintains a role as a consultant.

The story of Veselka will now be told and show in a documentary film “Veselka: Rainbow at the Center of the World,” directed by Michael Fiore.

The History

The owner of the restaurant is Tom Birchard. His wife, Marta, was the daughter of Veselka’s founder, the Ukrainian patriot Volodymyr Darmochwal. Together with his wife Olha, they emigrated to the United States from Lviv after World War II and in 1954, the couple founded Veselka.

In 2018, Birchard told Kyiv Post that Volodymyr started modestly, purchasing a tiny shop selling newspapers and candies. The shop also offered hot and cold drinks and snacks. However, as adjacent spaces became available, Volodymyr acquired them, allowing customers to eat at a counter. As the space grew, he added more tables and expanded his menu to include full meals – breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. These were authentic Ukrainian dishes like borsht, varenyky, potato pancakes, and sweet crepe-type pancakes.”

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Jason Birchard inside Veselka.

 

“My father-in-law was a very patriotic man who supported many of the community organizations working for Ukrainian independence and to keep Ukrainian identity alive,” Birchard said.

“We still serve the same dishes. Over the years, the recipes haven’t changed.”

In an interview with Voice of America, Tom Birchard said that over all these years, they managed to maintain the establishment’s national character: “Some people who don't know our history think I’m Ukrainian. And frankly, I’m proud of that.”

Diners in New York’s Veselka restaurant.

 

From a simple kiosk to hollywood movie set and celeb hotspot

In 1980, American national media visited this restaurant for the first time – The Village Voice provided readers with a debut review of Veselka.

During those years, the restaurant’s reputation continued to strengthen.

Veselka frequently appeared in well-known films, such as “Ocean’s 8,” the TV series “Blue Bloods,” the movie “Trust the Man” featuring Julianne Moore and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the series “Gossip Girl.”

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Still from the film “Blue Blood” with Will Estes and Vanessa Ray.

 

Veselka also attracts plenty of famous faces like movie star Robert De Niro, James Bond actor Daniel Craig, and his wife Rachel Weisz, as well as TV personalities like Jon Stewart.

“Some restaurants take photos of famous customers and put them on the walls,” Jason Birchard told Kyiv Post. “But we don’t disturb them and tell our staff to treat them as ordinary customers. They appreciate that and return.”

In 2020, the American magazine Esquire included the Ukrainian restaurant Veselka on the list of “100 Restaurants America Can’t Affort to Lose.”

Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett in “Ocean’s 8.”

 

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Veselka began helping the country. The restaurant’s website includes a section called “Stand with Ukraine,” highlighting its commitment to supporting Ukrainians. It has already managed to raise $500,000.

Jason Birchard standing with Ukraine.

 

“When we started our campaign to help relief efforts in Ukraine, it was beyond our wildest imaginations that we would be able to donate half a million dollars. We would not have been able to do that without you. While we have come so far to help Ukraine, we will continue to make donations through our donation bundles and sales of the SaveUkraine Bowl,” as stated on the restaurant’s website.

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 “Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World.”

Last year, in the United States, a documentary was produced about Veselka and how it mobilized aid to Ukraine. It premiers on Feb. 23, 2024, just in time for the two-year commemoration of the full-scale invasion.

The narrator is Golden Globe-winning and Emmy-nominated actor David Duchovny. He grew up within shouting distance of the restaurant. Duchovny even has Ukrainian roots: his grandfather was from the Zhytomyr region but later immigrated to the US. “I’m grateful for the very meaningful opportunity to lend my voice to a place and a part of the city that’s a big part of my childhood, history, and heritage,” he told the entertainment news outlet Deadline.

The film is directed by New York-based writer-producer-director Michael Fiore, who first became acquainted with Veselka in the late 1990s as a film student at the neighboring NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

“For 70 years, Veselka has been a second kitchen for New York University students, including myself. It has been the vibrant and welcoming heart of the Little Ukraine community and beyond. Today, Veselka’s role, and Tom and Jason Birchard’s, are more vital than ever,” Fiore told Deadline.

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The soundtrack for the film was composed by Ryan Shore, with Grammy-winning saxophonist David Sanborn also part of the musical team.

“I’m so grateful to be asked to participate in this extraordinary documentary about a New York institution, Veselka the legendary Ukrainian restaurant and cultural hub on the lower east side of Manhattan. Now more than ever!” Sanborn said.

“In assembling my creative team,” Fiore said, “it was so important to involve people who love and have experienced both Veselka and the culture of New York City’s Little Ukraine.”

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Comments ( 1)

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Andy
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

Mnohaya lita!
Many years more!

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