Veselka looks, smells and tastes like Grandma’s house. The scent of fresh bread, roasting meat and onions waft from the kitchen. You can see the bustle of 2nd Avenue through the floor-to-ceiling windows from the cozy banquettes in the dining room. It’s bustling inside too, but the energy is different. Homier, more comforting.
“My grandma would always have a tablecloth on her table,” says co-owner Jason Birchard, gesturing at Veselka’s gleaming wooden tabletops. “But the food is supposed to be reminiscent of her cooking.” Jason is the third generation of his family to operate Veselka. His grandparents, Wolodymyr and Olha Darmochwal, first started serving sandwiches and soups from a corner newsstand in 1954 after immigrating from Ukraine. Under Wolodymyr and Jason’s father, Tom Birchard, Veselka became the local gathering place — first for the East Village’s burgeoning Eastern European community; then the Beatniks, artists and punk musicians; then the students and young professionals attracted to the neighborhood’s cheap rent. All have been welcomed without reservation.
We take you hour by hour at Veselka to see what it’s like running a 24-hour business.
Diners are quick to notice the words painted on the wall: “Veselka is love.” That’s what eating here feels like. Change is the only certainty about New York, especially the East Village, but you can count on being fed stick-to-your-ribs Ukrainian soul food at any hour of the day here on the corner of 2nd Ave and 9th Street.
11:00 pm – 1:00 am:
The night owls trickle in. First come the bartenders, waiters and cooks looking for a quick bite after their shifts and later, college students and club and concert goers. Veselka has been the East Village’s default late-night destination since 1991, when Jason and Tom noticed the area’s growing nightlife and experimented by staying open 24 hours on weekends. It was an instant success, and they transitioned to 24/7 by the next spring.
“There was just so much to do around here — bars, Webster Hall concerts, dance clubs,” he explains. “We already paid the bills to stay open and the lights were on, so keeping the gas on for six more hours was not a big expense.”
While the breakfast and dinner menu is available at all hours of the day, late-night patrons can also order from a special menu of dishes like a patty melt, latkes smothered with goulash and pierogies topped with bacon and onions. “It’s greasy and carb-laden, exactly what they’re looking for,” Jason says.
Behind the scenes, deliveries roll in from Veselka’s network of local suppliers. Milk comes from Bartlett Dairy in the Hudson Valley, meat from M&M Meats in Brooklyn and coffee beans (specially roasted for Veselka) from Longo Coffee in Williamsburg. The East Village Meat Market just across the street has been supplying Veselka with smoked kielbasa and other meats for six decades.
Over the next eight hours, pastry chef and Culinary Institute of America graduate Lisa Straub and her team will fill the pastry case with trays of challah, babka, rugelach, muffins, danishes and other desserts like kutya, a sweet wheatberry pudding. Challah is a staple in Veselka’s kitchen, and it’s served as french toast, sandwiches, a side to soups or even just on its own.
In a nod to the New York part of Veselka’s roots, Lisa also makes a selection of beloved American treats inspired by her mother’s recipes. These include sour cream cheesecake, cherry crumb pie and Jason’s favorites: apple crumb cake and raspberry apricot bars.
The rest of the staff begins to trickle in: prep cooks, daytime servers and Veselka’s legendary borscht lady and longest tenured employee, Malgorcata Sibilski. To say that Veselka’s borscht is a Lower East Side institution would be an understatement. They serve 5,000 gallons every year, and Chopped host Ted Allen has called it “the best thing I ever ate in a bowl.”
Malgorcata has perfected this iconic dish over 35 years in Veselka’s kitchen. There is no recipe — just a pinch of this, a pinch of that, patience and good instinct to know when the taste is just right. She prepares each 80-gallon batch over two days, simmering the key ingredients — beets and pork — separately to create a rich stock before adding vegetables and white vinegar. Served hot in winter and cold in summer with a side of challah and sour cream, it’s the perfect dish for any weather or mood.
9:00 – 11:00 am:
By now, breakfast is in full swing. Some patrons pop in for coffee and a pastry to go, while cooks churn out fluffy pancakes and giant omelets for the sit-down crowd. You can get your typical diner fare here, but don’t expect it without a Veselka twist. Omelets come with a side of potato pancakes or kasha (buckwheat groats) and are served with a thick slice of home-baked challah. At weekend brunch, when each of the dining room’s 90 seats and the 29 chairs outdoors stays filled for hours, the kitchen cooks up hybrids like salmon latka eggs benedict or blintzes (Ukrainian-style crepes) filled with lightly sweetened cheese. If you want borscht for breakfast, that’s available too.
The tables are laden with steaming bowls of chicken noodle soup and goulash and platters piled high with pierogies and beef stroganoff. It’s no surprise that these traditional dishes are some of the most popular items on the menu. The sleeper hit is the burger, charbroiled perfectly medium rare, that has won a loyal following among locals, foodies and press alike.
In the afternoon, the kitchen’s focus turns to pierogi, classic Eastern European dumplings that Veselka boils or fries and serves with a generous side of sour cream and sauteed onions. The menu has one seasonal special and seven different stalwarts: from classic combinations like potato, cheese, or meat, to creative twists like sweet potato, sauerkraut and mushroom, and arugula and goat cheese.
Pierogies may be simple peasant food, but they’re hard to get right. The egg and flour-based dough should be delicate and tender — not too thin that it rips, but not too thick that it overwhelms the taste of the filling. Here, the intricate process falls to a team of five ladies who churn out thousands of perfectly crimped pierogies five days a week. Though Jason has done almost every other job at Veselka, he knows this is a job left to the pros.
“The ladies can crimp three in the time I do one,” he says.
3:00 – 4:00 pm:
Snack time. The Birchards pride themselves on making Veselka an equally welcoming place for a full feast or just an afternoon cup of coffee — best enjoyed with a thick slice of Ukrainian poppyseed bread or babka.
6:00 – 8:00 pm:
The tables are full when dinner rolls around again. The cooks boil pierogies and dish up bigos (hunter’s stew) with precision under the watchful eye of executive chef Dmytro Martseniuk. In a few hours, the night staff will arrive and soon, so will the post-bar crowd. Then the locals popping in for coffee, then the tourists seeking a slice of classic New York, the Ukrainian immigrants seeking a taste of home, the young foodies in search of affordable, reliable weekend brunch. In six decades, the restaurant has welcomed every kind of clientele as the neighborhood around it changed.
Jason doesn’t know exactly why his grandfather chose the name “Veselka,” Ukrainian for “rainbow.” But he has a theory. Though he was a staunch patriot, Wolodymyr passed away before Ukraine gained independence in 1991. “I think maybe he thought that by starting a business here, starting anew in America,” Jason says, “he would hopefully find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
By the numbers:
- 800 – 1,000 people served per day
- 250 pounds of beets per batch of bortsch
- 5,000 gallons of bortsch served per year
- 3,000 pierogies made by hand per day
- 2,500 potato pancakes served per week
- 85 people on staff (a majority of servers have been there over 5 years, and a majority of kitchen staff, over 10 years)