If at any time over the past 66 years you’ve walked by the corner Second Avenue and East 9th Street, you know about Veselka. And you probably have a fond memory or twenty of the place: convivial brunches, leisurely afternoon get-togethers, tipsy 2 a.m. plates of pierogis. First opened in 1954 by Wlodymyr Darmochwal, the Ukrainian mainstay Veselka began its run as a newsstand that happened to sell soups and sandwiches, expanding eastward on 9th Street in 1966, mostly so that Darmochwal could have a spot to hang out with his “cronies.”
Darmochwal’s son-in-law Tom Birchard took over Veselka in 1975, and remains active in the operation today with his son and now co-owner Jason, who’s been working here since he was a teenager and managed the overnight crowd in the 1990s when the place first went 24 hours.
Through it all, Veselka has stayed open. Until the coronavirus hit NYC, and the Birchard family personally.
“We decided to close completely, rather than immediately try takeout only, on March 18th, for the safety of our staff as well as our customers,” Jason told Gothamist this week. “Believe it or not, I had mild symptoms the day after we closed and was forced to quarantine, per doctor’s orders. Thankfully it passed quickly for me, and I was never tested at the time due to the lack of tests, but my wife Jessyka was not so lucky. She had a bad bout of Covid-19 for over three weeks.”
But now for the good news: Jason and Jessyka are both “fully recovered” (father Tom and his wife Sally have spent the quarantine healthy and hunkered down in Southern Vermont) and as of last Friday, May 1st, have reopened Veselka for takeout, delivery, and shipping.
“I felt like we were ready, that it was the right thing to do,” says Jason. “We had lots of comments on social media asking when we would reopen, we stayed open during 9/11 as well as Superstorm Sandy, and our customers expect us to serve them comfort food during these uncertain times.”
The takeout Veselka menu is a shortened but extremely welcome array of greatest hits, including five soups, six pierogis, a few sandwiches, some breakfast items, and a half dozen entrees with a choice of the kitchen’s signature sides. I stopped by last Sunday morning to pick up a spread of some personal favorites (no pre-ordering necessary; just stop by if you can) and it’s hard to overstate how happy I felt tucking into these familiar favorites.
The soups, in particular, really hit me right where I needed it. The densely packed, meaty-and-beety Borscht is a NYC hall-of-famer, and the bowl of Matzoh Ball remains one of the best town. Of course they taste really good. But they feel even better, somehow simultaneously evocative of the city’s past (or, at least, my personal journey through it), and also reassuring that the future will be okay. That we’ll make it.
A pierogi quartet—I went with a potato, a cheese, a meat, and a sauerkraut—made for an excellent lunchtime accompaniment to the above. I can never decide if I prefer these plump dumplings fried or boiled, so I ordered both, and both versions traveled, kept, and reheated well at home. Dinner was a massive platter of well-seasoned Beef Stroganoff with two sides, a pile of Beet Salad sharp with horseradish, and one of Veselka’s famous Potato Pancakes.
Nothing can completely replace hitting Veselka at all hours, surrounded by East Village humanity in all of its glorious variety, but at least we have the food again, made with love as always. As Jason says, “What I miss most are the customers who come here day after day, week after week…. but I would remiss if I didn’t tell you that I also really missed the food. I am daily consumer of our Borscht.”
As for the future of Veselka the business, Jason sees reason to hope. “Prior to closing we did a larger business with Goldbelly, where we ship our homemade soups and pierogi across the country, and we have increased and expanded our capacity to meet that demand. We have applied for a PPP loan, and though we have not yet received any news our bank informed me that it looks good. I remain optimistic. As New Yorkers we are resilient, we are strong, and we will survive this.”
Veselka is located at 144 Second Avenue at the corner of East 9th Street, and is currently open for takeout and delivery on Monday through Friday from noon to 8 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (212-228-9682; veselka.com)