It wasn’t one of my finer moments: Falling asleep at a table in Veselka, that is. This was back when my then-boyfriend-now-husband played in a ska band called the New York Citizens; we spent weekend nights consuming unthinkable amounts of post-gig libations, and then attempting in vain to eat off the effects. There was Wo-Hop for greasy noodles, Rosario’s for decent pizza, a cruelly lit cuchifrito stand on lower Houston whose name I really can’t recall, and then there was Veselka. Of all the spots where we filled our gullets at 3 or 4 in the wicked morning, the storied Eastern- European-in-the-East-Village landmark was my favorite.
And unlike those other eateries, long-since avoided, I still go there, stone sober and in broad daylight, for bowls of Ukrainian borscht; blintzes filled with sweet, soft cheese; fat, rice-stuffed cabbage rolls; and thick, butter-slicked, lumpy house-made pierogi (3,000 are churned out daily by four dedicated women in the restaurant’s basement). All worth waiting in the line—ever-present after 2 a.m.—that snakes past the registers when the diner-like space is cluttered with drinkers.
Which is why I’m delighted owner Tom Brichard has just published a cookbook. Not just for the recipes, but for the encapsulation of a wedge of New York history—sidewalks, tables and all.
Back in 1954, when Brichard’s former father-in-law, Wolodymyr Darmochwal, opened it as a wee newsstand and candy shop, Veselka was one of many important spots for the East Village’s post-WWII Ukrainian community. It grew into a restaurant— the kind where coffee mugs and stainless steel spoons clatter and the plates are really platters—but remained on its corner, and while the surrounding neighborhood reinvented itself, the fare has changed little: potato pancakes and bigos and beef stroganoff and lentil soup and coffee and carrot cake.
Authentic recipe or no, I doubt my attempts to recreate the late-night pierogi experience at home will yield the doughy, savory, rib-sticking lumps of salvation I downed way back when, but it’s definitely worth a shot.
The Veselka Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Landmark Restaurant in New York’s East Village, $27.99, St. Martin’s Press. Available at Veselka, 144 Second Avenue, and St. Mark’s Bookshop, 31 Third Avenue. Photo courtesy of St. Martin’s Press.