'Veselka' Review: Come for the Pierogis, Stay for the Freedom

It’s not every day I get to review a documentary about a subject I feel personally close to, so let me put my bias right out there. “Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World” is a movie about one of my favorite New York restaurants — and, in fact, countless New Yorkers feel the same way. When you walk into Veselka, the legendary Ukrainian restaurant/diner on the corner of 2nd Ave. and E. 9th St., a vibe of warmth envelops you. I’ve spent endless hours hanging out there, nursing a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, writing on my laptop, chowing down on the magically tasty dishes that the purveyors call Ukrainian soul food: the pierogis that melt in your mouth, the potato pancakes that are crisp salty heaven, the succulent meatballs and rolled cabbage, the high-octane borscht, not to mention all the sublime American fare, including a burger I’d put up against any burger in New York.

As Veselka devotees will tell you, the welcoming aura of the place ­— the lack of pretense, the gorgeous murals and knickknacks, the extraordinary friendliness of the staff, many of whom are Ukrainian — feeds right into the savoriness of the cuisine. Veselka is a place of love where the food is made from love; you can’t separate the two. For years, the restaurant stayed open 24 hours a day, mostly to cater to the world of East Village night crawlers (it had to cut back on hours starting in the pandemic). One of the most memorable images I have of Veselka is when I sat down at around midnight to have a late dinner and write a piece at one of the back tables. I got immersed in what I was doing and didn’t leave, or even look up, until around 4:00 a.m. When I walked out, every table in the place was full; it felt not like a scraggly after-hours crowd but like a 7:00 p.m. Friday-night dinner crowd. At Veselka (the name is Ukrainian for “rainbow”), the deliciousness, the casual joy, and the love all go around the clock.

“Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World” pays enthusiastic tribute to Veselka’s place in the city, and to its 70-year history as a family restaurant. On some level, it’s a tale of ego, money, and real estate, and the details of how the restaurant runs are fascinating. Yet this was a documentary shot, for the most part, after the start of the war in Ukraine, and the way Veselka has confronted the war — raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in charity by donating all its borscht sales, acting as a sponsor for Ukrainian citizens to come to the United States — is more than just part of the story the movie is telling. It becomes the central story.

Some of this is noble and stirring. The neighborhood in which Veselka is located was once known as Little Ukraine, and though there are fewer Ukrainians living there than there were decades ago, the area retains its identity. Veselka, during the two years the war has gone on, has become a kind of beacon for the pride and fighting spirit of Ukraine.

Yet as moving as parts of the documentary are, I’ll be honest and say that I couldn’t escape the feeling that Michael Fiore, who wrote, produced, directed, and edited it, should have cut back on some of this stuff and done a more complete job of telling the inside story of the restaurant itself. Veselka is a place that would anchor a great segment of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” There’s a 12-minute video on YouTube that goes into the restaurant’s kitchen and shows you, with a Guy Fieri-like eagerness, how the sausage gets made. I found it a little odd that I learned five times as much about the food at Veselka from that video than I did from a 106-minute documentary about the place. I’m not saying that a pierogi recipe is more important, in the grand human scheme of things, than Ukraine’s — and in many ways, by extension, the Western world’s — fight for freedom in this terrible and heroic war. But “Veselka” is a documentary about a restaurant. The movie should have given us a more detailed sense of why, exactly, people come there.

Veselka started, on that same corner, as a candy store. It was opened in 1954 by Wolodymyr Darmochwal, a postwar Ukrainian refugee who became the immigrant patriarch of the family business. His daughter had the temerity to marry an American. But her husband, Tom Birchard, though he had a preppie aura (think Matthew Modine in nerd glasses), almost became a kind of honorary Ukrainian. He started working at Veselka in 1967 and ultimately took over the family business, expanding the place into a bigger and bigger diner, and employing what he says is the secret of a great restaurant: that it’s all about the details (like having terrific coffee). He virtually lived at the place, which was hard on his family, but his son, Jason, starting busing tables there as a teenager, and it’s Jason Birchard, Veselka’s third-generation owner, who’s the central character in the film. He’s half-Ukrainian, and therefore more Ukrainian than his father, and that’s one of the many sources of tension between the two.

We meet the feisty Ukrainian ladies who make the pierogis in the basement kitchen, and we learn a lot about the restaurant’s history, like how it nearly closed down in the ’70s due to construction of the 2nd Ave. subway line, which practically came up to Veselka’s door; fortunately, that subway was abandoned. There are scenes with New York Governor Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams visiting the restaurant (Adams, between listening to stories of the war, chooses an odd moment to say how easy he finds his job). We also meet the devoted Ukrainian workers who keep the place going, like the taciturn chef Dima or the charismatically austere operations manager Vitalii Desiatnychenko, who is haunted by the war he has lost so many friends in. Can Vitalii, with Jason’s help, get his mother to come from Ukraine to America? She does, though it’s a more complex situation than we first think, since his father is still over there.

Around the time “Veselka” takes a detour to Coney Island to follow the fortunes of the visiting Ukrainian baseball team, the consciousness of the war more or less takes over the movie. Given the scale of the tragedy, it’s not like this is inappropriate. Yet the film’s attitude seems to be: Come for the pierogis and goulash, stay for the humanitarian valor. Fair enough, but I wish the movie had drawn a deeper connection between the taste of freedom and the taste of Veselka.

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