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The line to get into Veselka in the East Village is long these days. It sometimes stretches down East Ninth Street and wraps around Second Avenue. This is not unexpected, as the pierogi-slinging diner now functions as a rallying point for solidarity with Ukraine amid an unprovoked Russian war against the Eastern European country. On Saturday, at least one party displayed “Free Ukraine” signs as they waited; others brandished mini blue-and-white flags.
What’s a bit more unexpected, however, are the yellow flyers on each table, displaying two QR codes. They are not, as is the case so often during the pandemic, links to online menus. The flyers instead direct patrons to sites where they can support the Ukrainian army, helping supply them with lethal aid to repel the superpower bombing their residential neighborhoods, killing their civilians, and forcing the displacement of over half a million people to nearby countries.
New Yorkers have patronized Veselka for nearly 70 years, occasionally for trendy reasons — to relive moments from Gossip Girl or Ocean’s 8 — but normally for the purpose of enjoying affordable Ukrainian and American fare. Think: Hot bowls of crimson borscht; steaming pierogies filled with potato, sauerkraut, and short rib; and what I’m told is a pretty good burger. As Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression continues, however, the restaurant has transformed into a cultural hub of a different sort, nourishing folks seeking reminders of their besieged homeland, and letting those not of Eastern European descent find a space to channel their empathy and support as well.
Birchard is using that outpouring of emotions — and the crowds — to encourage philanthropy in very specific way. Restaurant-related giving and activism is common enough; chefs have long served as champions for hunger charities, and have raised funds for a variety of causes. Over the past week in particular, it’s been heartwarming to see the hospitality industry voice messages of support for Ukraine.
A cup of borscht. Ryan Sutton/Eater NY
Veselka’s call to raise funds, by contrast, is a bit more blunt than some of its peers. The moment you see a menu, you’re also greeted with a call to aid the army of a country under attack. One of the QR codes, for the non-profit Razom, leads to a link that lets folks transfer money to help Ukrainians procure ammunition. Other links are for helping citizens buy military-grade vests, helmets, and tactical medical backpacks.
Purchasing deadly weapons of war are likely not what some folks expect to read before tucking into a giant mound of holubtsi, a classic Ukrainian dish of meat stuffed cabbage slathered in mushroom gravy. Then again, eating a meal in complete mental peace sometimes comes second to, well, literally everything else. “We gotta get the word out,” owner Jason Birchard told me during a phone interview on Friday.