It was established in 1954 by post-World War II Ukrainian refugees Wolodymyr and Olha Darmochawal and is one of the last of the many Slavic restaurants that once proliferated the neighborhood. A cookbook, published in October 2009 by St. Martin’s Press, highlights more than 120 of the restaurant’s Eastern European recipes.
A sister restaurant, Veselka Bowery, on East 1st Street and Bowery, opened in November 2011.
In 1954, the Darmochwals purchased a candy shop and newsstand at Second Avenue and East 9th Street in New York City in an effort to help the Ukrainian Youth Organization purchase the building that housed its headquarters. Wolodymyr Darmochwal gave this venture the moniker ‘’Veselka’’ – the Ukrainian word for rainbow.
In 1960, Mr. Darmochwal combined the candy store and newsstand with an adjacent luncheonette.
In the following years, as the East Village became known as the Haight-Ashbury of the east coast, Veselka became a social center for a cross-section of the community that included old-world tradition and new-world counterculture.
By the time that New York City’s economic crisis hit in the 1970s, Veselka was a fixture in the neighborhood. It was able to expand during the economic recovery of the 1980s, at which time the row of phone booths at the rear of the restaurant came to be used as informal office space for East Village performance artists.
The 1980s, Veselka began receiving reviews and awards that spread its reputation beyond its immediate neighborhood. That reputation was further cemented when the restaurant was used as a location for the films Trust the Man (2006) and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) and memorialized in the songs "Veselka Diner" by Doctor Rokit and “Veselka” by Greta Gertler, which was National Public Radio’s “Song of the Day” on January 24, 2008. Veselka is also featured in City of Fallen Angels, the fourth book in Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments series.
Veselka produces 3,000 pierogis by hand every day and uses 500 pounds of beets to make 5,000 gallons of borscht every week. The restaurant has attracted notable patrons including musician Ryan Adams, artist Sally Davies, director Bart Freundlich, performance artist Penny Arcade, comedian Jon Stewart and actors Julianne Moore, Chris Noth, Parker Posey, Justin Long and Debra Messing (who considers Veselka her “late-night mainstay” and her “absolute favorite place").
Veselka remains a family-run business: it is currently owned by Mr. Darmochwal’s son-in-law, Tom Birchard, who began working at Veselka in 1967, and run by the founder’s grandson, Jason Birchard. The founder’s son, Mykola Darmochwal, maintains a role as consultant.
Veselka continues to support the needs of neighborhood residents and Eastern European immigrants: in 1994, its kitchen staff included four doctors, three from Ukraine and one from Poland, who had recently arrived in the United States.
Reviews and awards
Reviews of Veselka in traditional press highlight its comfort food menu and describe the restaurant as a destination for late-night diners. After a renovation in 1995, The New York Times reassured regulars that the restaurant had not changed its menu. Representative awards include:
- “Best Comfort Food” from AOL CITY GUIDE in 2005.
- “Best Late Night Dining Award” from Time Out Magazine in 1996 and 2003.
- “Best Salad Under $10” from New York Press, 2001
- “Best East Village Diner” from New York Press, 1998 and 2000
- “Best Ukrainian Diner” from New York Press, 1999
- “Best Borscht In The City” from New York Magazine, 1997
- “Best Mushroom Barley Soup” from New York Press, 1990
Little Veselka, located in New York City's First Park, was a concession of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. It was operated by Veselka and offered a limited menu – primarily sandwiches named for famous Ukrainians including Andy Warhol (the Andy Warhola), Leon Trotsky, Rinat Akhmetov, Milla Jovovich and Leonid Stadnik. It closed in 2011.
A sister restaurant, Veselka Bowery, located on East 1st Street and Bowery, opened in November 2011. Veselka Bowery offered a more “upscale” version of the Ukrainian comfort food that remains a staple of the menu of the original Veselka. It also offered an expansive drink menu and a selection of dozens of Eastern European vodkas. Veselka Bowery ran from November, 2011 to April, 2013.