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‘Veselka: Embrace the Pierogis, Revel in the Freedom’ Review: A Culinary Haven with a Message

A documentary spotlighting the renowned Ukrainian restaurant transforms into a depiction of wartime heroism.

Veselka: The Rainbow at the Corner

Rarely do I have the opportunity to critique a documentary that holds personal significance for me. So, let me acknowledge my bias upfront. “Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World” delves into the story of one of my beloved New York eateries — a sentiment shared by countless others. Upon entering Veselka, the iconic Ukrainian diner situated on the corner of 2nd Ave. and E. 9th St., one is embraced by a palpable warmth. Over the years, I’ve whiled away numerous hours there, savoring cups of coffee or glasses of wine, typing away on my laptop, and relishing in the delectable dishes affectionately dubbed Ukrainian soul food: from the mouthwatering pierogis to the crispy, savory potato pancakes, and the richly flavored borscht. And let’s not forget the delightful American offerings, including a burger that competes with the best in New York City.

For those loyal to Veselka, the restaurant’s inviting atmosphere — characterized by its lack of pretension, charming murals and trinkets, and the genuinely warm demeanor of its predominantly Ukrainian staff — is inseparable from the delectable cuisine it serves. Veselka embodies a place of affection where food is crafted with care; the two are intertwined. Operating around the clock for years, Veselka catered to the vibrant East Village nightlife scene (though its hours were reduced during the pandemic). One particularly vivid memory I have of Veselka is sitting down for a late dinner and writing session around midnight. Engrossed in my work, I didn’t glance up until around 4:00 a.m. Upon leaving, I was struck by the bustling atmosphere — every table occupied, not with weary late-night stragglers, but with diners enjoying a lively Friday night dinner. At Veselka (the Ukrainian word for “rainbow”), the delightfulness, the relaxed merriment, and the affection flow seamlessly around the clock.

“Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World” passionately celebrates Veselka’s integral role in the city and its 70-year legacy as a cherished family-owned restaurant. While it delves into the intricacies of running the establishment, exploring themes of ego, finances, and urban real estate, the documentary takes on a deeper resonance given the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. Veselka’s response to the conflict — from raising significant charity funds through borscht sales to sponsoring Ukrainian citizens seeking refuge in the United States — transcends mere narrative detail to become the heart of the film’s story.

While “Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World” captures the noble and stirring response of Veselka to the war in Ukraine, it may have missed the mark in fully exploring the restaurant’s inner workings. Directed, produced, and edited by Michael Fiore, the documentary could have benefited from a more focused examination of Veselka itself. Although the neighborhood’s Ukrainian heritage and Veselka’s role as a symbol of pride and resilience are important aspects, the film could have provided a more comprehensive look into what makes the restaurant so beloved. While acknowledging the significance of Veselka’s support for Ukraine, the documentary might have delved deeper into the culinary expertise and community atmosphere that draw people to the establishment. While the geopolitical context is undoubtedly significant, a documentary about a restaurant should also offer insights into its culinary traditions and appeal to patrons.

“Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World” traces its origins back to 1954 when it first opened its doors as a candy store on the same corner where it stands today. Founded by Wolodymyr Darmochwal, a Ukrainian refugee seeking a new beginning after the war, Veselka quickly became a beacon of immigrant entrepreneurship. Despite initial resistance to his daughter’s marriage to an American, Tom Birchard, the family business flourished under his leadership. Embracing the ethos of attention to detail, Birchard transformed Veselka into a bustling diner renowned for its exceptional coffee and authentic Ukrainian soul food.

Birchard’s dedication to Veselka was unwavering, often at the expense of time with his family. However, his son, Jason Birchard, became deeply involved in the restaurant from a young age, eventually assuming a central role as the third-generation owner. Straddling his Ukrainian heritage and American upbringing, Jason’s dynamic with his father serves as a focal point in the documentary, highlighting generational tensions and the evolution of Veselka’s legacy.

The documentary offers glimpses into Veselka’s bustling basement kitchen, where spirited Ukrainian women craft the iconic pierogis that have become synonymous with the restaurant’s identity. Delving into its storied history, the film recounts a pivotal moment in the ’70s when Veselka faced the threat of closure due to the construction of the 2nd Ave. subway line, which loomed perilously close to its doorstep. Fortunately, the project was abandoned, sparing the beloved diner from potential demise.

Throughout the documentary, notable figures like New York Governor Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams make appearances, underscoring Veselka’s significance in the cultural fabric of the city. Amidst their visits, poignant interactions with dedicated Ukrainian staff members, such as the enigmatic chef Dima and the steadfast operations manager Vitalii Desiatnychenko, shed light on their personal connections to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Vitalii’s poignant quest to reunite his family serves as a poignant subplot, underscoring the complexities of displacement and longing in the face of war.

As “Veselka” transitions to explore the journey of the visiting Ukrainian baseball team at Coney Island, the specter of the ongoing war in Ukraine increasingly dominates the narrative. While the gravity of the situation warrants attention, the documentary’s focus appears to shift from celebrating the culinary delights of Veselka to highlighting acts of humanitarian courage. While this thematic evolution is understandable given the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding, there’s a sense of disconnect between the initial allure of Veselka’s pierogis and goulash and the broader humanitarian narrative.

Ideally, the film could have delved deeper into exploring the intrinsic connection between the taste of freedom symbolized by Veselka’s cuisine and the broader struggle for liberation in Ukraine. By drawing parallels between the sensory experience of enjoying Veselka’s offerings and the deeper yearning for freedom and resilience against oppression, the documentary could have provided a more cohesive and resonant narrative arc.

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