The Ukrainian Coffee Shop
I lived on Tenth Street, in the East Village, in the mid-1970s,. It was a wonderful place to be. I had little money but everything I wanted. I had the 2nd Avenue Deli with its crowded interior, its alluring smells of pastrami and corned beef, and its weary waiters. I had the Polish Meat Market, on Second, between Ninth and Tenth Streets. Visiting there was like visiting Cracow, only faster. I had the small, aromatic cheese shop on Eleventh Street near First Avenue where they made their own mozzarella, round, unblemished, blinding white. I had the Jewish bakery on Ninth Street, between Second and First, with the ancient owners who moved with great deliberation from loaf to loaf searching out what you desired.
And I had the Veselka Ukrainian Coffee Shop.
It was small, situated on the corner of Ninth Street and Second Avenue. The food was cheap and good. In the winter, when the ice made me slip, and the wind blew me sideways, there was no better place to go to restore the soul and stomach. And it was always within my budget.
The waitresses hardly spoke any English. It’s an enlightening experience to walk into a restaurant in your own city where people do not speak your language. It made me fumble trying to communicate, and it was humbling, but it was exciting as well. It felt like entering another country, and, in a real sense, it was. This is what New York offered often, especially where I lived, in the East Village, and I found it every time I went to Veselka. While I didn’t need a passport, it felt like carrying one with me wouldn’t be inappropriate. Veselka was that kind of place.
I was young and naive, and I didn’t know where Ukraine was, or even what it was. All I knew was that the food at Veselka was good and cheap and filling and my money stretched very far there and I loved sitting inside sheltered from the harsh winter day. It was a homey place back then, as if you’d stepped into a Ukrainian grandmother’s kitchen. The hot barley soup, generously thick and substantial, was served with pumpernickel bread with little hills of butter, that, spread unevenly across the bread and dipped into the soup, would transport me. I walked out of Veselka, belly full and content, ready for whatever the relentless New York City winter threw at me.
Veselka, and places like it in my neighborhood, were a young man’s dream. I was constantly being educated in New York, the world’s ultimate continuing education, and often it was through the food I ate, with smells and tastes I’d never encountered before. Every day it was possible to get advanced degree in a foreign culture by stepping into a store or restaurant like Veselka staffed by people from a place you’d never been to before.
I have been to Veselka several times since I left that neighborhood many years ago. It’s grown and gotten a bit fancy. They even have tables outside. I grumble about the lost Veselka, the real Veselka, sounding like an “in-my-day” bore I swore I’d never become.
But ultimately, the most important thing is that it’s still there, Veselka. Long may it thrive, and the country that inspired it.