The National Ukrainian Home on Second Avenue doesn't look like much. It's a mid-rise building in New York City's bustling East Village, a community center nuzzled between a women's clothing store and late-night pierogi mecca Veselka. Through the door, there's a lobby lined with maroon linoleum-tiled floors and white walls with the kind of paintings you might find hanging around a hospital.
Follow that linoleum deep into the building around a corner spruced up with plastic plants, and you'll find, in the midst of Manhattan, a wooden cabin. The tables are covered in red cloths and needlepoint, plates of pierogi and bowls of borscht. Stroll to the back room and, three nights a week, there are couples tango dancing. This is The National Ukrainian Home restaurant (sometimes simply called Ukrainian East Village restaurant).
The restaurant's been around, almost entirely unchanged for more than 50 years, Irene Sawchyn, who grew up working there, tells me. Her family arrived in New York in 1957, and her now 98-year-old mother, Stephania, took over the space in 1963. Stephania, along with her father, Peter, and her brother ran the restaurant for 12 years. It feels otherworldly, but in a way that is particularly old New York—a city that long before social media hid its secrets well.
Photo: Tasting Table
"There was no effort to indicate that if you walk in this building, there's a restaurant in the back," it was a sort of hidden spot, Irene says.
The restaurant became a communal table of sorts, a place where the large Ukrainian community would gather after scouts and women's league meetings on Friday nights and mass on Sundays. "In the 60s on Friday night, there would be so many people standing out on the corner, just a jam of people," Irene remembers.
The menu, written entirely in Ukrainian save for one English copy that would get passed around, changed daily but always offered a rotating list of classics like pierogi, stuffed cabbage, borscht, roast pork, potato pancakes and fish in gelatin. For the Ukrainian immigrant community, it was "like going home to Mom," Irene says of her own mother's cooking. "If you complained about the cooking, and she [got] mad enough, she would come out and tell you that you had to eat your food."
And eat my food I did. Those pierogi punctuated my college experience: They were a balance of cloud-like potatoes (sometimes mixed with cheese or bacon) stuffed into chewy wrappers and scattered with fried onions. Stephania's granddaughter and Irene's daughter, Melania, also happened to be my college roommate. Over the years, she would periodically walk into the dorm with giant shopping bags filled with containers of the familial cooking. "My grandmother doesn't know how to cook for fewer than 40 people" was a typical retort.
Since then, I've returned to the National Ukrainian Home restaurant numerous times, looking for pierogi like Stephania's and a glimpse of what the restaurant must have been like in the 60s. On some nights, you can find it with tables of families or friends chatting in Ukrainian and a waitstaff who might stare you down if you complain about the borscht. On a recent evening, the room looked a little different: A man who looked a bit like Bernie Sanders ate alone, while three downtown women caught up at another table. As I walked out and lingered in the lobby, I noticed every person who came in did so with purpose, perhaps like me, looking for a scrap of something that once was—or simply a plate of pierogi.
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