The first time you walk into Ukrainian National Home, you will likely feel as if your grandma’s dining room was suddenly transported from her house to a crowded street in Manhattan. Soon after that, you will think to yourself: I wonder if this is as good as Veselka.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that it’s even better than Veselka.
Before the late, great Anthony Bourdain stepped inside the legendary Ukrainian eatery, Veselka was one of those places tourists only knew about if they had a connection with a New Yorker. Diners wouldn’t think of entering Veselka unless they knew from a reliable source that it was a neighborhood icon. There’s just no way to know from the street what delightful Eastern European comfort food warms inside. As for venturing into the even smaller Ukrainian restaurant next door? No way.
Ukrainian National Home—also known as the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant—has been owned by Irene Sawchyn for the past 50 years and appears to remain unscathed by both gentrification and the high rents that have shut down iconic restaurants and bars on every corner of Manhattan. It’s an institution that has relied on its classic menu and welcoming interior to stay afloat in a city full of temporary eateries.
The menu offers a smattering of Eastern European foods likes herring in wine sauce, stuffed cabbage, borscht, and pierogi, and takes patrons on a culinary tour of Ukraine. Cozy doesn’t even begin to describe the vibe inside Ukrainian National Home; it’s warm, welcoming, and oddly familiar, as if you’ve been there a million times before. Perhaps it’s the aforementioned grandma’s house motif or the hearty greeting patrons are given upon entering, but regardless of the reasoning, that kind of family vibe makes the food taste even better.
There is a completely different energy here, too, compared to many NYC spots: no rushing servers, no clattering silverware, and no hum of a hundred collective tourists chewing to shout over. Just good old-fashioned food and drinks. One of my favorite things to do when looking over the menu is to order one of the many foreign beers (the Obolon Lager, say) and pretend I’m in the Old Country—even though I’ve never been to the Old Country. Aside from myself, there are generally two groups of people you’ll find at Ukrainian National Home: old Ukrainian couples and young hipsters. The former dine at the restaurant to be reminded of home; the latter to be reminded of authenticity.
Of the many, many dishes to choose from, both traditional and contemporary, one of the no-brainers is the Ukrainian combination platter. For just $14, patrons can taste a little bit of everything: stuffed cabbage, varenyky (pierogi), kovbasa, sauerkraut, and kasha varnishkes. It’s a positively sublime plate of traditional food that could easily feed more than two people. When it comes to dessert, I always order either the blueberry blintzes (nalysnyky) or apple pancakes.
Ukrainian National Home may never be as famous as Veselka, nor will it ever host Bourdain (RIP), but it has managed to remain one of the undiscovered gems of the East Village—a portal to another land by way of a culinary tour.
The restaurant makes the case that the less famous places are not only as good as their more famous counterparts, but can sometimes completely surpass the quality of the aforementioned spot. It’s where you can sit down with East Village locals happily noshing on studynec (jellied pork)—and see the past and present come to life in one small space.
Jeremy Glass is a Brooklyn-based writer with a very funny Twitter handle (@test-email-CandyandPizza). He also once held a black card from Billy McFarland’s former company, Magnises, and previously wrote for WSWD about the best watering hole in Windsor Terrace.