Sequels are a terrible idea. Be it movies or restaurants, the impulse that makes a person want to capitalize on a success by replicating or, god forbid, altering it, ultimately ends only in disappointment. Success is a slippery thing made up of hundreds of variables, only a handful of which can be controlled. Audiences are irrational, and dishes that thrilled them one week may flop the next. A concept that had two-hour lines forming at your door in one location may create a ghost town 15 blocks north.
It is there that Veselka saw it had a fighting chance. After all, what uncertainty is there about the East Village institution? The most cutting criticism you can dredge up is that it’s not the most authentic Ukrainian food in the neighborhood, and while it’s still plenty authentic for the early-bird babushkas who take their borscht there daily, that’s hardly the point. Veselka’s appeal lies in its effortless integration of American diner classics and Eastern Bloc comfort, the old-school New York service ethos that is surly and brusque one minute, warm and motherly the next, and its wholly democratic clientele. Veselka is not looking for an audience to manufacture a particular atmosphere; Veselka waits for you to come to it in whatever form you find yourself.
So maybe you want to come to Veselka on a date, or with the family, or before an evening out. The original Veselka is just not equipped for that—once you’re out of college, taking a date to a 24-hour diner is decidedly a dealbreaker. Perhaps the owners finally saw this one chink in their armor—or maybe they just wanted to get paid. Either way, they decided it was time for a sequel, leaving loyal customers nervously hoping against hope as the new venture, Veselka Bowery (9 E. First St., veselka.com/bowery), underwent a lengthy construction.
Tucked away on a side street in the lobby of one of the cookie-cutter condo buildings that spell the end of the Bowery, this Veselka is open and airy, glass-fronted and high-ceilinged, with warm wood tables and polished concrete floors. It’s almost too open in spots—lifelong New Yorkers, used to being crammed into corners, often don’t know how to fill large spaces. Instead of a bakery counter, the entryway faces a long bar lined with every possible iteration of the Eastern European stalwart spirit, vodka. That’s right, this Veselka has a full liquor license, and is putting it to good use with an extensive list of well-balanced cocktails that orbit around vodka’s sun.
The menu is described as more contemporary, but it turns out to have room for all the classics (breathe easy, there are still plenty of pierogies here) while bringing everything up to a new standard of presentation and refinement. Instead of a couple of slices of challah and some foil-wrapped butter pats, bread for the table comes with a housemade farmer cheese that is somehow never enough, no matter how many times it’s replenished. Pickles in the finest Slavic tradition accompany meat and vegetable boards built for leisurely nibbling with cocktail in hand. And entrees, while slightly overwrought in their descriptions, are just interesting enough in their execution. Even the ill-advised-sounding lobster pierogi are appropriately delicate and shockingly tasty.
Service is no longer brusque, just forthright and friendly. It’s off-putting at first, but the longer you stay, the more pleasant it becomes. It may not be quite as polished as the decor would suggest, but that fact keeps you grounded to the essential Veselka-ness of the place, the nonjudgmental, takes-all-comers attitude that has fueled the business for 58 years.
There are some who will be wary of Veselka Bowery no matter what anyone says, and that’s just fine. The original location is ready for you in all its 24-hour hangout glory, and it’s guaranteed to never change. But if you want to have a grownup restaurant experience with all the comforts of home, I’ll see you at Veselka Bowery.
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