BY TEQUILA MINSKY
Another East Village restaurant is a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic after being relegated to serving only takeout and delivery the last few months — a business model that proved unsustainable.
Longtime employee and manager Dennis Vassilatos confirmed on Tuesday reports that Odessa Diner on Avenue A is closing because “we can’t exist at 25% or 50% capacity or with outdoor seating, so we’ve decided to ‘take a little vacation.’” Sunday, July 19 is Odessa’s last day.
Vassilatos said that the restaurant was having a wait and see attitude about the future, his way to placate the array of neighbors bemoaning the restaurant’s demise.
Odessa opened 26 years ago, an offshoot of Odessa Bar that was next door (it closed in 2013 after 33 years) and became a 24-hour neighborhood mainstay, providing a place to go and sustenance for locals day or night.
Longtime East Village resident Nancy Cohen lives around the corner and reminisces on how much Odessa has been part of her life.
“If I came in the morning, I’d hunker down in a booth for hours reading The New York Times. When I first started going I could get the most amazing breakfast special for $5,” she recounts, acknowledging how that price has obviously increased.
On very late nights at 2 or 3 a.m., it was her last stop before going home. Cohen’s favorite: “I really love their rice pudding with lots of cinnamon and no whipped cream.”
George de Castro Day remembers at age 18, on his very first night living in New York, he stopped at Odessa after a night at CBGBs and ate his first pierogi.
“There was a hybrid of people who ate there from immigrants to the guy with a Mohawk,” Cohen added. “It was old fashioned and felt like a small town diner where you know the waitresses while still being in New York.”
At one time, there were many East Village diner restaurants including Odessa serving Eastern European Ukrainian staples like pierogies, borscht, and potato pancakes. Some years back, Odessa’s menu expanded into something more like a traditional diner, but the Ukrainian specials remain — listed on its multi-page menu at the top of page four.
On hearing of its impending closure Tuesday afternoon, three loyal neighborhood patrons made a beeline to Odessa and ordered at the curbside counter from the “Specialty Sandwiches” section; two chose the Patty Melt Deluxe, while the other ordered the Grilled Reuben.
By evening, the front glass doors are closed and orders are only taken by phone for pick-up. At 2 a.m., Vassilatos juggled 18 orders to get out the door.
The East Village became home to 60,000 Ukrainian emigrants at its peak after World War II. The Ukrainian Museum on East 6th Street, an annual springtime festival, and the National Ukrainian Home and are among the vestiges of the area that became known as Little Ukraine.
While Odessa’s broadened menu still offers a taste of Ukrainian fare, two other popular restaurants serving Ukrainian eats closed in recent memory, Leshko in 1999 and Kiev in 2008.
Just a few blocks away with plenty of outdoor seating, Veselka soldiers on, continuing to serve those craving pierogi or potato pancakes.