Inside Ukraine's Wildly Popular, Deeply Troubling Nationalist Restaurant
At Kryjivka, guests can enjoy a bowl of blood-red borscht then practice their aim at targets of Stalin and Lenin at the on-site shooting range.
Image via Kryjivka's Facebook.
The world became familiar with the term “Slava Ukraini,” or, "Glory to Ukraine" when Croatian soccer star Domagoj Vida was recorded using it after his team's win over Russia in this year's World Cup. In Russia, those words can start a brawl, but say “Slava Ukraini” at a particular restaurant in Lviv, in western Ukraine, and they can get you fed. That's because it's the password needed to get into Lviv's always busy nationalist-themed restaurant Kryjivka, "the last hiding place of Ukrainian Insurgent Army left from the times of the World War II," as their website states.
Kryjivka, or 'Bunker,' is only accessible by knocking on an unmarked wooden door and shouting the slogan. A burly, uniformed guard opens up—and, if you are deemed not to be a Russian sympathizer, welcomes you with a shot of honey vodka. From there a bookshelf swings open and you descend a staircase that leads into the dimly lit, cavernous cellar restaurant. Waitresses call "Slava Ukraini" to you, and you call it back. You are given a seat, and your indoctrination into the culinary delights of armed resistance begins.
The menu at Kryjivka features fairly straightforward local favorites like fried pig ear and snout, pickled herring, dumplings, and other local favorites. After ordering, it's advisable to do some recon. The Bunker is a dark, seemingly endless warren of rooms, the walls draped with banners featuring heroes of the Ukrainian resistance, along with a few fabled boxers for good measure, plus a punching bag decorated with the face of an anachronistic Vladimir Putin. Along the way there are tripods of machine guns, stacks of short-wave radios, and spent artillery shells. On one shelf, bottles are done up to look like explosives—Molotov mocktails, as it were. If you get lost, just listen for the 'Slava Ukraini' clarion call that brings you back to your table, where an obligatory bowl of blood-red borscht awaits.
In Kryjivka, and indeed in Lviv, there is no such thing as 'Ukrainian borscht,' there is only borscht. That the beet soup is indigenous to Ukraine is a given, regardless of what their neighbors to the east may claim. Borscht at Kryjivka, generously stocked with pork and fortifying vegetables, gives no hint of wartime privation. Other dishes are served in ration tins and can all be weaponized if need be. Sausages are a foot long and shaped like a rifle, with peppers as the trigger. A boiled egg starter comes with enough spring onion to ward off any army, and the eggs, with their perfectly runny yolks, will explode in a messy splatter if lobbed in the direction of the enemy. There is no shortage of vodka to steel shell-shocked nerves.
The kitchy fun doesn't stop there. The waitresses, in addition to fatigues, wear T-shirts with the likeness of national poet Taras Shevchenko, illustrated in the iconic style of Che Guevara, and cleverly nicknamed ‘She.’ Naturally, the shirts are available at the gift shop. The restaurant claims to serve over a million customers a year. That's a lot of “Slava Ukraini”s.
Once you are fed, it's time to get back to defending the homeland. You can do this at the on-site firing range, where tipsy patriots, no matter what their nationality, can shoot blanks from authentic WWII weaponry. It was closed for renovation on my visit, but I am told it features targets illustrated with Stalin and Lenin. If you still have an itchy trigger finger, there's plenty of other wartime fun to be had. You can stick your head in the cut-out of a Ukrainian soldier apprehending an enemy combatant, for instance, or try on a standard-issue field jacket and helmet, pick up an automatic weapon, and wave the barrel over the tables of families enjoying their potato pancakes and kvass.
The restaurant has also annexed the building's courtyard. There, a tower constructed of dismantled airplane parts hoists the shell of a burnt-out car in the air. Young couples climb the fire escape to the adjoining building, and try to land a coin on the roof of the car, then kiss and make a wish. On top of the building, you can see most of Lviv from the seat of an anti-aircraft gun perpetually pointed in the direction of Russia. Those Russians cunning enough to have infiltrated Kryjivka (and there are many, as the restaurant is apparently popular with Russian tourists) run the risk of getting 'taken hostage' and made to sing anthems in Ukrainian.
But once the vodka and bloodlust have worn off, if you look into the past of people like Stepan Bandera, whose likeness you so breezily ate dill pickles under, things become less frivolous. The Nazi affiliation of the leaders of the resistance is well known—though the government retracted Bandera's 'Hero of Ukraine' honor because he wasn't a Ukrainian citizen, the owners no doubt know their history and Bandera's inclusion was no oversight. Everything in Kryjivka is considered.
These establishments' parent company is called—perhaps unsurprisingly—Emotion. Each of their Lviv-based theme restaurants works a different angle, aiming to evoke nostalgia, or nationalistic pride—or possibly cater to anti-Semitic stereotypes; Emotion also operates the nearby At the Golden Rose, a 'Jewish' themed restaurant where patrons are required to haggle over the prices "in the Jewish custom" and can request a kippah to wear during their meal. The walls are decorated with Bruno Schultz reproductions and bris equipment.
Pravda Beer Theater, the craft beer restaurant complex housed over multiple floors in an historical building that dominates the main square in Lviv’s old town, also pushes buttons with their offerings, and supply Kryjivka with their Putin Huilo, or "Putin is a Dickhead" beer. It's their most popular brand, and was sold out at Kryjivka when I visited. The woman at the gift shop informed me that Putin Huilo is a favorite souvenir with Russian and Ukrainian tourists alike. Finally, some common ground.
In the gift shop, you can also get a beer whose label features the radar tower of the Donetsk airport raising a brutalist middle finger in the direction of Russia, or a coffee mug emblazoned with a machine gun, or a ceramic grenade to store sugar cubes—or ammo—in. Or, you can get your kid a toy machine gun. Or choose from any of the shelves stocked with vaguely irreverent, nationalist-themed tchotchkes in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The revolution will be itemized.
But when the final bill is tallied, including T-shirts, shooting lessons, and of course, borscht, Kryjivka, despite its theme, isn't really about indoctrination into nationalism, but rather about indoctrination into consumerism. The gift shop is the only quiet place in the establishment, and where you leave inconspicuously though a side door. No need to shout Slava Ukraini on your way out; all the glory is now behind you.