a dark, sketchy passageway off Rynok Square in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Late in the evening on a weeknight, the Medieval square—a mishmash of Renaissance, Viennese Classical, Late Baroque and Gothic architectural styles—is almost entirely empty. Walking to the end of the passage, I found a large unmarked wooden door. No noise emanated from the door before me, but I knew there was activity on the other side.
A large peephole slid open, and the bearded face of an elderly man appeared. ”Slava Ukraini,”he muttered. It was a code that means “Glory to Ukraine,” and it told me the resistance fighters still had control of the space.
”Geroyam slava,” I replied, giving the proper response, which translates, “Glory to its heroes!” Of course, I’ve never had an aptitude for languages, so I might have just said, “Glory to Geronimo!”
The large door creaked opened, and a Fidel Castro doppelgänger in a Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) uniform pointed a gun at me. “Moskal’ee ye?” he said looking around. He asked if I had Russians with me.
I almost said “nyet” but quickly remembered that’s Russian, not Ukrainian. I merely shook my head. The soldier then motioned to the gun, and…
Boom! I got shot… with a few ounces of homemade honey-vodka poured straight from the barrel. Ironically, it burned my throat like I really did get shot. As I showcased several different facial grimaces, the soldier laughed and then opened a false bookcase that led downstairs. Now I heard noise.
I just entered Kryivka, a speakeasy bar with a revolutionary theme. In English, the name is Bunker.
two principal cities seem culturally different: Moscow is the center of traditional Russian culture, while St. Petersburg feels more like traditional Europe thanks in large part to the city’s founder, Peter the Great. A similar dynamic happens in Ukraine. Kiev, the one-time capital of Kievan Rus (i.e., early Russia), reflects its traditional roots, while Lviv bears a closer resemblance to Krakow and other Central European cities. Lviv is, in fact, little more than 40 miles from the Polish border.
The reason for the Central European feel is the same reason Lviv boasts such an enthralling mix of cultures. The Soviets added the city to Ukraine after World War II, but in the centuries before, Lviv was part of Poland, Austria, Lithuania and various other countries and kingdoms. The city spent significantly more time in traditional Europe than in the hands of Russia or Ukraine, and UNESCO noted the influence when it bestowed world heritage honors on its beautiful medieval square. According to the committee, Lviv is “an outstanding example of the fusion of the architectural and artistic traditions of eastern Europe with those of Italy and Germany.”
As a city repeatedly occupied by so many outside countries, locals often fought for freedom, and the speakeasy-style Bunker parodies the underground resistance bunkers where UPA rebels organized efforts to fight the Nazis and later the Soviets, Czechs and Poles in the 1940s. The words to get into Kryjivka were apparently real UPA code, and the bar website claims the space was formerly a real insurgent bunker, though the staff told me it was merely “inspired by” when I visited in 2009. Regardless, the revolutionary spirit portrayed in the speakeasy felt genuine, and the locals likely embrace it now more than ever after the recent Ukraine-Russia clashes.
Sheepishly entering the bar, I immediately saw resistance flags, revolutionary photos, old-school weapons and anti-Soviet propaganda that all made for excellent photos ops. The place was literally a museum showcasing the UPA resistance. A large machine gun was available as a prop, and in one section of the bar, a shooting gallery allowed guests to fire a BB gun at an image of Joseph Stalin.
at the bar, and a server handed me a menu in the form of an insurgent newspaper, the type insurgents once discretely distributed in town. Several dishes also had creative names like Drunk Russians and Grilled KGB Agents. Considering the tavern served traditional dishes like pig ears and cured pig fat, the fanciful entrée names were probably a blessing in disguise. Still, I came to drink.
“Vodka,” I said to the bartender. I pointed to a high-end bottle that I did not remember ever seeing in the states. My intention was to try all the vodkas I couldn’t get at home.
The vodka came in a shot glass. Unlike the U.S., Eastern Europeans rarely drink vodka with soda water, juice or other mixers. The one time I ordered a vodka and club soda, I received a separate vodka shot and a glass of club soda. From then on, I always drank vodka in the local way when in Russia and Ukraine. Ironically, though, Kryivka did serve vodka and apple juice.
As I started to pound the shot, the bartender motioned for me to wait. He then brought out a green military helmet and placed it on my head. If I wanted to drink vodka in the bunker, I needed to look like an insurgent. Either that, or he saw an American tourist drinking Russian vodka and wanted to protect me when I inevitably fell off the stool.
Though the vodka should be sipped, I decided to throw down the first drink like a shot. Afterward, the bartender possibly gave away the reason for the helmet when he lightly banged the shot glass on my head, almost like an American-style “cheers!” It was a strangely friendly gesture. I ordered another.
Bunker’s three founders—one with ridiculous facial hair that even a Williamsburg hipster would describe as trying too hard—have several other theme restaurants and bars with varying levels of kitsch and offensiveness. House of Legends, for example, uses dwarves as servers, while the First Lviv Grill Restaurant of Meat and Justice pays tribute to the city’s first municipal employee, the local executioner, who later opened a meat restaurant. Café Masoch, a kinky bistro named after the local writer who gave Masochism its name, is filled with leather-clad waitresses who whip, handcuff and nipple pinch the customers. The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant, meanwhile, is a Masonic parody that really pissed off the modern Freemasons, who took particular exception to the throne-shaped toilets modeled after thrones used in their rituals.
The owners say it is all in good fun. Political correctness, as you might have noticed, has yet to fully sink in over in Ukraine.
Though more of a hidden gem at the time, Kryivka is now an immensely popular spot with tourists and university students. Unfortunately, this means there might be a line at the secret door, or at least a wait to get a table or chair. Reservations, if anyone decides to answer the phone at the bar, are recommended for those wishing to dine.
Three hours and six or seven vodkas later, I placed the helmet back on the bar. The patrons that night were mostly happy drunks, and one table enthusiastically broke into a traditional Ukrainian drinking song. As I stumbled past the other patrons and toward the exit, I stopped several times to take a closer took at the historic photos and had a thought. Lviv, like so many other Eastern European cities, suffered immensely during much of the past 70 years, and the Kryivka theme represented a time when many men and women died due to tyranny and racism. New Yorkers would not appreciate a bar built like the Twin Towers, but in Lviv, Ukrainians turned a symbol of war and tragedy into a place to come together and celebrate.
For all the political incorrectness, the bar owners and patrons might just have the right spirit.
Photos: Andriy Baranskyy, CC-BY and Marcin Grabski, CC-BY
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.