Experience Eastern Europe in the East Village

Jenna N. Chambers

While Yugoslavia no longer exists, you can still get a taste of Serbia in New York City. Kafana is the only restaurant in the city that serves traditional Serbian cuisine and offers customers authentic Eastern European experience in the East Village.

Kafana is the only Serbian restaurant in New York City and opened in the East Village in 2008.

What does Kafana mean?

Kafana is a term that originates from former Yugoslavian countries and refers to a type of restaurant. Restaurant owner Vladimir Ocokoljic explains it as being the Serbian equivalent of a French bistro or Italian trattoria. In Serbia, the term ‘kafana’ would normally be followed by the owner’s name, as it is a general term for the establishment. Ocokoljic chose the name because he felt it help emphasize the restaurant’s Serbian origins. He describes Kafana as being “the neighborhood place where everybody knows everybody.”

“The neighborhood place where everybody knows everybody.”

Kafana is located near East 10th Street on Avenue C. It is open from 5pm to 11pm Monday through Thursday, with longer hours on the weekend. More information about the restaurant can be found on its website.

How it got started

Restaurant owner Vladimir Ocokoljic opened the restaurant in 2008 and says it was the first Serbian restaurant in New York.

“I knew nothing about restaurants when I opened,” said Ocokoljic.

His background was in architecture and his experience was limited to designing bars and restaurants, rather than running them.

Listen to how Ocokoljic got started in the restaurant business:

Learning to navigate the restaurant industry in New York City as a new owner took courage and grit. Ocokoljic recalls the early days of the restaurant opening noting that he had to be there everyday, early morning until late night.

“You learn fast, when you’re pushed in a corner, you learn fast,” said Ocokoljic.

It was a steep learning curve, but Ocokoljic managed to keep his restaurant’s lights on with the help of friends who owned restaurants and the experienced workers he hired.

After nine years in the business, he has learnt what works and continues to make adjustments to the menu to keep customers satisfied. “On the menu, pretty much everything sells,” he said.

While others have tried to open Serbian restaurants in New York City, Kafana is the only one that remains open and has gained itself a loyal customer base.

“You learn, you survive,” said Ocokoljic, “and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Changes in the Neighbourhood

Ocokoljic has lived in the East Village for over 20 years, and has seen the neighborhood change. He remembers a time when there were no restaurants on Avenue C and there were people waiting in lines on the street to buy heroin.

Over time the neighborhood has slowly been gentrified, with several other businesses and community gardens being established in the area. Recently a few franchises have opened close by and Ocokoljic was tempted to leave when he saw that a Starbucks was coming to the neighborhood.

However, he says that Avenue C is still not the most central location and people rarely come across his restaurant by accident. According to him, his customers seek Kafana out and are actively looking for Serbian cuisine.

The Serbian Fare

The menu at Kafana upholds the Eastern European tradition of a largely meat-based selection of dishes. Ocokoljic says the use of pork in their dishes is what sets Kafana apart from other Slavic food available. One of the highlights for customers is the cevapi sausage, which are skinless sausages shaped by hand and served with onions. However, there are also vegetarian options on offer for those who are unable to indulge in the meaty offerings.

Ocokoljic recommends the ‘Gibanica’ for vegetarian customers looking to ease their way into eating Serbian cuisine. A ‘Gibanica’ is a traditional Serbian pastry dish, which is comprised of layers of phyllo pastry and feta cheese. There is also an option to try a ‘Zeljanica’, which is similar to the Gibanica, but contains spinach as well as cheese. At Kafana, the chef is able to prepare the Gibanica in 2 minutes.

You can watch Angelo go through the process of making a ‘Zeljanica’ in the video below.

Eastern European Ambience

The aim of Kafana has always been to create a friendly atmosphere and offer people an escape from the bustle of the city.

“We make people feel at home and they enjoy being here,” said Ocokoljic.

One factor that helps people to feel at home is the intimate feeling of the restaurant, where customers sit close together surrounded by Serbian paraphernalia.

“If you ask me this is like any French bistro or Serbian kafana,” said Ocokoljic. “They all have that warm feel.”

Kafana offers a unique restaurant experience with its walls plastered in posters with cyrillic letters and photographs of Belgrade, where Ocokoljic grew up.

He attributes the success of Kafana to its natural charm and maintains that the main draw for Kafana is that it offered people something different.

The cozy neighborhood restaurant is designed to be a place where customers can feel comfortable. The ambience, the music, and the food, all serve to create the warm environment that keeps customers coming back.

Ocokoljic notes this as being one of the highlights of running Kafana stating, “I like it when it’s busy, and you see that people are happy and enjoying it.”

The majority of the staff at Kafana are also from Serbia themselves. This creates a different home-like experience for customers with Serbian origins. They are able to converse in their own language and eat the foods that remind them of where they come from.

Ocokoljic approximates that 20 percent of the customers that visit Kafana are new, but the majority are regulars.

The food at Kafana is reasonably priced, although be warned that credit or debit cards are not accepted so be sure to bring along enough cash. It is worth checking out the meat lover’s paradise and enjoying a glass of wine while enjoying the sounds of synthesised music and conversations in Serbian.