A knock on the large unmarked wooden door opposite Lviv’s city hall. A man in a military uniform holding a German-made rifle answers. Password, he demands.
“Slava Ukrayini.” Glory to Ukraine.
“Heroy am slava,” glory for the heroes, he responds, and opens a passageway hidden behind a wall of books.
The man in the uniform is not a guard. He is the maître d at Kryivka, a popular theme restaurant that evokes Ukraine’s armed fight for independence against Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany during World War II.
The cavernous restaurant — decorated as a memorabilia-filled underground bunker — has been around for more than 15 years. And the atmosphere remains festive and playful despite the brutal and bloody history that serves as a backdrop. Patrons still order multicolored vodka shots by the row, and the brick walls are still decorated with 1940s-era shrapnel, radios, maps, artillery and lanterns.
But, as the war with Russia grinds on, the space, in the relatively safe western city of Lviv, has taken on a new resonance. On a recent visit, instead of the foreign tourists the restaurant used to draw, Ukrainians packed the tables. Locals, soldiers on leave and families who had fled bombed-out cities elsewhere in the country enjoyed the food and alcohol. Children wandered about, trying on the collection of helmets and jackets or dueling with the antique guns.
Alina Bulauevska, sitting at a table with her family, came from a nearby town to celebrate her 32nd birthday. “This is an escape for us,” she said.
Active soldiers have left hundreds of contemporary military patches — the insignia of their units. At the center of the display, mounted in a frame, is one from Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the top commander of Ukraine’s Armed Forces.
The restaurant invited him to visit, said Ivan Myzychuk, a manager. The four-star general responded by sending his insignia along with an enormous blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag where he signed his name and drew a heart in red ink.
“He replied that after we have victory, he will come to celebrate,” Mr. Myzchuk said.
At a large table with trays of fat sausages, charred vegetables and potato pancakes, Yulia Volkova sat with her husband, children and a few friends. The family has been renting an apartment in Lviv since they fled the embattled city of Kharkiv in the northeastern part of the country last March, joining some 150,000 people driven from their homes who have also taken up residence here.
They have eaten at the restaurant several times. “We love this place,” Ms. Volkova said through a translator.
They were grateful to be in Lviv. Russian fighters had seized their land and agricultural business, and killed the family of a classmate of her daughter’s when they walked out of a church after praying, Ms. Volkova said.
“They killed everyone in their way, we saw it ourselves,” she said, pointing two fingers at her eyes.
Her friend put down a mug of beer and pulled out his phone to show a video of the walls of his home, pockmarked with bullet holes and embedded shrapnel.
Sievda Kerimova had recently arrived in Lviv from Kyiv for a happier reason. She had come to meet her husband, a 26-year-old military officer who had 10 days off.
At a shooting gallery off one of the dining rooms, the couple paid 75 hryvnias — about $2 — so that Ms. Kerimova could shoot 10 plastic bullets at a paper target stamped with an image of Vladimir V. Putin, the president of Russia. In another room, customers could take aim at an oversized punching bag stenciled with his face.
Kryivka is one of several themed restaurants and gift shops operated by !FEST, a Ukrainian restaurant group. Upstairs is another one, The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant, decorated as a masonic clubhouse. Around the corner is the Lviv Coffee Mine, an enormous underground coffee house and shop where patrons can wear a miner’s helmet and dig for coffee beans and sip lattes.
The restaurants are not in the business of historical accuracy. At Kryivka, the pervasive patriotism and general merrymaking eclipses the often ugly record of the original Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which led the fight for an independent Ukraine in the 1940s, but comprised extremists who massacred Poles and Jews in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
But recalling the struggle for Ukraine’s independence is one way citizens today voice pride in their heritage and support for the war effort.
Food and fun — not history lessons — are on the menu.
Part of the evening’s festivities included a hunt for Russian spies, or “Moskali,” a derogatory term that Ukrainians used to refer to Russians. The game was led a band of waiters dressed in military garb. Diners were laughingly interrogated, then led to a makeshift prison and asked to sing a patriotic song before being returned to their table.
At one point, the wait staff lined up as in a military formation. The leader quizzed the assembled on the number of Russian tanks or helicopters that have been shot down since the war began as customers gathered around and cheered.
The brief performance ended with the staff and patrons repeating successive rounds of “Slava Ukrayini. Heroyam slava” in unison.
The moment wasn’t quite on par with the legendary scene from the film “Casablanca,” when Victor Laszlo leads the crowd at Rick’s Café Americain in singing La Marseillaise in defiance of Nazi officers. But the sentiments were authentic.
Meanwhile, a mostly unnoticed television mounted on the wall silently beamed out the evening news, an interview with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, talking about the Russian aerial assaults that day.
Unlike other street-level shops and restaurants that were required to close down during the day’s three missile alerts, the underground Kryivka could keep serving pierogies and vodka.
On another evening, Vitaly Zhoutonizhko, his right arm in a sling, visited the restaurant for a second time with his wife, Alina, and 4-year old daughter, Kiza. He had been in Lviv for two weeks on medical leave from the army, recuperating from an injury he suffered when a shell hit his trench.
When asked why — after being in a bunker near the front line — he would now want to relax in a faux one, Mr. Zhoutonizhko laughed.
“This is entertainment,” he said.
So was he going to try hitting a Putin target at the shooting gallery?
“I am not interested in shooting the image,” he said. “I have a real target.”