On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, causing the world’s biggest nuclear power disaster. The explosion and the immediate effects of radiation exposure killed dozens of plant workers and first responders, and scientists still dispute the total number of nearby residents who have died from exposure-related cancers since. Today, forestry workers, biologists, and construction crews continue efforts to dismantle the damaged reactor and remove waste in the surrounding 1,000-square-mile Exclusion Zone. When they’re ready to take a break and eat, many of them head to Canteen 19.
The Exclusion Zone’s most popular dining hall, the Canteen offers a menu of solid Easter European fare, including borscht, schnitzel, kompot, and sweet, cream-filled crepes. (There’s a coffee machine promising a caffeine kick with dessert, but don’t get your hopes up: It’s often out of order.) In addition to keeping Chernobyl workers nourished through the long cleanup, the Canteen welcomes the tour groups that venture into the Exclusion Zone on Ukrainian government–sanctioned trips. To enter the Exclusion Zone in the first place, guests must sign up for a tour or hire a private licensed guide, have their passports checked beforehand by the Ukrainian government, and pass through a military checkpoint an hour and a half from Kyiv.
Tour guides lead groups through eerily empty streets, lined with the remains of villages evacuated after the explosion. Pripyat, a Soviet model city built to house power plant employees, then abandoned to nature following the explosion, is filled with the remnants of those who lived there, from a school with scattered Soviet-era posters to children’s shoes, left when their owners fled.
Guests must enter the cafe through a radiation detector. The inside of the restaurant itself is strangely banal, its institutional lunch-line serving style familiar to anyone who’s eaten in a grade school cafeteria. For many visitors, however, the best part of Canteen 19 isn’t the cafeteria itself, but the gaggle of puppies that congregate outside. The descendants of pets left behind in the evacuation, they’re mostly gentle and known to have friendships with tour guides and workers (visitors, however, are warned not to touch them, as there’s a small chance radioactive particles may cling to their fur). They’re a reminder that even in places that have known tragedy, the best things about humanity—filling food and friendship with our animal compatriots—prevail.
Know Before You Go
The Canteen is open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.