Through my own personal lens growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, Coney Island meant two things: First, a type of hot dog typically slathered in chili and onions. Second, a type of Greek diner that must also necessarily serve the former hot dog dish. Never in my wildest, adolescent imagination did it occur to me that Coney Island was actually a singular, physical place; a namesake to the hot dogs and regional diners I knew so well. (Don’t get me started on the fact that it wasn’t actually an island, and that it was technically part of New York City, and you could TAKE THE SUBWAY there. Are you kidding me?) It was as if learning that Atlantis was neither lost, nor a city, but just a beach and amusement park hanging out on the southern end of Brooklyn.
If you have not yet been formally introduced to Coney Island proper, let this be the summer you consider it. If you’ve called New York City home for more than six months and have not experienced the colorful, carnivalesque atmosphere that is Coney, please call me so I can give you a stern talking-to. (If you’re not from these parts, you’re excused, at least for now.) Beyond the rightfully famous hot dog, the real Coney Island boasts a number of eateries (and drinkeries) that could each warrant their own visit. Collectively, the dining and drinking scene at Coney Island provides motivation to visit beyond simply a weird and wonderful day at the beach. Pro tip: making a food tour of your day and then riding the Cyclone is not recommended. You’re welcome.
If you’re going to make the pilgrimage, complete the pilgrimage. Make Nathan’s your first stop when you first visit Coney Island, because it’s the correct thing to do. Get the iconic hot dog with all the fixings, do the Instagram thing, but you must fully participate in the experience that is Coney Island by lining up at the original location at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues, as people have been doing since 1916, when immigrant Nathan Handwerker opened this iconic stand and made food history. Note that the building on the Stillwell Avenue side has the official countdown clock and Hall of Fame for its annual July 4th hot dog eating contest. Commence hot dog eating contest of your own if desired.
Nathan’s Famous Deli Style Mustard, package of 2 for $12.46 on Amazon
If you can’t make it to Coney Island this summer, you can squeeze a little taste of the boardwalk at home.
A favorite pastime of New Yorkers is debating about which old school Napolitano pizzeria is best for a volcanic, droopy slice of the most iconic thing to come out of Brooklyn since the Coney Island Hot Dog. (What, you think Italy had designs on actually making pizza famous? Fuggedaboutit.) Just because the Food Network says Totonno’s is actually the best doesn’t have to be the reason you are swayed, but for me, any pizzeria serving up charred, gooey pies with nearly 100 years’ pedigree and within spitting distance of the ocean gets my vote. (Please wait at least 30 minutes post pizza before jumping in the ocean. Maybe 60. You’re going to want to eat a lot of this.)
A young but worthy interloper in the Coney Island scene, this brewery earned its Coney credibility by paying rightful homage to the carnival vibe with its beer names and corresponding label art: Mermaid Pilsner, Merman IPA, Cotton Candy Kölsch, Trapp’d on the Cyclone Trappist Tripel, Kettle Corn Cream Ale, etc. Located just a block off of the boardwalk next to MCU Stadium, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team, stop in for a brew or two, or a brewery tour, or some AC or shelter when the beach weather has gone freak show.
Maybe it’s just me, but any location boasting to be a “clam bar” should have at least a view of the water, and Paul’s Daughter indeed has a front row seat. Situated on the boardwalk at the corner of W. 10th Street, decked out in all its mid-century glory, it beckons the beachgoer with the echo of simpler times. And with cotton candy. And lobster rolls. And with all manner of things fried from funnel cakes and knishes to clams and jumbo shrimp.
Perhaps you’ve taken a long, eastward stroll on the beach, and you sense maybe you’re not in Coney Island anymore. Welcome to Brighton Beach, one of NYC’s largest Russian neighborhoods. Technically it’s not even that long of a stroll—barely a quarter mile—and therefore is included in this Coney Island round-up, but go ahead and imagine that the walk was a long one and that you’ve earned a snack, because you’ll want to pop up off the sand into the equally colorful neighborhood to check out some of the specialty markets, or maybe grab a plate of Varenichnaya’s vareniki—Russian-style pierogi with a generous dollop of sour cream or even sour cherries.
Another newbie on the Coney scene since 2016, there are two big reasons to visit Kitchen 21: First, to marvel at the landmark 1923 building which formerly housed a Childs Restaurant, ornate and stately as ever with its glamorous golden age façade. Second, the impressive, all-New York beer list, which includes Coney Island Brewing Company selections, of course, but also draughts representing every NYC borough, as well as some from Long Island and upstate. Well, and third, it’s a good place to find a salad if all that fried beach fare is threatening your bangin’ beach bod.
To comment at all about the bar or grill part of Ruby’s Bar and Grill would be missing the point entirely. Get whatever drink you’d have and some fried beach fare, and then consume the ambience: the sturdy, salt-crusted jukebox, the array of photos depicting Coney Island through the decades, the improbable camaraderie between young beachgoers and old-timers whose neighborhood bar just happens to be on this here boardwalk, a suspended piece of the actual 1920s boardwalk running the length of the bar, and the haunted atmosphere of a classic Americana time-gone-by.
Related Reading: How Did Nathan’s Become the Most Famous Hot Dog Brand in America?
Header image courtesy of Alan Schein/Getty Images.