Summer Date Ideas by Neighborhood: Brighton Beach and Coney Island

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No, summer’s not winding down, and I have proof! This past Tuesday, September 2nd, was the hottest day of the entire season. This means summer plans on sticking around for a while longer. Venturing out to Brooklyn’s iconic Brighton Beach and Coney Island neighborhoods is one of my favorite ways to capture the spirit of a summer in NYC. The two neighborhoods offer food, people watching and entertainment–the trifecta of a fun night out. Brighton Beach and Coney Island are about a 10-15 minute walk from one another along a nice, wide boardwalk.

1. Eat: There’s pizza! There are hot dogs! There is mediocre Russian food (I’ll explain below)! Let’s start with the pizza. One of the best pizza parlors in the city, Totonno’s, is in Coney Island, not too far from the boardwalk. This is a classic New York pie. If you’re going to sully it with toppings I suggest crowd pleasing fresh garlic and pepperoni. Consistency varies, but on a good day, the pizza here is nearly unbeatable. Last seating is at 7:30 p.m., practically an early-bird dining hour in NYC.

(Image via Liz, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

(Image via Liz, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Then, of course, there’s Nathan’s Famous, home to one of the best hot dogs in the world and the yearly Hot Dog Eating Contest. I’m a sucker for the chili dog, but the original, topped with sauerkraut and onions is great, too. The dog itself is meaty with a satisfying snap. A bit of advice: go to the sprawling original location instead of the smaller oceanside outposts. Though the service there is painfully slow, the original has the freshest inventory.

Courtesy of Andrea Hubbell Photography

Courtesy of Andrea Hubbell Photography

And then there’s the riskier Russian food option. If you decide to go this route, make sure to follow my rules exactly. First, it’s better to go at night when the restaurants aren’t clogged with beach goers. Second, get a small bottle of chilled vodka at a liquor store on Brighton Beach Avenue, below the elevated subway track. Most Russian restaurants in Brighton are BYO, and we were actually once admonished by a waitress for paying for a few shots instead of bringing our own (it was late! the stores had all closed!), and thus, according to her, wasting our money. Next, grab an outdoor table at one of the Russian boardwalk cafes. If you’re primarily after great food, go to inland cafes Oceanview or Skovorodka. Since it’s summer, ambiance is probably more of a priority. There are only three boardwalk options (Volna, Tatiana and Tatiana Cafe) and the quality is fairly comparable between them, so no need to fret about this decision. Now we’ve come to the most important guideline. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, order from the “American” section of the menu. Just don’t do it. “But I’m really craving a burger,” you say, “and “it’s hard to mess up, so I just thought I’d…” NO. Please, for the sake of all that is holy, do not do this. I can’t even guarantee it will be edible. Get traditional Russian (or Russia-appropriated) things like blini with caviar, fried potatoes with mushrooms, shashliks, etc. Those dishes will be good, if not life changing. Next, sit back and enjoy some of the best people watching in New York City. Russian families celebrating, elderly men and women walking arm-in-arm, surly Russians being surly. It’s a fascinating slice of Brooklyn that feels almost entirely removed from the rest of the city. It’s like a wormhole to seaside Odessa circa 1975. Another point: expect your service to be slow and probably somewhat rude. It’s okay, you’re using them for their location. You’ve got a 375ml bottle of chilled vodka, the sweet company of the person you’ve brought with you and the salty breeze blowing off of the Atlantic. You’re good.

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A recent meal on the boardwalk

2. Play: Aside from the preternaturally entertaining boardwalk and beach, you can indulge in a bit of minor league baseball or in a few amusement park rides.

The Brooklyn Cyclones play in MCU Park, which abuts the boardwalk and overlooks the old parachute tower. Personally, I love everything about baseball except the actual game. I love the spectatorship of it, the beer drinking, the Dipping Dots eating. Did the Cyclones strike out again? Ho-hum. The Brooklyn Cyclones are also an organization that knows how to have fun with theme nights. This past July they hosted a Seinfeld-themed night, marking the show’s 25th anniversary. There were creative costumes, inventive signs and even a marble rye fishing competition. After every Friday and Saturday evening game the stadium puts on a fireworks display that rivals the pageantry of any small town July 4th show. Sounds fun, right? Well, unfortunately, the Cyclones’ season is over so save this idea for next summer!

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Luna Park, Coney Island’s amusement park, is still open on weekends through October. Come and ride the famed 87- year old Cyclone (not recommended for those with frail bones or the easily bruised) or the makeout mecca Wonder Wheel, a Ferris wheel with fully enclosed passenger cars for privacy. More than just a collection of historic rides, Luna Park also features brand-new coasters and rides that spin a full 360 degrees. Me? I’m more of a ride observer. My own coaster riding days are behind me, but it’s fun to watch the youngins’ have a grand time. I prefer the arcade sports–basketball and skeeball. Just leave me a bunch of tickets and check on me every few hours. Oh, and don’t forget to buy me a funnel cake.

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Summer To-Do List 2013

At the beginning of every summer, I get slightly anxious when I realize how fleeting the warmer months actually are. You can see it in the desperate faces of New Yorkers clamoring for outdoor tables near construction sites and congregating at “rooftop bars” atop two-story buildings. Granted, summer here is not as short as summer, in say, Barrow, Alaska, but often, the really nice temps don’t roll in until June and only stick around until September. It makes me feel as though I have to get the absolute most out of the season. And each year, I make a list to make sure I do.

Behold, the 2013 list:

Randazzo’s Clam Bar and a Brooklyn Cyclones Game

I’ve never been to Randazzo’s, the famous rib-sticking seafood joint, but have always wanted to try it. A few summers ago, we paired an outdoor crab lunch at Clemente’s Maryland Crabhouse in Sheepshead Bay with a Cyclones game, and it was a such great day. Seafood, baseball by the water and post-game fireworks– everything the summer’s meant to be.

View of the parachute drop from MCU Park

View of the parachute drop from MCU Park

Suburban Pool Day

This requires surveying your circle for friends from either Westchester, Long Island or North Jersey and then finding the ones whose parents still belong to their neighborhood pool. My husband and I spent a glorious day at Tarry Crest Swimming & Tennis Club on a grassy knoll, reading magazines, eating homemade oatmeal cookies and enjoying adult swim for perhaps the first time ever. (Sorry, kid-me, adult swim is awesome.)

Picnic in Prospect Park

We live right near Prospect Park, and though we use it for exercise, we often forget to use it for leisure. There’s nothing better than bringing a picnic lunch (here a few great places nearby that offer sandwiches and accoutrements: Bierkraft, BKLYN Larder and Zito’s Sandwich Shoppe), a good book and relaxing on a blanket under a tree on the Long Meadow. There are a TON of kids here ALL OF THE TIME, so if you want a truly quiet spot, you’ll have to search pretty hard on a really nice weekend day. People watching is half the fun, though! And those kids can be adorable. A few weekends ago, we observed as a toddler ran up to a tree, knocked on its bark, politely asked for two ice creams, then handed over some fake cash.

Prospect Park on a recent weekend

Prospect Park on a recent weekend

Met Rooftop

This one has been on the list for many years. My husband and I like to go on a Friday night after work (the museum is open until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays), get a drink and enjoy the view. Afterward, we roam the Impressionist galleries, which are often blissfully empty that late in the evening. For dinner, make a reservation at Flex Mussels, try Jones Wood Foundry or the very-un-Upper-East-Side Meatball Shop once it opens later this summer.

Tomás Saraceno's Roof Cloud atop the Met last summer

Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud City atop the Met last summer

A Hike in Cold Spring, NY

This hike, known as the Breakneck Ridge Loop (don’t let the name scare you off!) is strenuous, but the views are spectacular. We don’t usually do the full loop, and instead hike up to the second or third clearing, then hike back down. Be warned: there is a very steep rock climb further up, which we have not done. There is a Metro-North Hudson Line train station right in the center of town, and you need to walk about a mile north on 9D for the trail head.  A refreshing beer at a bar on Main Street, after you’ve hydrated, of course, is a just reward. There are also cute cafés and antique shopping if you have the energy.

View from the Breakneck Ridge Loop

View from the Breakneck Ridge Loop

(Image via ScubaBear68, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

New Jersey Slider Tour

My husband and I have been wanting to do this slider tour since Serious Eats first posted an article about New Jersey’s many sliders back in 2009. We’ve been to the White Manna in Hackensack on our way elsewhere, but would love to try a few others on the list. Plus, the joints have an iconic 1950s aesthetic. I’ve always loved Jersey’s diner tradition. It’s the perfect daytime activity with a few friends and a Zipcar.

White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey

White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey

(Image via Liz West, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Red Hook Day

A day in Red Hook, Brooklyn feels like a mini-vacation. We’ve spent many a full day here with friends, including my birthday two years ago. Here are a few ideas culled from recent visits: You can start with a good brunch, maybe at stellar neighborhood restaurant Fort Defiance. Or, a casual lunch of Latin American specialties at the Red Hook Ball Fields, featuring nearly a dozen food trucks surrounding an area soccer field. Follow that up with a relaxing few hours on a blanket at Louis Valentino Jr. Park and Pier. Then a coffee and a pastry or three at the famed Baked bakery. And now that it’s well into the afternoon, you can start drinking (responsibly, obvs). How about a pitcher at the blessedly low-key rooftop patio of dive bar and restaurant Rocky Sullivan’s or outside the large glass-plated doors at cocktail den Botanica, or even with a wine tasting at Red Hook Winery. Finish at Rocky’s with a well-priced dinner of all-American specialties, with upscale eclectic cuisine at The Good Fork or with miniature golf and seafood at the sprawling Brooklyn Crab.

A mural in Red Hook

A mural in Red Hook, Brooklyn

Hamptons Day

We’ve been doing a day in the Hamptons for eight summers. Tiana Beach near Hampton Bays (technically part of Southampton) is great because A) It’s closer than driving all the way out to the shmancy part of the Hamptons. B) It’s public. C) It’s pretty. D) There are facilities. Be sure to get there before 2 p.m. on weekends to secure your $20 non-resident parking spot. Bring a picnic lunch and finish the day with dinner at a nearby seafood restaurant like TR Restaurant and Bar or Cowfish.

Oyster Happy Hour

Ah, oysters, the most divisive of all shellfish. People who haven’t tried them often don’t want to because they look, well, like snot. Their texture, if they’re fresh and good, is more slick than slimy and they taste of the ocean: salty, briny, earthy, incredible. An oyster happy hour is one of my favorite indulgences and it seems most apropos to take part in during the summer months. New York magazine did a recent round-up and I’ve been dying to settle into a platter in the lush backyard of Maison Premiere. Here are a few happy hours I’ve enjoyed in the past: The Ten Bells, The Mermaid Inn, Lure Fish Bar, Upstate, Prima.

Oysters on the half-shell

Oysters on the half-shell

(Image via julesjulesjules m, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Bike up Hudson to Dinosaur BBQ

Though an outpost of this beloved Syracuse-based BBQ purveyor is opening tomorrow in my neighborhood, nothing beats grabbing a bike (you can either rent one at Pier 84 on W. 44th St. or use a Citi Bike) and pedaling up scenic Hudson River and Riverside Parks, with their pockets of manicured green, art installations and scenic across-river views, to the Harlem, 125th Street location. Grab some hot wings, fried green tomatoes and a sweet tea, and settle in for the afternoon.

Grilling at Brooklyn Bridge Park

My husband and I recently discovered the newly installed picnic tables and charcoal Hibachi-style grills near Pier 5 at this constantly evolving park. Labeled the “Picnic Peninsula,”  these tables, made from salvaged wood and topped with aquamarine umbrellas, would be a perfect place to spend a mild weekend afternoon, perhaps celebrating a friend’s birthday with fresh-grilled burgers and franks. There is a long, snaking line of picnic tables with enough space for many large parties.

Picnic Peninsula at Brooklyn Bridge Park

Picnic Peninsula at Brooklyn Bridge Park

(Image via ceonyc, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

High Line at Night

As I’ve often said, the High Line is one of my favorite places in New York. Until now, though, I’ve only ever visited in the daytime. I recently saw a photo of a couple strolling the elevated park at night, illuminated by ground-level lighting and the glitter of the surrounding city. I knew I had to make a point to get up there after 9 p.m. The park closes at 11 p.m.–plenty of time to get in some nighttime wandering.

High Line in the evening

High Line in the evening

(Image via Susan NYC, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Prospect Park Concert

The Celebrate Brooklyn! series at the Prospect Park Bandshell is one of the mainstays of summer in the city. At most performances, a $3 donation is suggested, but a few are full-on benefit concerts with a $35 and up admissions charge. I don’t love fighting for a small portion of blanket space and getting angry when people block my view, so my friends and I like to sit outside the bandshell and bring a picnic dinner and a few drinks (technically illegal, but shh, don’t tell anyone). There’s a small hill south of the 11th street entrance from which you can see and hear relatively well. Take note: Belle & Sebastian are playing July 11th. I’ll see you there!

Baseball Game

A baseball game is probably on the summer bucket list of nearly everyone in America, and for good reason. Though I could never kill three hours paying attention to a game in the comfort of my own home, there’s just something about being outdoors, surrounded by people, cheering on your favorite, or favorite-for-the day, team. Since the game is long, there is plenty of time for food and drink breaks, and with the up-market concessions now available at both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, plenty of choices outside of a Nathan’s and a Budweiser, though both are, of course, classics.

Yankee Stadium on game night

Game night at Yankee Stadium

L&B Spumoni Gardens

Summer isn’t complete without a slice of Sicilian pizza and a cup of spumoni at the picnic tables outside this venerable institution. These pizza squares are more pillowy bread than pizza, with a heaping serving of sweet tomato sauce and small clumps of gooey, melty cheese. There’s usually a line, but instead of grabbing the older slices on offer by the cash register, tell them you’re going to wait for the slices coming straight out of the oven. For dessert, try the namesake tri-flavored spumoni, a classic Italian layered dessert which, in this case, features a combination of vanilla, chocolate and pistachio ice creams.

A large square pie at L&B Spumoni Gardens

A large square pie at L&B Spumoni Gardens

(Image via TheGirlsNY, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Sundae at Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain

I adore the sundaes at this throwback ice cream parlor in Brooklyn’s throwback Carroll Gardens neighborhood. A rotating list of massive, not-for-the-calorie-conscious concoctions can be had at the long counter or at one of their cute café tables. The straightforwardly delicious chocolate brownie sundae, with a warm brownie, vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream, tastes like childhood, but the Potato Head Sundae (vanilla ice cream, peanut butter, potato chips) I tried a few summers ago is indelibly entrenched as one of my favorites sundaes ever.

New Catch Holland Herring Sandwich at Russ & Daughters

Ah, June, the month of fresh herring. Celebrate the freshest catch from Holland (where this herring merits a nationwide celebration) at Russ & Daughters, either with their annual all-you-can-eat herring festival or by stopping by the shop between June 19th and mid-to-late July for one of my favorite sandwiches ever: a tail-on herring filet topped with chopped onions and pickles in between a potato hot dog bun. Alternatively, visit midtown restaurant Aquavit for a herring smorgasbord.

Me and my husband at last year's herring pairing

Me and my husband at last year’s herring pairing

The Not-at-All-Definitive Guide to South Brooklyn

Brooklyn has become ubiquitous. A little over a year ago, GQ magazine named the borough the coolest city on the planet. The PLANET! Young creatives in Paris and Stockholm are reportedly trying to recreate its carefully curated patina. Here’s the thing: the majority of these shout-outs focus on very specific areas, namely northern neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, Park Slope and Prospect Heights, among others. And you can find plenty of guides to those areas. But they make up only a small fraction of the borough, maybe 25 percent.

There’s a world of Brooklyn left to explore, and it’s not glossy newness that makes it inviting. Just the opposite, in fact.

A list of destination-worthy South Brooklyn neighborhoods in no particular order:

Brighton Beach:

Coming here is the equivalent of taking a time machine to a 1970s USSR, if the Soviet Union at the time was filled with overflowing supermarket shelves and tacky Roberto Cavalli. I love Oceanview Cafe and Cafe Glechik for pelmeni or vareniki–Russian- or Ukranian-style dumplings–tossed with butter and fried onions and topped with a hefty spoonful of sour cream. Add herring with red onions and buttery boiled potatoes and wash it all down with a glass of compote. Nearly every place in Brighton is blissfully BYOV (vodka, natch). The boardwalk is lovely, too. Elderly Russians love the sun (maybe because it was so scarce where they came from?) and congregate on benches, gossiping or playing dominoes. These scenes make me happy. If you’re going to eat on the boardwalk, try Tatiana Grill, but keep in mind that all of the eateries will be overpriced compared with those on Brighton Beach Avenue one block over. KeBeer, precariously positioned in the vast, in-between haze that separates Russian and American cultures, is a good place to drink some beers after you’re done beaching (though I’d stay away from any non-Russian eats). If you’re taking provisions home, I really love the variety at Brighton Bazaar. Pick up a vobla–a dried, whole fish–take it home, smack it against the table a few times, pick at its innards and wash it down with a pint. The only time my mother drinks beer is when she eats vobla. True story.

Hangin' on the boardwalk

Hangin’ on the boardwalk

Flatbush:

Flatbush Avenue and its surrounding streets have a buzz that’s hard to match. On a recent Saturday afternoon excursion, I ventured to guess that it was one of the busiest streets in the city at that precise moment. The neighborhood is filled with immigrants from the Caribbean Islands, and with them they bring some of the best examples of the region’s specialties. Roti rolls are commonly consumed in the West Indies and can most succinctly be described as Indian- and Caribbean-ingredient-filled burritos wrapped in a “roti” or naan-like pancake. Not, very succinct, I’m sorry. I loved my curried potato roti at Trini vendor Rama’s Roti Shop. Jerk chicken is another specialty, and while I’m not entirely familiar with specific restaurants, the Village Voice did a recent best-of roundup.

Bensonhurst:

An old Italian neighborhood that is at once familiar and new. Parts, like 18th Avenue and surrounding environs, seem like they haven’t changed in decades. (I can attest to that. I lived there 25 years ago). Head to Villabate Alba for delectable Italian/Siclian pastries like cannoli, sfogliatelle and ricotta mushrooms. Feast your eyes on special occasion cakes in a variety of colors. A sign stating that they import their ricotta directly from Palermo, Sicily proves they mean business. Nearby, Royal Crown Bakery bakes some of the best bread in the city. Their chocolate bread, only available on Saturdays and Sundays, is worth an early weekend wake-up. Asian immigrants have been moving in over the past decade, bringing a slew of new businesses. Though technically in Dyker Heights, nearby East Harbor Seafood Palace is a great place for dim sum.

Display case at Villabate Alba

Display case at Villabate Alba

Ditmas Park:

Though technically part of Flatbush, this neighb has developed an identity all its own, slowly transforming into a northern-Brooklyn transplant with the addition of a few NY Times-reviewed restaurants on Cortelyou Rd. Among the options are a new-American restaurant (The Farm on Adderley), a flower store that doubles as a bar (Sycamore), a modern Filipino restaurant (Purple Yam), a stellar hummus place (Mimi’s Hummus), a wine and small plates bar (The Castello Plan) and a closet-sized gourmet market (Market), with more establishments on the way. Walk the Victorian section for your own escape to the ‘burbs. These quite streets are scouted by NYC-based movie and TV projects to represent small towns and leafy suburbs. Nearby Ocean Ave. is a hodge-podge of ethnic shops and restaurants.

Victorian Ditmas Park

Victorian Ditmas Park

(Image via Design Squish, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Common license)

Bay Ridge:

Bay Ridge feels like its own distinctive city, with bustling avenues of shops, apartment as well as expansive single-home dwellings, and access to a lovely waterfront with views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and across-the-bay Staten Island. Popular discount retailer Century 21 has an outpost here, and Tanoreen, one of the best Middle Eastern restaurants in the city, has called the neighborhood home for 15 years. Try the eggplant napoleaon and save room for a knafeh, a mesmerizing combo of shredded filo dough, cheese and syrup.

Eggplant napoleon at Tanoreen

Eggplant napoleon at Tanoreen

(Image via Watashiwani, Flickr.com, made available via Creative Commons license)

Midwood:

Ocean Parkway, flanked on either side by tree-lined medians and park benches, is one of the prettiest throughways in the city. Though mainly a Jewish neighborhood, Midwood is also home to immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. I love Kosher Bagel Hole for bagels and nearby Orchard for really fresh albeit really expensive fruit. Seriously, you’ll get sticker shock. They specialize in gift baskets, so just try to think of it as a special occasion place. Di Fara Pizza on Avenue J is a religious pilgrimage for the many pizza tourists who flock here daily. If you’re one of them, allot AT LEAST one hour for owner Dom to take your order and make your pie. He moves slooowly, as is expected for someone his age. Also, there’s no official list, he just tries to remember every pie order, which means chances are good someone who ordered after you might get their pie first. All in all, not a stress-free experience, but almost definitely worth it at least once. (Bonus: watch as Dom pulls your pizza out of a burning hot oven with his bare hands!)

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Di Fara Pizza

(Image via arnold inuyaki, Flickr.com, made available via Creative Commons license)

Sheepshead Bay:

A historically Jewish neighborhood with a large Russian immigrant population, Sheepshead Bay’s main feature is a pretty horseshoe bay with several marinas. Go fishing or catch a boat tour down to Coney Island. Locals and tourists love roast beef purveyor, Roll ‘n Roaster. Randazzo’s Clam Bar is popular for seafood, and if you’re feeling adventurous, plan a full night out at Russian supper club Rasputin. It’s bizarre in the best possible way and is sure to be a night you won’t soon forget (and you can BYO anything.)

Coney Island:

One of my favorite things to do is visit to the beach at Coney Island on a cold winter day. Bonus points if it’s snowing. You’re in New York City, yes, but you feel as though you’ve discovered an abandoned amusement park at the end of the world. Unless there’s a Polar Bear Club meeting, you’ll most likely have the place nearly to yourself. Which is not to say Coney Island isn’t a great destination during the summer. Catch the eccentric Mermaid Parade, or make a day of it with a visit to the recently reopened Totonno’s and a minor league baseball game. The Brooklyn Cyclones’ stadium is right on the water, and each Friday and Saturday evening game is followed by fireworks. Luna Park, a new theme park abutting some older rides, features a few modern, pint-sized roller coasters. If you’re into those kinds of thrills, be sure to ride the Cyclone, which seems not long for this world. The rickety, feels-like-it’s-going-to-fall-apart-at-any-minute wooden coaster will send you flying in every direction and leave you with a few prized bruises.

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A full beach at Coney Island

Sunset Park:

Located south of South Slope and Greenwood Heights, Sunset Park is a vibrant neighborhood with a large population of Central and South American as well as Asian immigrants. The park that gives Sunset Park its name is fairly small and unassuming, but it features a lovely view of lower Manhattan. Debates about the best tacos in the neighborhood are neverending. Eighth Avenue is filled with dozens of delicious Asian spots. To burn off all of those calories, head to Melody Lanes, a laid-back and inexpensive throwback bowling alley with a famous bartender.

Sunset at Sunset Park with a view of Lower Manhattan in the distance

Sunset at Sunset Park with a view of Lower Manhattan in the distance

(Image via skelastic, Flickr.com, made available via Creative Commons license)

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