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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An Insider’s Guide to a Russian Food Store

New York City is rich with ethnic enclaves. This means culture-specific restaurants, bookstores, and perhaps most excitingly, food markets. If you’re not well versed in that specific culture, stepping inside can be a tad intimidating and overwhelming. Where to start? How do you make sure you’re picking up the right products?

As a Russian immigrant, I often go to Brooklyn’s beachside Brighton Beach neighborhood to fill up on provisions. One of my favorite grocery stores is Brighton Bazaar. It’s clean, expansive and easy to navigate. Here are some of the things I like to pick up when I make a trip.

1. Pickled things are the antipasti of Russian meals. The cabbage is tart and refreshing as are the full sour and half-sour pickles. You can also pick up pickled mushrooms, tomatoes and even watermelon.

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2. The hot bar is a cornucopia of Russian specialties, from bread pockets to meat cutlets to mayonnaise-y salads. The meaty, fatty, flavorful borscht is hearty enough for a full meal.

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3. The aroma emanating from the sliced meats counter reminds me of the sliced bologna and salami we indulge in during family gatherings. For salami, I’d suggest one of the more expensive varieties, like Hungarian (Vengerskaya) or Tzar’s (Tzarskaya), or, if you don’t eat pork, an all-beef salami referred to as “Jewish” (Evreyskaya). I have a soft spot for the alarmingly cheap Doctor’s pork bologna (Doctorskaya), which is smooth and strangely refreshing. My husband insists my love for it is a product of misplaced nostalgia, but I would still recommend it for the Russian food novice–it has a universally appealing taste that’s much less gritty than the Oscar Meyer variety.

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4. Apparently this shop’s bakery department orders their breads all the way from Germany. It makes sense; German bread is renowned in Russia, and the varieties offered here are top-notch. The darker breads are dense, delicious and perfect for sopping up sour-cream drenched things. I usually get the “crusty bread”, which is on the lighter side of dark, and has a nuanced sourdough quality. Feel free to pick up a poppy seed roll–the favorite dessert of every Russian father–if you’re looking for something sweet.

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5. There are a few varieties of dried fish in the seafood section. The one I’m most familiar is vobla. It’s the fish of post-banya meals and lazy afternoons. It requires a a bit of softening, so you can either hit it against the table a few times or bend it back-and-forth until it’s pliable enough to pick at. It’s salty, so pair it with a refreshing beer–a Baltika, maybe?–for a truly Russian experience.

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6. Buckwheat kasha or grechnivaya kasha (on the floor) is to Russia what French fries are to the United States. It’s a a staple side in nearly every home and restaurant. It’s not only a side, though. Add some sauteed mushrooms for a complete meal. My favorite dish as a child was buckwheat kasha mixed with cutup hotdogs.

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7. Russian-style dumplings or pelmeni are my go-to frozen entree when I don’t have time to cook. There are over a dozen varieties to choose from, including sweet versions with cherries, often referred to by their Ukranian name, vareniki. I usually go for the chicken dumplings, but the most popular are “Siberian”-style, a mixture of beef and pork. Boil until tender and top with a spoonful of sour cream or melted butter.

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8. When I was younger, one of my favorite items from the Russian food store was a bag of pryaniki, Russian gingerbread honey cookies. There is an abundance of choice when it comes to picking your favorite. Do you like them smaller or larger, with a more pronounced gingerbread flavor or a more pronounced honey flavor, with more sugar glaze or less? They’re delicious, but also a bit of an acquired taste. They tend to be slightly drier than American-style gingerbread cookies and may require a dunk into tea or coffee.

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 9. There’s no American food product my parents hate more than factory-made marshmallows. They’re convinced American marshmallows taste of chemicals, and well, they’re kind of right. On the other hand, they love zephyr, a Russian dessert with a similar texture. It’s made with fruit puree, sugar, egg whites and some type of gelling agent. It’s airy, pliant, sweet and even better when covered in chocolate.

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10. Let’s get one thing out of the way: Russian chocolates look better than they taste. And well, that’s okay, because they still taste pretty good. The packaging is the star, though, especially in the case of the awesomely retro paper-covered chocolates. All feature bright Soviet-era illustrations, some inspired by Soviet realism, others by 70s-era children’s books. They’re mostly chocolate-covered and the interior is usually a wafer or a nutty nougat filling.

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11. Russians tend to prefer their desserts less overwhelmingly sweet than many Americans. They love flaky, buttery, Napoleon-style French pastry, and go ga-ga for layered meringue cakes, like the crazy-popular Kiev cake. The oblong, walnut-looking sandwich cookies (below, middle) called oreshki (the Russian diminutive word for “nuts”) are a wedding staple, made from a mayonnaise batter and filled with caramel cream and crushed nuts.  The long, purple, candle-looking dessert is called churchkhela and is popular in the Caucuses. The long spokes are made from nuts which are repeatedly covered in a gelling fruit juice mixture and left to harden.

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The Inquisitive Person’s Guide to Russian Supper Clubs

Girls' night out at Rasputin

Girls’ night out at the now-defunct Rasputin

What’s a Russian supper club? For our purposes, Russian supper clubs provide dinner-and-entertainment experiences in Brooklyn’s Russian speaking neighborhoods. The food and the type of entertainment vary, though you can expect the former to be plentiful and the latter to be kitschy. Supper clubs were popular in the U.S. in the 30s and 40s, and though they’ve never quite had a true resurgence, the concept has been heartily embraced by other cultures. Russian immigrants who settled in Brooklyn’s oceanside Brighton Beach neighborhood began opening these clubs in the late 70s and 80s. The oldest examples have remained gaudy time capsules of that era.

Where are they? The more established restaurants are located in Brighton Beach, with a few of the newer additions in Sheepshead Bay.

I’m not Russian; should I go anyway? Do you love serviceable, sometimes delicious Russian food? Do you love fun? What about dancing? How do you feel about kitsch and cheesy entertainment? Do you drink vodka? If these bring out positive associations, then you’re in for a treat.

Great! How do I pick a place? I’ve really only been to two, Tatiana, and the recently Fed-raided Rasputin. (And yes, that does make me an expert.) Though Rasputin is now, unsurprisingly, closed, Tatiana is still kicking. It’s one of the grande dames of Brighton, as is the nearby imposing National. I’d say both are good bets. Or, you can try relative newcomers Passage, Winter Garden Aqua Grill or Baku Palace.

Should I come with a Russian friend? Yes, if possible. They’ll be able to explain some of the traditional dishes and translate the ridiculous songs. If anything, having a Russian speaker present will help you communicate with waitstaff and busboys, some of whom don’t know a word of English. A friend at Tatiana wanted a new glass, repeated the word multiple times and even pointed to a nearby glass as an example only to have the waiter leave flummoxed and return with an English speaking cohort.

What do I wear? Your glitziest outfit. Dressing up for a Russian supper club is akin to dressing for a night out in Vegas or Atlantic City. For the ladies, anything short, tight, sparkly and designer label-clad. For the gentleman, a suit sans tie. If you have a gold chain necklace, all the better. I guess you can wear something understated, but this is more an experience than just a dinner-and-show, why not have fun with the clothes, too?

What do I bring? Liquor and wine. Enough for your entire party for the duration of the night. Many places are BYO and let you to bring in as much booze as you want. Neither of the ones I’ve been to charged a corkage fee, either. They don’t advertise their BYO policy, so be sure to call and inquire. Many also offer a free bottle of wine or vodka for every 10 people in your party. Plan accordingly. (In fact, at Tatiana, we were given TWO bottles of vodka, when we took too long deciding between the options presented.) There is absolutely no reason to pay for the overpriced alcohol.

What’s the food like? Good! Mostly. You can expect lots of salads, made with eggplant, or eggs and cubed potatoes, or tomatoes and cucumbers, or chilled seafood. Also, liver pâté, baked potatoes with mushroom and shashlik skewers. Maybe some sliced meats and lox. Main courses include grilled fish, chicken and lamb or duck. Pastry and fruit for dessert.

When do I go? Any time of year! Definitely on a Saturday night. Though more expensive, it’s also the most festive night.

Do I make a reservation? Yes, at least two weeks in advance, and it’s preferable to go with a large party for obvious reasons. When you call, make sure to ask for a table close to the stage and for one with an unobstructed view. Also, if you opt for a price fix banquet menu, which I suggest for ease-purposes, feel free to pick the cheapest option. It will be plenty of food, I promise. In fact, our first course at Tatiana was so extensive, we were sure they’d brought out the entire menu. For a Saturday night, this option is about $100, and is $15 to $30 less if you go Friday or Sunday.

When do I get there? Between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. is probably good, though you don’t want to get there too early since the music often doesn’t start until after 9 p.m. The best part? You have your table for the entire night.

What does a typical night look like? Oh, man. That’s a great question! What doesn’t happen? Cold appetizers are sitting on your table as you arrive. After you’ve been sitting a few minutes, they start to bring out the hot appetizers and offer you your free bottle of alcohol. This is a good time to crack open the vodka and offer a toast. You can toast to anything: friends, family, a guest of honor, if there is one. Most important, either be sincere or sound sincere. It doesn’t really matter in this context. Low-tempo music is being performed on stage. At Rasputin, it was a Kenny G-type on a sax with long, bottle-blond wavy hair. At Tatiana, it was a guy singing Jason Mraz. This is a good time to get in an awkward slow dance.

Around 9:30 or 10, the music ramps up, with renditions of 30-year-old Russian pop songs (as in, my mother, who left Russia in 1989, and does not keep up with the country’s current music scene, was happily mouthing the words to every single song) or American Top 40 classics from 5 years ago. There are usually back-up dancers or singers involved. The kitsch-o-meter is definitely rising. Around now, the main course is being brought out.

They do something special at Tatiana, which is, when it’s your birthday, they call you and your entire party out to the dance floor, so you can blow out the candles on your cake. A photographer then takes a ton of pictures, which he’ll offer to you at the end of the night for a a pricey $15 per photo. (It will seem like a good deal at the time.) Our party had a modest cake, but everyone had over-the-top fondant creations. Shell out for a nice cake if you want to compete. It’s all very Bat/Bar-Mitzvah-esque. In the best possible way!

And now it’s time for the show. At Rasputin, it didn’t start until 11:30, but at Tatiana, it got under way closer to 10:30. There is dancing! There are ridiculous costumes! There are mediocre acrobats! There is a woman in a box being stabbed with a flaming spear! It’s silly and cheesy and all-around awesome. Don’t be a cynic–just enjoy yourself. A few highlights: At Tatiana, a group of male dancers broke into a Fiddler-style wine-bottle-on-your-hat-dance, complete with faux Orthodox garb and stick-on peyos. At Rasputin, the female dancers started the show dressed as Eiffel Towers.

After the official entertainment, the music reaches its zenith, with pop-y and club-y Russian and American hits flowing one after the other. This is the time to get on the dance floor and “twerk”, or do whatever the kids are doing these days. This is also when they bring out dessert, which you can munch on between “twerks.” (That’s correct usage, right?)

There might be a lull in the music around midnight, but don’t worry, it’ll pick back up! At both Rasputin and Tatiana, we left around 2 a.m., with the music still thumping.

That was fun, now how do I get home? I know, right? That was crazy! There will be well-priced car service sedans idling outside as you leave.

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