Nathan’s Famous turns 100 this year, and eating one of their Coney Island hot dogs is a rite of passage for every New Yorker. Coney Island has been a nearby paradise on the seashore for almost two centuries. My own grandfather Isadore Seiger owned and operated the Boston Hotel and movie theater for a few brief years in the mid-1920’s, which may explain why I love going there so much.
And while I appreciate a great hot dog as much as everyone else, I had to wonder what other edible secrets could be found along this well-visited stretch of Atlantic coastline. And who better to ask than the Honorary Mayor of Coney Island himself, Dick Zigun?
Zigun is the founder of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, which boasts sword swallowers, fire eaters, contortionists, magicians, comedians, musicians, yoyo acrobats, strongmen—everything you would hope to find at a circus sideshow. As I hoped, Zigun gamely agreed to share some of his preferred Coney eateries, and his favorite food at each one.
1521 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn
Footprints is a Caribbean restaurant famous for its signature dish: Rasta Pasta. This kicky everything-but-the-kitchen-sink entrée comes with an extraordinary variety of toppings, from snapper, salmon and shrimp to jerk chicken, Cajun chicken breast and tofu with mixed vegetables. You should also visit Footprints on a hot summer day for a juice cool-down: cucumber, sorrel or carrot juice.
Plaza Mexico Doña Zita’s
1221 Bowery Street, Brooklyn
Doña Zita’s restaurant is a small unassuming spot along one of the inner walkways of Coney Island. In fact, you may walk right past it. Doña Zita’s torta is not to be missed, however. It’s a large, soft roll filled with pulled spicy chicken, cubed beef, chorizo, jam, pork carnitas, or vegetables, and topped with shredded lettuce, white cheese, avocado, tomato and jalapeños. It’s big enough to share, though you might want it all to yourself.
2911 West 15th Street, Brooklyn
I half expected to find Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin holding martinis at the bar when I walked through the grand entrance to Gargiulo’s. Over 100 years old, this place has Old World glamour mixed with Brooklyn Italian style. It is not a place to roll into straight from the beach—think cloth napkins and the like. Zigun favors the minestrone soup and the linguini with white clam sauce. I’d suggest you get some spumone or the tartufo for dessert.
1524 Neptune Avenue, Coney Island, Brooklyn
Perhaps the best documented eatery in Coney Island, Totonno’s pizza is a legend. Established in 1924, it is the oldest single family-owned pizzeria in the country. The service may be fast if it’s not a hugely busy weekend day, but don’t expect it to be charming and friendly. What you can expect is mouthwatering thin crust pizza with a lusciously tangy sauce topped with locally made mozzarella. The James Beard Foundation named Totonno’s one of “America’s Classics,” and emphasizes the importance of the brick oven in creating the signature char on the crust.
1213 Boardwalk, Coney Island, Brooklyn
Founded by Rubin “Ruby” Jacobs in 1972, Ruby’s is known for its Coney style knishes, and for its seafood menu featuring fried shrimp and clams (zero trans-fats). Zigun likes to stop by Ruby’s for a plate of golden brown waffle fries, and for a drink at the well-stocked bar. Now run by Ruby’s daughter Melody and son-in-law Michael, Ruby’s has outdoor seating as well as a sizable indoor space with long picnic tables. Look up when you walk inside because a stretch of the original Boardwalk hangs from the ceiling—making Ruby’s the only place where you can still kiss under the boardwalk.
Dick Zigun can be found most frequently on his home turf at the Freak Bar (1208 Surf Avenue) It does not serve food, but it does microbrews from local breweries on tap and in bottles, including Coney Island Brewing. Proceeds from the bar and gift shop go to support Coney Island USA.