Above the Boardwalk

Where summer’s foods were invented.

There’s a story that in 1877, a schooner of pineapples shipwrecked off the coast of Coney Island, the exotic cargo spilling from its hold and washing up on the beach. Locals scurried to collect it, amazed at their good fortune, the strange and wonderful fruit appearing like manna from heaven.

Admittedly this tale is apocryphal. Nothing sells in Coney Island like a little hyperbolic myth. But it’s true that for almost 150 years Coney Island has been a wildly fantastical carnival landscape, luring people with the out-of-the-ordinary, the over-the-top, the possibility that anything might happen. People arrive hungry for fun, and from the start food has played a major role in feeding those desires.

On the southern tip of Brooklyn, Coney Island was just close enough for visitors in the 1800s to daytrip from Manhattan but far enough to feel worlds away. It was wild, dedicated to full-throttle play, a chance to strike back, however briefly, at the straitlaced social codes that were just beginning to show their cracks. The journey there involved a ferry, a carriage or multiple trolleys, and arriving felt like an occasion, not just because of the trip’s length but because Coney Island was so radically different. And so when visitors finally got there they’d tuck into a feast, not of the sensible, nutritionally sound things they’d eat for dinner back home, but of delicious meaty, starchy, fatty, sugary holiday indulgences.

One of the first structures was the Surf House, a mid 19th-century pavilion where picnickers slurped chowder and raw clams from nearby Sheepshead Bay, surrounded by empty dunes. By the 1880s, the Island’s entire five-mile strip had exploded into a patchwork of posh resorts and honky-tonks for all classes, from the grand hotels in the east (daily spreads of lobsters, oysters, flounder, bluefish, champagne) to the lawless dens of carousing on the western end (aside from the profusion of saloons, not many food-and-drink details of this neighborhood are known; apparently they were having too much fun to record it).

Between the two lay West Brighton, the stomping grounds of the average middle-class visitor and roughly the shape of today’s amusement zone. In addition to the proper restaurants that were the modest cousins of the hotel dining rooms, clam shacks and chowder joints kept pace with dance halls, shooting galleries and mechanical rides. It was the perfect breeding ground for an ambitious German immigrant, Charles Feltman, and his stroke of ingenuity, the humble hot dog. In 1867, responding to a demand for simple and transportable hot food, Feltman kitted out his pie cart with a charcoal stove for cooking sausages, and started stuffing them into split rolls. Legend has it that he sold 3,684 hot dogs that first summer. In the decades that followed, three enormous amusement parks grew up around his Surf Avenue lot, distracting visitors with all kinds of extraordinary things to do and eat, but still people flocked to Feltman’s. In 1910 he died a millionaire.

Enter Nathan Handwerker, of Nathan’s Famous fame, the enterprising Feltman’s employee who quit his job in 1916 to peddle hot dogs at a nickel a piece—half Feltman’s rate—thus paving the way for his long reign as the hot dog king and employing the cardinal Coney rule to hook ‘em any way you can. Plus he anticipated Coney Island’s next incarnation: The Nickel Empire.

In the early 1920s the subway finally reached Coney Island, and with the affordable five-cent fare the crowds, until then merely an exceptional size, exploded. A million people a day could jam the beach when it was hot, any lingering snooty class distinctions largely trammeled by so many feet. Big-scale amusements such as the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone sprouted up all over, and dozens of hectic food stalls kept everyone fed on hamburgers, ears of corn, and frozen custard, everything going for a nickel a pop.

Business plowed on through the Depression as things stayed cheap and people were desperate to escape the real world. Game operators offered tins of crackers and bags of sugar in lieu of Kewpie dolls and stuffed bears. But the proper restaurants couldn’t sustain the Prohibition/Depression double whammy, and by the end of World War II most had closed. On the boardwalk at 21st Street sits the landmarked Child’s building, one of the last of those establishments to close, empty but covered in fabulous terra cotta nautical details.

Ask a couple of old timers what they remember eating in the 40s and 50s, and they’ll roll through a list of carnival junk food. But what junk! Warm waffles from Maxie’s; potato knishes at Shatzkin’s; walkaway sundaes; pango pops; cups of fizzy, just-mixed sarsaparilla. It was, in effect, artisanal junk food, all made from scratch, and it being Coney Island no opportunity for spectacle was lost—a man stirring popcorn with flaked coconut and caramel would make a show of it behind the counter to pull in the crowds.

And then things changed. Any Coney Island lover will offer a litany of reasons, all true: Robert Moses had it in for the neighborhood. Suddenly everyone had cars and could drive themselves elsewhere. The public became more sophisticated so the carny attractions no longer appealed. By the mid-1960s many businesses were shuttering; Steeplechase, the last of the mighty amusement parks, was torn down; and the district, which once sprawled across several miles, shrank to the handful of shabby blocks it is today. Food purveyors couldn’t resist the cheap new supplies at their disposal. Making candy became little more than a matter of blending packet A with packet B. In the 70s, 80s and 90s the amusement zone barely scraped by.

But a miraculous number of food joints survived. There’s a grand dining establishment (Gargiulo’s, established in 1907, complete with marble foyer and burbling lobster tank); a revered neighborhood institution (Totonno’s, a pizzeria that’s a destination in its own right); Nathan’s Famous, for many the sine qua non of a trip to Coney Island (though these days the hot dogs cost considerably more than five cents); and a clutch of food stands running along Surf Avenue and the boardwalk. The stands are a jumble of hand-painted signs and neon, their fried brown and yellowy foods lined up beneath heating lamps, and while most items don’t look appetizing that hardly seems to matter; people enthusiastically dig in. And recently the pendulum has begun to swing back. More than $297 million has been invested in the area in the past six years, with another $83 million in public funds pledged, and new groups of people—immigrants, transplants, long-time New Yorkers finally willing to make the trek—are discovering Coney Island, and the tastes of these groups are now reflected in the foods. Puerto Rican mamis hawk homemade empanadas, and Mexican girls spear mangoes with sticks, dousing them with chili powder and lime.

A visit to Coney Island still holds a spark of magic, of hope. Strolling the boardwalk, the breeze kicking up off the ocean, there’s always the chance of some wonderful new treat, the contemporary equivalent of a flood of pineapples washing up on shore.

CONEY ISLAND FOOD:  WHERE TO GO NOW

Three on Surf Avenue
Nathan’s Famous
For many, the raison d’etre of a trip to Coney Island, responsible for launching the hot dog as the snack of the masses; truth be told, the dogs are mighty fine—salty, glistening, crisp- skinned; perfect washed down with a Coke.

Williams Candy
The big display windows boast it all: Candied apples, caramel-and-nut-caked marshmallows, giant lollipops, salt water taffy; head inside for boxed popcorn and jars of penny candy-type sweets.

Denny’s Ice Cream Delectable soft serve (vanilla, chocolate, pistachio or banana) served from a bright pink shop with funnel cake, pink cash registers, and plastic vats of lemonade; next to the bumper cars and the famed call to “Bump, bump, bump yo’ ass off!”

The Boardwalk Trifecta
These three stalwart snack stands offer variations on the same themes—shish kebab, corn dogs, onion rings—but each holds its own charms.

Gregory & Paul’s
Toothsome, potatoey hand-cut fries, best with a slather of ketchup and salt splashed from a big perforated cardboard canister; don’t miss the kitschy rooftop Atomic Age-esque rocket and kiddie statues.

Gyro Corner
Sidle up to the makeshift counter for a plate of clams on the half shell, spritzed with lemon; the two-year-old mural on the wall opposite (duck-tailed dude with a frothy beer, twirling a clam on his finger) was part of a project by public arts organization Creative Time.

Grill House
Food tastes the same as elsewhere, but the atmosphere can’t be beat: on the fringe of the boardwalk bustle, with a cordoned-off area of plastic tables and chairs for funky seaside al fresco snacking.

Editor’s note: Denny’s Ice Cream and Grill House have closed. Gyro Corner has relocated off the Coney Island boardwalk.

Surf House on the boardwalk; where it all began; getting into Astroland may not cost a nickel, but it’s still just feet from fried clams, ears of corn, and cotton candy.

William’s Candy. The cooler at Gargiulo’s holds fruit, vegetables, and deserts. Louise “Cookie” Ciminier delivers a pie and a smile at Totonno’s.

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