In this series for T, the author Reggie Nadelson revisits New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from time-honored restaurants to unsung dives.
It’s a luminous July morning when I arrive in Coney Island and I feel the same excitement I did when I was 9 and, on warm summer Sundays, my father and I would leave our apartment in Manhattan and drive to this southernmost coast of Brooklyn. The Atlantic Ocean looks exactly as it used to — a deep cerulean blue — and the first little girl I see has pink cotton candy stuck in her hair. Already I can smell the ineluctable scent of a Nathan’s Famous hot dog.
For me, the magic of that old Brooklyn was Passover dinner at my Aunt Lil’s in Flatbush, my father’s brothers kvetching about the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers from Ebbets Field in 1957 — they would be mad about it for decades — and those trips to Coney Island in the late 1950s, when it was a child’s dreamscape of rides and food, of beach and boardwalk, and we would return home sunburned, stuffed with banana frozen custard and drowsy from the day’s delights.
A few minutes’ walk south from the Coney Island subway stop, Nathan’s Famous remains at the corner of Stillwell and Surf Avenues, where it’s been since it opened in 1916 and sold dogs for a nickel each. The building is a lot bigger now — it takes up nearly a whole city block — but its shed-like structure is still topped by a sign with the original, iconic green logo. Above that towers a metal cutout of a sausage sporting a chef’s hat and across the facade, green and pink-orange neon letters spell out: NATHAN’S, SEAFOOD, DELICATESSEN. On the east side is a billboard displaying stats from the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, which has taken place here each July 4 since the ’70s; this year, the reigning champ, Joey Chestnut, shoved 76 sausages and buns down his gullet in 10 minutes. Thousands watched on TV. For me, though, the experience of eating a Nathan’s dog is something to be savored — it’s about nostalgia.
The film producer Jonathan Sanger, an old friend of mine who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, has similarly vivid memories of the place. “When we were old enough to be good bike riders, my friends and I would ride all the way from Beverly Road to Surf Avenue, right into the heart of Coney Island. And there the whole experience unfolded, starting at Nathan’s, which was always our first stop,” he recalls. His older sister, Stephany, remembers how “there would be stacks of people seven deep waiting for their hot dogs.”
I buy a frank from the long counter that wraps around the building and anoint it in the traditional fashion — with mustard, ketchup and a load of sauerkraut — then settle in at one of the picnic tables outside, surrounded by families and kids. Nathan’s dogs have a sheepskin casing that, when you bite into it, makes a noise that sounds like summer: snap. The taste is beefy, a little spicy, with the toasty crunch of the bun for contrast.
The origins of the hot dog are unclear, but most agree it was imported to the States from Germany, most likely Frankfurt. And many credit Charles Feltman, an early Coney Island entrepreneur, with first introducing Americans to the idea of eating a frank in a bun. In 1867, he fitted a cart with a small stove in which he could boil sausages and a compartment for warming rolls. He called his snacks Coney Island Red Hots, and it was at one of his restaurants that a young Nathan Handwerker got a job slicing bread before branching out on his own.
When I ask my lunch companion, Bruce Miller, Nathan’s senior director of company operations, who has been with the company for 40 years, what gives the dogs their flavor, he tells me it’s a closely guarded secret. I do know that they are still made with the special seasoning mix that Handwerker’s wife, Ida Handwerker, dreamed up in 1916. Nathan, a Jewish immigrant who had left his native Galicia (now part of Poland) only four years earlier and barely spoke English, was just 24 when he set up his stand. But soon he had an empire. Millions of immigrants, including my own grandfather, had arrived in New York during the previous three decades and they were always looking for a good, cheap meal. In a sense, Nathan’s was among the very first great fast-food restaurants. Murray Handwerker, Nathan’s son, expanded the business with a branch in Long Island in 1959 and another in Yonkers in 1965. By 2001, there were outposts in every state and in multiple countries around the world.
Sitting in the sun, I look up at the stand’s signage, which is not shy about announcing its other gustatory pleasures: lobster rolls, cheeseburgers and fried frog’s legs (which became popular in the 1940s, Miller tells me, when G.I.s returned from World War II with fond memories of French cuisine). “And, of course, Nathan’s also had great crinkle-cut French fries and fried clams to die for,” says Sanger, who liked to follow his meal with a stroll to the boardwalk, past the Silver’s Baths, where men would soak in saltwater pools or sweat in saunas. “I remember as a skinny kid seeing more fat, naked old men than I could ever have imagined in one place.”
I follow his lead and arrive at the boardwalk, which was built in 1923 — it’s been restored several times since, including in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy — and runs 2.7 miles from the border of Coney Island and Sea Gate, a gated residential community, to 15th Street in Brighton Beach. There, I can hear the screams of children on the rides that line the promenade and smell the salt from the ocean. Every 300 feet or so, a ramp or staircase leads down to the sand. Ambling along, I watch as people filter into the bars and restaurants for beers and margaritas, for popcorn and oysters.
In its heyday, which lasted, on and off, between the end of the 19th century and the late 1960s, Coney Island had rides and lights, live music, dance halls, restaurants, ice cream, carnivals, brothels, spas and burlesque, and people came to the boardwalk and beach in droves. On my living room wall is a black-and-white image from the early 1940s by Weegee (the pseudonym of the photographer Arthur Fellig), who captured the exact feeling of the place back then: Hundreds of day-trippers, almost all in bathing suits, stand on the beach, staring directly into the camera. Apparently, Weegee climbed onto a lifeguard station and screamed and danced until everyone looked up at him. The very fact of the happy crowd jammed together in the sun tells you a lot about Coney Island in those years, when it was really about the democratization of fun, about working people taking the subway to escape the cramped conditions and impossible heat of summer in New York.
Although Manhattanites vacationed in the area as early as the 1840s and ’50s, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that it really took off. Hotels and bathing pavilions went up along much of the south Brooklyn seacoast, including Brighton Beach to the east of Coney Island and Manhattan Beach beyond. Visitors arrived by railroad, ferry and trolley, by private carriage and yacht. To entertain the rich, three racetracks were opened beginning in 1879; they eventually attracted gamblers and gangsters — “Sodom-by-the-Sea,” The New York Times called Coney Island in 1893 — and by 1910, they were all shut down.
Still, the fabulous amusement parks survived, including the three greats. There was Steeplechase Park, built in 1897, which remained open until 1964. “It had bumper cars and sliding wooden horses on a polished, heavily shellacked wooden track,” recalls Sanger, and a clown’s face painted over the entrance that “scared me to death and also looked very much like the original Batman Joker.” Luna Park, founded in 1903, was best known for A Trip to the Moon, an electrically powered mechanical ride, inspired by Jules Verne’s 1865 novel “From the Earth to the Moon,” that resembled a spacecraft. And though the original park shut down in 1944, there’s a newer version now that shares its name and boasts the Thunderbolt, a ride that drops its passengers from 115 feet at 56 miles per hour. But it is the Cyclone, the venerable wooden roller coaster built in 1927 and now part of Luna Park, that has always been the great draw. “My sister was a big fan and her style of babysitting me when I was little was to sit me on a bench and go binge-riding on the Cyclone for hours,” says Sanger, who eventually started going on it himself, too. “I always threw up afterward. It was a rite of passage.”
Then there was Dreamland, with its million electric lights and iconic central tower, which famously appears on the jacket of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 1958 poetry collection, “A Coney Island of the Mind.” Even Sigmund Freud was impressed with the place. In 1909, on his sole trip to the States, which included a visit to Dreamland, he is supposed to have said, “The only thing about America that interests me is Coney Island.” Among its attractions at the time, as shocking as it now seems, was the Midget City, also known as Lilliputia, a model town where 300 little people actually lived and where everything, including an opera house, was scaled to their size. In 1911, just seven years after it opened, Dreamland burned down.
In 1974, Nathan Handwerker died. By the ’80s, according to Phil McCann, Nathan’s senior marketing director, there were no family members left at the company and it became a corporation with franchises. Hot dogs encased in bagel dough appeared, along with other gimmicks. But the stand in Coney Island has survived, even weathering the ’70s and ’80s, when crime threatened to destroy the neighborhood and developers like Fred Trump fought over its remains.
Along with the Weegee photograph on my wall is a watercolor by David Levine, an artist best known for his political and literary caricatures. He grew up in Brooklyn, where his father had a clothing business, and his paintings of off-duty garment workers and other weekenders at Coney Island are, as Bruce Weber wrote in Levine’s 2009 New York Times obituary, “sympathetic portraits of ordinary citizens, fond and respectful renderings of the distinctive seaside architecture, panoramas with people on the beach.” My picture is just that — an evocation of a lazy seaside day around 1965, showing people lying and sitting on blankets on the sand and a life guard at his station, all against the backdrop of a vast sky. This was, in retrospect, the last gasp of the area’s glory days but in the past decade or so, Coney Island has come back from the brink of decay. Of course, it’s smaller now, less glamorous than it once was, but there are few better places to take the subway for a day out. And when I’m there, in my head, I’m always 9 and it’s always summer.