A Beginner's Guide To Eating And Drinking On Fire Island

Fire Island is a barrier island with a series of neighborhoods located off Long Island in New York, a stretch of land perhaps better known for coastal communities such as The Hamptons or Montauk. The vacation destination received mainstream attention following 2022's romantic comedy, called "Fire Island," which captured the secluded wilderness, nightlife hotspots, and oceanside sunsets all with stunning cinematography. If you missed the film, you might just be aware of the seemingly exclusive vacation destination thanks to recaps from friends or family in the know. 

Fire Island protects its wild spaces and isn't easy to access, which means a fair amount of planning is necessary to visit any of its five main neighborhoods and ample dining destinations. Well, we're here to break down some of the mystique. The 31-mile long by five-mile wide island to the south of Long Island is a series of enclaves without cars, paved roads, or even bike paths to connect the multiple districts.

The seafood and cocktail lovers paradise attracts couples in their golden years, young families with in-laws in tow, and plenty of partygoers. Thankfully, inter-island water taxis will deliver visitors to the multiple districts catering to a range of tastes. After all, you're headed to a literal island, so we'll help you prepare for tropical cocktails, coastal cuisine, and al fresco dining with oceanside views.

Most restaurants and bars are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day

Fire Island is a seasonal destination. You can travel to the island whenever the ferries are running (and make sure to check when the last boat is leaving). During the cold months, though, you'll find the roaming deer might outnumber the locals in the off-season. Sure, we love the idea of having paradise all to ourselves, but a ghost town is less appealing if you're looking for a warm meal.

Memorial Day is the unofficial opening weekend and most of the festivities die down after Labor Day. Ocean Beach, one of the largest districts, is the exception. Castaway Bar and Grill is near the dock and is one of two bars on the island that is open year-round. We arrived at Castaway in early April when an unseasonably warm day drew crowds to the restaurant and bar's open-air patio. Nearby, CJ's Restaurant and Bar previously held the title as the only off-season dining locale. At either location, you'll find casual eats on the menu and a judgment-free zone if one is in the mood for some day drinking.

Try Fire Island's signature cocktail called Rocket Fuel

Fire Island is not just a beautiful stretch of beach but a haven for those looking to imbibe and unwind. The barrier island's party-goer reputation has been cemented in part due to the ability to claim local creations such as the tropical Rock Fuel cocktail. Even without a description, Rocket Fuel should make even the most serious of drinkers take pause. Of course, it was the Virgin Islands that gave us the Painkiller cocktail, and we can thank Bermuda for the Dark 'N' Stormy recipe — both delicious and not to be taken lightly. 

You'll find Fire Island's slightly sweet and frozen cocktail around Ocean Beach, and each bar might deliver a slightly different take. In essence, Rocket Fuel is a slushy, oversized drink made with coconut milk, pineapple juice, amaretto, and 151-proof rum. CJ's Fire Island claims the original Fire Island Rocket Fuel, a point of pride for the establishment and also a great place to start. Nearby at Island Mermaid, the frozen cocktail is appropriately sized and topped with a spirit float and cherry. Flynn's in Ocean Bay Park makes its Rocket Fuel similar to a piña colada made with light rum and floated with Cruzan aged dark rum and amaretto liqueur. We highly recommend you try at least one version of Rocket Fuel when on Fire Island — just take caution if you decide to try two!

Experience cocktail hour(s) at low tea

Dancing and drinks for "low tea" at the Blue Whale for queer visitors on Fire Island. The Pines is one of the island's hamlets that has long been known as a safe haven for gay men, and the harborside bar and grill has been a place to see and be seen since 1966. The Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society says the Blue Whale started hosting group line dancing each day, called the Tea Dance, to avoid laws prohibiting same-sex partners from dancing together — even though raids and arrests by the Suffolk Police Department were still common.

The popularity of DJs and expansion of the tea dances both on the island and across the country helped to evolve the gathering into the popular low tea that you'll find today. Al fresco dining and cocktails are available at the bar and grill at the Blue Whale. Low tea is much better known for imbibing than signature dishes; however, the Blu Taco serves tacos and empanadas out of a truck (the only food truck on the island), which can help soak up some of the alcohol and keep the night going.

Skip the picnic: no food or drink fare allowed on the beach

Fire Island shores are able to stay pristine because the beach has strict rules to avoid trash and overuse. The barrier island is home to a state park at the westernmost edge and a protected shoreline to the eastern tip. Advocacy groups first pushed to preserve the Sunken Forest, a grove of ancient hollies in the center of the island, in the 1950s. Ocean Beach on Fire Island is particularly strict. Signs remind visitors that food and drinks are forbidden on the seashore. Sure, it's an inconvenience, but it's one way to avoid the stray trash and debris that is all too common at New York's city beaches.

Today, the Fire Island National Seashore is a federally protected wilderness area — reducing damage to biodiversity by limiting development and a glut of visitors. "Although there are 424 national park units, 49% of the annual 300 million visitors explore just 25 of those sites," says said Grace Lee, executive director of National Park Trust, a nonprofit that partnered with Pacifico to spread the word about the plight of over-loved national parks. We agree with Ryan Anderson at Pacifico who says national parks are in danger of "being loved to death," so while Fire Island might be a lesser visited park, keeping it clean is a group effort. Thankfully there are multiple restaurants a short walk from the sand where you can grab a bite during a surf break.

Don't miss out on fresh seafood and Blue Island Oysters

You won't want to miss the opportunity for fresh seafood, specifically shellfish, when visiting Fire Island. The East Coast is known for distinct varieties of oysters when compared to their West Coast counterparts. Long Island's Blue Point Oysters might be the most common variety found at most raw bars. Blue Points are known for being meaty, medium-sized, and an excellent entry point for people unfamiliar with the rush of tasting clean ocean brine.

Many other wild and farmed varieties are found in the state, so be sure to ask your server what they recommend since it can change depending on the time of year and availability (and yes, you can eat oysters year-round). Atlantic Hard-shell clams, or quahogs (pronounced coe-hog) are a common variety along the East Coast. Steamers are native soft-shell clams that are cooked by steaming or a nice deep fry. If you can find fresh razor clams, we recommend that you don't hesitate.

There's no shortage of seafood joints and raw bars on Fire Island. Matthew's Seafood House is a market, ideal for selections to cook later, and a restaurant. You'll find clams on the half-shell and baked clams, depending on your preference, as well as steamers, lobster tail, and mussels in white sauce. Maguire's Bayfront Restaurant is also known for its Long Island steamers and little necks, but we aren't ones to pass up clams casino, which are baked with onions, peppers, and crisp bacon.

Enjoy an oceanside meal served with live entertainment

Fire Island's proximity to New York City and the oceanside vibes combine for a wealth of live entertainment in the form of live bands, DJs, theme parties, and drag shows. Cherry Grove is a district known as Fire Island's West Village due to its longstanding LGBTQ+ community and ability to throw a high-energy dance party. Cherry's On the Bay is mostly outdoor dining — perfect for hosting entertainment almost every night of the week. On Sundays, you'll often find a full day of performers starting with a drag brunch that is so popular you'll need a reservation to enjoy the show alongside a morning tostada. Cherry's might be better known for its many frozen cocktails than its food, including a Bloody Mary, Cherry Bomb, Peanut Butter Cup, and, of course, Rocket Fuel.

For live music, the Sandcastle on the Ocean is another Cherry Grove restaurant with ocean views. The Sandcastle lunch and dinner menus are decidedly more elevated than other nearby grills. Options include a macro vegan bowl, a sushi tuna bowl, and beef barbacoa tacos by day while the dinner menu features filet mignon in its surf-and-turf lineup as well as a hamachi crudo. Live events vary but a Friday evening piano player sets the tone for the weekend. Alternatively, the Sandbar in Ocean Beach provides daytime tunes, starting as early as 10 a.m. on weekends, and continues the party with DJs by night.

Fire Island is ideal for a home chefs and their (chosen) family

It's not uncommon for Fire Island visitors to only cook at home since the vast majority of short-term rentals are beach houses with a complete kitchen. We've had friends visit the island without heading to a restaurant even once. You might also notice that many seasonal residents and visitors to short-term rentals will arrive with necessary goods from the mainland using hand-pulled wagons; the modern equivalent is still as important for hauling as the iconic Red Flyer metal wagons that used to crowd the car-free island in decades past. Sure, wagons might seem charming, but wait until a wheel breaks with groceries in tow.

With this ethos in mind, a handful of boutique grocery stores are scattered across the island, including the Pines Pantry, which appeared as the perfect foil for the budget-conscious protagonists in "Fire Island" the movie. Should you expect groceries to cost a bit more when on a destination island and shopping at an independent grocer? You bet; it's New York adjacent after all. But, we recommend planning ahead for a summer dinner party with friends or stocking up on cold recipes for the inevitable hot summer nights. Don't forget about side dish recipes for your cookout, either, if you're so inclined.

You can still enjoy fine dining on Fire Island

Fire Island is the ideal place for a casual summer getaway whether you're looking to bring along the whole family or planning a trip with your chosen family. In many ways, the oceanfront scene is conducive to transitioning from the shoreline to a patio party. The low-key aesthetic doesn't mean there aren't opportunities for fine dining, or at least elevated dining, with someone special.

The Pines Bistro and Martini Bar delivers a seasonal, rotating menu for a sit-down dinner. The cocktail lounge atmosphere is best known for its martinis (go figure) and the menu leans Italian. In Cherry Grove, Top of the Bay Bistro features a diverse menu also focusing on seasonal, fresh ingredients. The other draw is the incredible views of the water. Plan to make reservations because these restaurants are in demand.

The Hideaway in Ocean Beach is a bayside restaurant with a French bistro aesthetic and an upscale beachside dining room. Sure, we'll admit this might be another restaurant where the views outweigh the commitment to culinary excellence, but it's a far cry from the "no shirt, no shoes, no problem" approach of neighboring eateries. We'll let you decide if that's a good thing or not.

Sip drinks in the smallest federally designated wilderness area

Not everyone has the means of access to rent a vacation home on Fire Island, but you can stay a few nights at the seaside Watch Hill Fire Island Campground — as long as you don't mind the mile hike from the Davis Park ferry or have your own boat to dock. Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness is located well past the island's developed neighborhoods. While it stretches almost 1,500 acres, Fire Island's wilderness area is still the national park system's smallest. Watch Hill is a remote salt marsh, but it's not all tall grass and sand dunes. Whalehouse Point Restaurant and Bar is a full-service outdoor restaurant for visitors who are camping or glamping in the area. Whalehouse Point is currently only outdoor dining until the summer of 2024 due to the reconstruction of the restaurant following damage from Hurricane Sandy.

The menu claims to be one of the most affordable options on the island and sources from farm stands on Long Island's East End. You'll even find a daily happy hour for beer and cocktails while whale watching from the patio. Whalehouse Point is open seven days a week regardless of the weather and might be one of the best options for anyone who is willing to work a bit for their solitude (or knows a friend with a boat). Granted, we could hardly call this roughing it.

Plan your trip around nearby seafood festivals

We haven't talked enough about the proximity and availability of fresh seafood when at Fire Island. We imagine it's a bit like being a fish in water — when it's all around you, it's easy to take for granted all the bounty that the entirety of Long Island has to offer. Well, we are here to remind you to seek out some of the local celebrations of fish and shellfish if you're in the area.

You can travel by ferry for the day to or from the mainland to West Sayville for the annual seafood festivals. Each August is the Seafood Festival at the Long Island Maritime Museum. A low entry fee gives you access to live entertainment and plenty of food and drink options for purchase. We recommend seeking out local clams and oysters, but the art fair is worth a look.

September is the Blue Island Oyster Foundation Festival. Blue Island started as a boutique farm in 2004 and has expanded into one of the largest producers in the state of New York. A range of oysters are farmed and harvested by the team, but one would hope there would be Blue Island oysters, of course. Festival tickets are much steeper, but heading straight to the source for farm-fresh clams and oysters might be worth the price. Plus, unlimited beer and wine, at the adults-only event, and all for a good cause sounds worth the price of admission.

Only a few restaurants offer true oceanside dining

Only a few restaurants offer oceanside dining in order to preserve the wilderness that Fire Island still manages to maintain. Dockside and bayside restaurants are much more common — as are docked boats blocking the view of the sunset. Still, you can find the right views if pairing the Atlantic Ocean with your meal is a priority. (And why shouldn't it be?)

The Casino Cafe and Bar in Davis Park offers ocean views at one of the more remote enclaves on the eastern side of Fire Island. You'll want to make reservations for a picturesque restaurant that has been in operation since 1945, which coincidentally opened on the same day Allied troops hit the beach of Normandy. The menu offers an entire seafood bar, including Fire Island Blues and Fanny Bay oysters, although varieties are subject to change with the season. 

You can also head to the Sand Castle on the Ocean in Cherry Grove for what could be described as upscale casual dining, not surprisingly with a seafood focus. The Sand Castle is much easier to access and might require some planning ahead to secure a reservation. While there are plenty of places to eat with water nearby, sometimes you want the real thing.