Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Witness the enduring spectacle of Coney Island on a summer afternoon!
Here, where the subway tracks come up for air and terminate just before the water's edge. Where the station looks out over the great wooden Cyclone and Deno's Wonder Wheel, built in 1920 and weighing 200 tons and heralded by the not-entirely-reassuring sign "They Don't Build Them Like This Anymore!" Here, where a bow-tied busker stands outside Sideshows by the Seashore imploring passersby to buy a ticket to see Leo the Human Gumby and Betty Bloomerz, human pushpin and sword swallower. (Getting yelled at for snapping a photo of the busker is free.) Where the salt breeze smells of candy apples and sunscreen.
Nathan's Famous | Fried clams and potato wedges at Paul's Daughter [Photos: Tasting Table]
A cop on horseback goes clomping past the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues where, save for a dark but brief post-Sandy spell, Nathan's Famous has been selling hot dogs every day since Nathan Handwerker opened the place in 1916. It's noon on a Thursday and there must be 50 people in line at Nathan's. "Our hot dogs are very famous!" confirms a smiling woman at the register whose nametag says "Memory." "I can give you free sauerkraut and onions," suggests Memory, conspiratorially. She is from the Hubei region of eastern China and says her name really is Memory. I also spotted a Misty over by the near-empty line for the unfamous fried frog legs and, by the condiment pumping station, a lady called Storm. So either Nathan's is hiring people with evocative, Coney-correct names or someone in the nametag department is messing around. I'm not entirely sure.
Oh, how were the hot dogs? They were pretty good. We're here for amusements, not amuse-bouches. We're here for the fried funnel cakes. We're here to celebrate the people's playground, as it was once called. Because it still exists despite the passing years and the hopes of encroaching condo developers. A tableful of old folks asks to have their picture taken on a camera with a hand-strap. Some of them grew up around here and they're taking the others on a tour of the old neighborhood. So what's changed? "Nothing!" they yell together, and we all wish it was true.
The bar at Paul's Daughter | Trivia cards at Ruby's Bar & Grill [Photos: Tasting Table]
Walk past Margarita Island and the Polar Express ride with its painted portraits of Biggie and Beyoncé. Swing a mallet, win an inflatable panda. Time to eat again. See the boardwalk barflies? They're congregating at tables outside Ruby's bar, mahogany tanned and shirtless, belting out every word of "New York State of Mind." Join them.
"Ruby's is the place you want to park yourself, even if it smells like a urinal," says a food critic friend of mine who'd rather not be associated with that comment, even if he means it as a compliment.
Take a picture of your clams and a regular asks: "You always take pictures of your clams?" A wiry gentleman pulls a beer koozie tight over his Corona Light and announces to nobody: "Gotta put the condom on!" You've had better clams and burgers. But the beer is cold and the sun is hot. And over the screaming of the kids on the Slingshot, Frank is singing "A Summer Wind" and everyone's joining in.
Amble on down the boardwalk. Worn out from the effort? Take a breather a few feet down at Paul's Daughter, a great little bar with snacks. More clams, fried and on the half-shell, squeeze of lemon, Brooklyn Lager on tap.
The boardwalk at Coney Island [Photo: Tasting Table]
Wave goodbye to Luna Park, the ersatz palm tree on the beach and to Paul himself, 85 and still working. There's good eating off the boardwalk. Look inland for W. 15th Street, a.k.a. Gargiulo's Way. A fancy, festive red-sauce and fra diavolo spot, Gargiulo's has been the neighborhood's special-occasion spot for more than a century. Technically, it still retains the three stars Mimi Sheraton awarded it in The New York Times in 1977. (It's never been formally re-reviewed, though the Times did check in again in '84 and observed cannoli filling that "looked and tasted like library paste.")
No matter. Have a drink served by the tuxedoed barman while you people-watch. It's a nice prelude for the meal you'd actually drive to Coney twice a week to eat: the thin, char-crusted, sweet-sauced margherita pie at Totonno's pizzeria. One bite and it's clear that the nine decades of hype have been justified. It really is a damned good pizza, the ideal expression of straight-up, untweaked, coal-oven New York pizza.
Time for a nap on the F train. Luckily the ride's long and the cars start here empty. Passing by Nathan's, there are now 100 people in line. Memory is still smiling.
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