Brighton Beach

Russian markets, carousels, and the open ocean


Somewhere between pop art wonderland, east coast beach paradise, and bustling Russian village are the endlessly entertaining ocean-side communities of Brighton Beach and Coney Island. This corner of South Brooklyn made for one my favorite days of exploring yet, delivering delicious fusion eats (Korean-Uzbek... !?), all the proper chaos you'd ever want in a traditional Russian market, old school Americana (the first Nathan's hot dogs!), and of course the pleasures of a sunset seen from the sand. Hello Coney Island indeed. 

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Sidewalk life in Little Odessa: Fur hats and bustling Russian markets

Little Odessa (named after the third largest city in Ukraine) is the bustling hub of Coney Island's Brighton Beach neighborhood, full of character and defined by the vibrant Russian community that calls it home. A good number of the current residents are descendants of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, many of whom were concentration camp survivors or fled during the war. In fact, of the estimated 55,000 Holocaust survivors living in New York City, the majority live in Brighton Beach.

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There are many reasons to love Little Odessa and one of them has to be the street wear obsession with fur everything - especially these wonderfully fluffy hats and leopard print coats. If there were more hours in a day, I'd start a photo blog of all the strange and whimsical fur things being worn here and the equally strange and whimsical characters that sell them. Consider the below examples pilot content.

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Credit Jessie Lin

Credit Jessie Lin

On a Saturday afternoon, Little Odessa is nothing short of bustling. The jam packed sidewalks along Brighton Beach Boulevard are lined with vendors selling all sorts of wares, from gourmet pies to pirated DVDs to mugs with pictures of Putin on them. Boxes of goods spill out of storefronts and shoppers shout their orders from the sidewalk. And, lets be clear, a lot of this stuff is truly awesome. 

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Gourmet Russian Groceries

Walk down Brighton Beach Ave from 1st to 6th street and not only are you thrown into the bustle of sidewalk commerce, but you're also right at the doorstep of what are surely the city's best Russian grocery stores. Stocked to the brim with pastries, rye breads, blintzes, caviar, dumplings, and pickled vegetables (at shockingly low prices) shops like Best Buy Best Food (and countless others) are well worth a visit. Not to mention the dried fruit, nut, and candy selection at Vintage Gourmet Foods, which is certainly worthy of the age old kid in a candy shop feeling.

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Authentic Russian Eats (plus a sprinkle of fusion success!)

When a friend told me about Cafe at Your Mother-in-Law and its fusion Uzbek-Korean cuisine, I thought I misheard something. But, as it turns out, spicy pickled vegetables go incredibly well with the beefy / bready / cabbagy Uzbek flavors. Not everything at this place is a hit, but a few things were a serious win. We loved the braised cabbage with rice, meat, and cream (below left) and the Samsa (below right - a warm flaky pastry filled with a hearty mixture of pumpkin and onions).

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The other highlight of our Russian food adventure were the cabbage vereniki at Varenichnaya, a casual local spot packed with Russian families enjoying dinner together. As always seems to happen in these wonderful out of the way neighborhoods of Brooklyn, the family we sat next to invited us into their dinner conversation and entertained us with all sorts of amusing anecdotes and folklore. 

People of the Coney Island Boardwalk

One of the reasons I love this area is probably that it reminds me of Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue - an odd melange of characters that each look like they walked out of their own storybook and are just waiting to be featured on Humans of New York.

Small groups of Russian women, often identifiable by a vibrant lipstick of some sort, sit in the sun in their fur coats, sharing the latest news as a nearby guy on a banjo serenades anyone willing to listen (and surprises by actually being quite good).  

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These guys have potentially been sitting in front of Ruby's since the 1980s, shirtless in below freezing weather and certainly never without a beer (or a vodka?). A rowdy, but pleasant bunch to be sure, just continuing what is veritably a "Coney Island Tradition". 

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As it turns out, there are about five ways to relax in the sun on a snowy boardwalk: asleep horizontally, on the iPhone, in a yoga position, shirtless (its 25 degrees out, folks!), and grimacing into the distance. Pick your favorite and do as the locals do. 

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Sleepy winters at Coney Island's iconic amusement park

What the Coney Island theme park may lack in sophistication, it certainly makes up for in colorful cartoonage, not to mention blinding speedos in the summer months and beach-side vodka consumption pretty much year round. Founded as a vacation spot for New Yorkers in the 1830s and 40s, Coney Island resort quickly grew to install its first wooden carousel in 1876 (rides were a nickle!) and Luna Park around the turn of the century.

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Controversy met the area's theme park development over the years though, as the original residents fought for the land's preservation as a natural park and subsequent rulings tried to re-zone the area as residential space or designate it for low income housing. A number of other pressures hit post-war as Luna Park burned in a series of fires, prostitution took over the boardwalks, and the gang violence of the 1950s took hold.

After a series of revitalization efforts, including all sorts of dramas involving Donald Trump's father, Bloomberg's interest in making an Olympic bid, and an endless circle of real estate controversy, the park today includes over 40 attractions during the summer season and a charming amount of kitch Americana. Be sure to check it out in the winter months though if you get a chance - I have a feeling the quiet Ferris Wheels and relaxed boardwalk scene are just as nice, if not better in their sleepy winter state. 

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The original Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs

Nathan's Famous hot dogs opened on Coney Island in 1916, quickly becoming a landmark and later expanding to the rest of New York City. And, fun fact, you can check out the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Context every 4th of July, a tradition continued every year since the joint opened its doors almost 100 years ago. 

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Relaxing at the shores of the open ocean

As a California native, I really had no hopes for this beach. And boy was I surprised. Sure, its not your Laguna Beach ocean paradise, but its a beautiful wide stretch of sand and boardwalk that meets the calming back and forth of cystal clear blue waves. After the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, this part of New York has come back in a big way, with beautiful new waterfront fixtures and a boardwalk that stretches out to sea. In all the chaos of the city, this is definitely a place to come for some sun, sand, and that rare view of an uninterrupted horizon. 

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Sunset from the sand

Say goodnight to a long day of exploring, eating, and fur hat watching with a gorgeous ocean sunset. And don't count out the winter months - the snowy sand under those golden rays is quite the site.

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Mapping your trip

You can take any number of trains to get to Coney Island -- the B, Q, F, and N lines will take you right to the center. From there, walk along the boardwalk between the theme park area (centered around the line on the left in the below) and the Little Odessa area, otherwise known as Brighton Beach (centered around the line on the right in the below). This trip is a good 6 hours of wandering, sunning, people watching, and eating - enjoy!

Posted on March 18, 2014 .