Step aside, Wonder Wheel: Among Coney Island’s star attractions is the collection of shops and restaurants serving some of the best beach eats in New York City.
Coney Island has served as a city-dweller’s escape from the concrete streets since the 1900s. Brian Tolinano, a chef at the spacious boardwalk restaurant Kitchen 21, knows that Coney Island and its food is all about getting away.
“When you come out here, you want an experience. Every time you go out to the beach or to a restaurant you’re always looking for the experience,” Tolinano says.
From seafood to candy and fried snacks, Coney Island is a hub of food worth dishing about — and we’re not just talking about the Nathan’s hot dogs.
The Coney Island Lobster Roll
The Coney Island Lobster Roll at Kitchen 21 is not your typical New England bite. The fresh lobster is dressed up with a vanilla aioli, rainbow mix and black caviar, all nestled between a fresh bun.
“The vanilla is what makes it a little different, what sets it apart from other lobster rolls,” Tolinano says. “Absolutely you feel the vanilla when you take a bite with the shallot as well as the lobster.”
When asked, “What’s your favorite part of the lobster roll?” He replies with a laugh: "The eating."
Jelly treats at William’s Candy Store
William’s Candy Store has been providing sweets to candy-crazed beachgoers since opening in 1941. William’s has just about everything, including ice cream, fudge, cotton candy and lollipops, but the main sellers at the shop are the jelly apples and marshmallows. The candy-coating ingredients are heated up in large copper pots until the perfect jellylike substance is created to dip the apples and marshmallows in. The jelly hardens within minutes to create the famous treats. Peter Agrapides, 48, of Bay Ridge, the owner of William’s, says that the jelly treats are some of the oldest menu items on offer.
“A lot of people on the East Coast know what the terms jelly apples, jelly marshmallows are, but a lot of tourists come and ask, ‘are the apples really jelly?’”
Agrapides is happy to let them in on the secret. But the jelly isn’t the end of the story: the apples and marshmallows are quickly dipped in any one of a selection of toppings. Toasted coconut, pecans, sprinkles and more are all on the menu, but the dippers have to act fast because the jelly hardens within minutes.
Agrapides particularly likes the jelly marshmallows. “I like their texture, the crunchiness when you chew it, the marshmallow mixes up with your mouth and it brings out a good mixture of tastes,” Agrapides says. “It’s sweet, sweeter than the jelly apple. The apple we use are sour granny smiths, so when you bite into a [jelly] apple it’s a sweet and sour taste; this one is all sweet and it hits you.”
Oysters and Clams from Pete’s Clam Stop
If you’re in the mood for something more savory, right next door to William’s is Agrapides’ other Coney Island shop, Pete’s Clam Stop. The Stop’s outdoor counters have been serving seafood since 1975, and haven’t strayed from the grab-and-go exterior counters that are traditionally seen on Coney Island.
“At Pete’s the counters are on the street where all of them were,” Agrapides says. “Nathan’s used to be like that but now Nathan’s pushed it back where you have to walk in.”
Back in the day, the outdoor counters would stay open during the winter months, but nowadays Pete’s closes down when chilly weather rolls in.
The Clam Stop gets fresh shipments of clams every two days, keeps them on ice and serves them up with lemon. “When it’s hot out it’s refreshing with beer so we sell a lot,” Agrapides says. Customers can also order fried clams.
Agrapides says the Clam Stop added oysters to the menu 20 years ago and says it’s difficult to predict whether clams or oysters are going to be the choice of the day. At the annual Mermaid Parade, oysters were the clear peoples’ choice, but clams were the hot seller on the Fourth of July.
“It’s the people. At the Mermaid Parade you have those hipsters from the Village coming down from Manhattan,” Agrapides says. “But Fourth of July it’s mostly local people and they prefer clams.”
Lobster Grilled Cheese at Place to Beach
The Lobster Grilled Cheese at Place to Beach is the perfect culmination of three holy grail ingredients: lobster, cheese and butter. Around four ounces of fresh lobster is cooked between two buttery pieces of Texas toast and Cheddar cheese, letting the cheese melt and mix with the lobster.
Giacomo Silvestris, 43, of Park Slope and the general manager of Place to Beach, says the sandwich’s texture complements the flavors of the meal.
“The crispiness, when you take the first bite and it’s crunchy outside but soft inside and it’s creamy and at the same time you get the lobster,” Silvestris says. “The first three bites are definitely the best.”
Silvestris says what makes the lobster grilled cheese so good is the blend of flavors that comes from the meal’s ingredients.
“It’s the combination between the butter, cheese and the lobster,” Silvestris says. “These three elements are the key that make it so tasty and so good,” he says with a laugh.
Cemitas at Dona Zita
While Cemitas hail from Puebla, Mexico, they’re no strangers to Coney Island thanks to Dona Zita Mexican Restaurant. The sizable sandwiches are packed with meat, Oaxaca cheese, avocado, onion, papalo, chipotle pepper and mayo, all fit between a sesame roll. Choose between six meat options, including chorizo (Mexican sausage), milanesa de res (breaded beef), and carne enchilada (spicy meat).
At $12 a meal, the authentic and large sandwiches are a way to stave off hunger after a day splashing in the waves. If you are really feeling a party, pair the order with fresh horchata or the Sandia Loca, a $30 half watermelon filled with what promises to be an "explosion of tropical flavor."