America needs Coney Island right now. While Washington, D.C., belches out an unceasing roar of corruption, scandal and partisan noise, this narrow strip of Brooklyn shoreline serves as a reminder of the sort of harmony and agreement the country can be capable of at its best. There are the obvious attractions: surf, sand, sun, swimming and the Cyclone. But there is also, among its strolling patrons, reassuring evidence of democracy and diversity. There are no class wars on the boardwalk, and income disparity is not an issue when five bucks can get anyone and everyone a hot dog with the works.
We also all need a good, strong drink these days, and Coney’s got that, too. With much of the culinary attention typically going to Nathan’s Famous, Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano and the various purveyors of ice cream, clams and funnel cake, it’s easy to forget that adult beverages are available on the boardwalk. We’re not talking a finely wrought Martini here or the latest twist on a Jungle Bird. You’ll need to head uptown—way uptown—for that. The boardwalk is for beer, frozen drinks and the occasional whimsical concoction; the drinks should be, and are, as relaxed as you, when you’re just one hundred feet from the shore.
There are at least five establishments sporting liquor licenses within the space of two blocks, each notably different in personality from the last. What follows is a guide to boardwalk drinking, running west to east, as the seagull flies, so you can zero in on the cold one that fits your mood.
Coney Island In Drinks
PLACE TO BEACH
As the horrible pun of a name might suggest, Place to Beach is a cheesy joint. But, it’s a cheesy joint that boasts the widest selection of cocktails—such as they are—on the boardwalk, including a Mai Tai, Blue Hawaiian, Sex on the Beach, Tequila Sunrise, Mojito, Long Island Iced Tea and more. It opened in 2012, around the same time as Tom’s Restaurant (see below), but, unlike its neighbor, has no Brooklyn pedigree. Don’t expect any daintiness in the preparation or discrimination in the ingredients. But these drinks get the job done on a hot day. (Most are $10.) Best bets are the simplest: an Arnold Palmer spiked with vodka; and, of course, a Bulldog, composed of a frozen lemon Margarita pierced by an upended Corona. You’ll pay extra for the Bulldog—$15—but you’re getting two drinks. There’s food as well, and plenty of seating out back for those who want a full meal. But, as with all the boardwalk bars, the tables out front facing the sea are where you want to be.
Coney Island has gone through a lot of upheaval in the past decade, with city officials and real estate developers hot to renovate the gritty seaside getaway, often in ways that were either ignorant or downright contemptuous of the area’s historic appeal. Given all that political tumult, it’s comforting to see how much of the boardwalk still retains an undeniably Brooklyn character. Tom’s Restaurant is a newbie on the block; it opened in September 2012. But its bonafides couldn’t be more Kings County. It is the first and only branch of the original Tom’s, a quirky, family-owned Brooklyn diner that has been feeding Prospect Heights since 1936. The Coney Tom’s doesn’t possess anything near the oddball charm of the original, with its kooky interior décor and personal forest of plants outside. But you can still order a lime rickey or an egg cream. Tom’s prime attraction, in terms of drinking, however, is the rooftop seating (open on weekends); grab a beer and head up for a birds-eye view of the passing throng.
RUBY’S BAR & GRILL
Ruby’s is the one true bar on the boardwalk. It is a salt-air dive with character to burn and is ardently favored by the locals. Ruby’s was nearly booted out a few years back in the name of urban renewal, but it held on in the end. While there’s a food counter on the right hand side of the building, offering anything your greedy gut might desire, Ruby’s is really all about thirst: day drinking, night drinking, nursing a beer, downing shots with friends, whatever you wish. The bartenders are seasoned and sassy, fielding orders for drafts (Lagunitas IPA, Stella, Brooklyn Lager), vodka-sodas, Tanq & Tonics, 7&7’s and frozen Margaritas and Piña Coladas. The rest of the back bar is stocked with the usual array of bottom-shelf brands you find in dive bars, but one doesn’t go to Ruby’s to be picky. Should you get bored (which really isn’t a danger here), there are Trivial Pursuit cards on the bar and a well-stocked jukebox, which you can occasionally hear above the din of the raucous, fun-loving clientele. And, in case you’re not fully convinced that Ruby’s is as much a part of the boardwalk as sea spray, the bar, tables, walls and ceiling contain actual slats from the original boardwalk.
Paul’s Daughter may have the best bar on the boardwalk. It’s located at the western corner of the long concession, which, since 1962, has been whipping up every kind of classic Coney foodstuff you can imagine. If Ruby’s is the boardwalk’s rowdy saloon, this is its quiet bar. Grab one of the ten stools and, under a string of Edison bulbs, enjoy the best drinker’s boardwalk view on the beach. Behind the bar are old photographs of the joint when it was known as “Gregory and Paul’s” (it’s still family owned by, yes, Paul’s daughter). There’s also a fine bar-food menu, a sign on which the word “beer” is painted in several different languages and a dedicated bartender. He can serve you up any of the six drafts, a frozen Margarita or Mojito (both $11) and, best of all, a “Boardwalk Paloma” in which a shot of tequila, a bit of lemon juice and some salt are combined into a partially emptied can of Sanpellegrino sparkling grapefruit soda ($9). It is simple, satisfying, ice cold, unpretentious—just what all Coney drinking should be.