100 Years of Nathan’s Frankfurters in Coney Island
T he very mention of the name Coney Island — which is a neighborhood located at the southernmost point of the borough of Brooklyn — evokes the quintessential components of a seaside resort from its heyday: amusement parks with rides and arcades; a crowded sandy beach; a famous wooden boardwalk; and open-air stands with people selling all sorts of assorted junk food…
…and although cotton candy and jelly apples rank near the top, nothing is more representative of Coney Island than that American favorite: the frankfurter. That spicy long sausage, fresh and hot, nestled in a warm bun and slathered with mustard, a light snap with the savory juiciness of cured grilled beef welcomes each anticipated bite whose unmistakable aroma somehow mixes nicely in the air permeated with the scents of sea water and sweets.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, I have embarked on many a pilgrimage to the area where my parents went to high school; my grandparents had bought a home; and my great-grandparents had enjoyed riding on such attractions as the Cyclone — still one of the best roller coasters in the world, in my opinion, despite having ridden on the fastest roller coaster in the world only last year. Twice.
The Origin of the Frankfurter Was By…
Also colloquially known by such names as wiener, red hot, tube steak, foot-long, frank or hot dog, the venerable frankfurter arguably hit its stride in Coney Island — as a testament to this, this gastronomical creation is also known as a coney in many places around the world — despite having supposedly first been sold in Frankfurt back in the fifteenth century.
Nathan Handwerker — a Jewish immigrant from Poland — may not have invented the frankfurter; but he certainly contributed to its popularity worldwide. He founded a small stand on Surf Avenue back in 1916 — 100 years ago this year — which was eventually to be called Nathan’s Famous; and sold frankfurters which were manufactured based on a recipe developed by Ida, who was his wife.
His fare proved to be popular rather quickly by celebrities and ordinary people alike; and the creation remains famous today — especially as publicized by its legendary hot-dog eating contest every July 4, which will celebrate 100 years as well, during which the winner last year downed an unbelievable 62 hot dogs in buns within ten minutes — but despite Nathan’s Famous having become forever linked synonymously with Coney Island over the past 100 years…
…Charles Feltman, Who Started It All
…it was German butcher Charles Feltman who “began a pushcart operation that sold food to sunbathers on the beach” as the disputed inventor of the modern hot dog “which he created as an alternative to eating the meat on plates with forks” in 1867, according to this article written by Nell Casey of the Gothamist. Feltman — who actually trained Nathan Handwerker — sold frankfurters for decades until 1954. The last remnant of what was once Feltman’s German Gardens — the largest restaurant complex in the world at the time, “with 4,000 gas lamps, 12 restaurants, 2 bars, the most famous carousel in America” — was demolished in 2010.
“Despite visits from President Taft and Diamond Jim Brady, the Feltman’s empire crumbled—and there are those who blame Nathan’s for bringing down the operation. The story goes that Handwerker left the Feltman’s family in 1916 to open what would become Nathan’s Original just a few blocks away on Surf Avenue. In what turned out to be a shrewd business move, Handwerker began selling his hot dogs at half the price than nearby Feltman’s.”
That story has never been definitively confirmed; but that is not stopping a group of New Yorkers from resurrecting the Feltman’s brand of hot dog into the 21st century. “He went off and undercut Feltman by 5 cents, because a 10 cent hotdog, at the time, was outrageous in 1915”, Michael Quinn — a historian and tour guide of Coney Island who is one of the New Yorkers responsible for the effort to bring back the Feltman’s hot dog — reportedly said of Nathan Handwerker…
…but Quinn plans on some quasi-unintentional revenge of sorts — which includes plans to open a stand in Coney Island near Nathan’s Famous and offer to sell the admittedly-not-quite-exact replica of the Feltman version of the frankfurter for half of the price of one sold at Nathan’s, which currently sells for $4.15.
Not Just Frankfurters at Nathan’s
“Man — these taste exactly the same as when I was a kid,” said my late uncle when he visited Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island for the last time on a visit from where he lived in southern California as he sampled the fresh hot fried potatoes with a small plastic red fork. “It is like they did not change the grease at all.”
I have always enjoyed the fried potatoes of Nathan’s, which to me were rather unique: crinkle cut, thick and full of flavor. I could not find anything quite like them anywhere else in the world. I always thought they were underrated.
By the way, that small fork used to be wooden, if memory serves me correctly.
My mother always enjoyed the fried clams, fried shrimp and the soft-shell crab at Nathan’s in Coney Island. Fried clams are still on the menu there at the clam bar; but I do not know if the soft-shell crab or fried shrimp are still sold there.
Other items which you can purchase at Nathan’s Famous include hamburgers; cheesesteak sandwiches; chicken; onion rings; Manhattan clam chowder; and many variations of hot dogs — including chili dogs, cheese dogs, corn dogs and pretzel dogs. The Coney Island location usually has a lot more variety; although it seems that there are not as many menu items as there once were years ago.
Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island is open 365 days per year, having been forced to close on Monday, October 29, 2012 because of Superstorm Sandy; and during much of the month of May of 2013 due to a small fire.
During the summer months in Coney Island, you can order your food and beverages just like generations of people did before you: walk up to the open exterior at the appropriate areas to place your orders.
By the way, you can get good food purchasing from other locations of Nathan’s Famous; but none of them seem to match the original location in Coney Island, in my opinion – not even the one in Oceanside, New York, which would be the closest replica and which in and of itself is well known.
I believe that $4.15 is rather steep for a frankfurter; but if you have never had one from Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island, you owe it to yourself to do so at least once to sample what has long been an institution which has been an essential part of the history of New York. It is one of the best frankfurters in the world, in my opinion; but that may simply be because I am biased as a person originally from Brooklyn.
One with mustard for me, please.
1310 Surf Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11224
Metered parking is available if you decide to drive there; and you can take the D, F, N and Q trains to the last stop in Brooklyn, which is the Coney Island Stillwell Avenue station.
All photographs ©2007 by Brian Cohen.