This is part of a short series on touring the less-traveled Brooklyn, the largest of the five boroughs of New York City. Brooklyn, like New York City as a whole, is constantly changing; if you’ve visited once two years ago, your opinions are likely to be deemed ancient history. There are some neighborhoods in Brooklyn that are quite popular, due to an influx of newcomers, a popular and vibrant dining and bar scene, etc., and these places need no introduction. However, there are other places that are unique, perhaps a remnant from an earlier time, and should be checked out if you ever come to visit. The places listed here are probably known to Brooklynites but limited outside people, and thus worth a look, I believe, as someday these too may get outpriced, gentrified, or perhaps succumb to some other downfall.
Brighton Beach vs. Coney Island
Coney Island always was an instantly-recognizable cultural icon; when I was growing up in Queens, Coney Island was just about all I knew about Brooklyn. And this southernmost part of Brooklyn legitimately deserves its fame and notoriety. It used to be a somewhat-sinful escape for Manhattanites around the turn of the century (20th), with the amusement parks, gambling pits, and freak shows. Now, it is internationally filmed every 4th of July for the annual Hot Dog Eating Championship. The famous Mermaid Parade takes place each year around the beginning of summer; the New York Aquarium is also situated at Coney Island.
However, – and especially during the summer – Coney Island is just absolutely crowded with tourists and visitors. I’m not saying its a bad thing, but I know that when I travel somewhere, I’d like to see the “more-local, less-touristy” places, sites which the majority of visitors would not know about or would want to avoid. So, as an alternative for Coney Island, I would offer you Brighton Beach.
Brighton Beach is located adjacent to Coney Island, to its east. They share the same views, the same sand, and the same boardwalk, but for some perplexing reason, they don’t seem to share the same crowd. When I am there, I can hardly tell where Coney Island ends and Brighton begins as I’m walking along the boardwalk; the tourists and day-trippers seem to know better than I do, since they seem to gravitate towards the lights and noise of Coney Island.
Other than being “beaches,” Brighton Beach and Coney Island aren’t at all comparable. People visit for different reasons. While Coney Island today is still synonymous with food, fun, and entertainment, Brighton Beach remains much of its charm and culture that its had for decades.
New Yorkers today know it as “that Russian area.”
Brighton Beach is full of Russian-speaking immigrants, and the largest community of such in the United States. There are also large populations of other former Soviet Union immigrants that now call Brighton Beach Home, including Azerbaijanis, Armenians and Georgians; interestingly, this decade has seen a large influx of Russian-speaking Central Asians to Brighton Beach, namely from the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. 75% of residents here were born outside of the US, and almost 2/3 speak Russian at home. A decent population of Ukrainians allow its common nickname to make sense – Little Odessa.
Where to Start:
The BMT Brighton Line has two stations, Brighton Beach (B, Q) and Ocean Parkway (Q), making a day-trip to the neighborhood relatively easy. These trains run above ground on an elevated rail over Brighton Beach Avenue. The best way to get a real Soviet-ish experience is to get off at one of these stations, and start wandering along Brighton Beach Avenue towards the other subway station. Along this bustling stretch of the neighborhood, you will immediately sense that you are in its heart; I still feel like I am walking through some Moscow marketplace.
On this central artery of the neighborhood, as well as just off it on some of the streets, beneath the deafening subway tracks, many great stores, restaurants, bars, and lounges are to be found. Most everything is in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, with perhaps a smaller English translation if we’re lucky; Russian can be heard everywhere. However, this insistence on not assimilating to the United States and her English is precisely what makes the neighborhood an awesome little expedition.
I’ve taken some Slavic friends to some Russian restaurants in Brighton Beach, and they were surprised: the food, the decor, the service, the atmosphere – very authentic, I was assured. And I believe them. I’ve sat down to grab some pelmeni or pirozhki, and I’m always delightfully amused to scan my surroundings: the two men that walk in for lunch and pull a large, green bottle of vodka out of their jacket to accompany their meal, or the way the television is perpetually tuned to some Russian disco music video channel where everyone is wearing suits made entirely out of silver and gold sequins.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to visit during the warmer months, the Brighton Beach boardwalk is an experience in itself. Somewhat less-crowded than neighboring Coney Island Beach, it does get some spillover. The boardwalk has some great Russian restaurants, such as Tatiana and Volna, the former doubling as a performance space in addition to being a popular restaurant.
Other than Tatiana Restaurant, check out the famed Millenium Theatre in Brighton Beach. The NY Times calls it, justifiably, a “1,400-seat Lincoln Center of sorts for Russian-speaking immigrants who live in Brighton Beach but still remember their days in Odessa, Tbilisi, Kiev or Minsk.” Located at 1029 Brighton Beach Ave, the theater has some great Russian performances, mainly on Thursdays through Sundays.
The National (website)
273 Brighton Beach Ave
Tatiana Restaurant (website)
3152 Brighton 6th St
The beach! It is a beachside neighborhood, after all. Walk the boardwalk.
Drink vodka. You’ll find it served almost everywhere, and at any time of day, even at breakfast!
3077 Brighton 1st Place
St. Petersburg Bookstore
230 Brighton Beach Ave
These are just but a tiny fraction of the great culture that awaits you at Brighton Beach. Don’t take my word for it; check it out for yourself!