Nowadays, we think of it as a half-forgotten freak show, but Coney Island was once revolutionary in the history of al fresco eating.
Photo via Flickr user Duncan C
Almost immediately after stepping out of the byzantine transportation hub that is the terminus for no fewer than four New York City subway lines, I am enveloped in a dank odor. It smells like dreams long abandoned and what I can only assume to be a French fry-laden pile of vomit, being vigorously pecked at by some enterprising pigeons.
Welcome to Coney Island.
I don't think it would be possible to manufacture a greeting more indicative of the neighborhood's current plight and—even though my shoe soles certainly went through their own personal gutter baptism—I wouldn't have had it any other way.
Few places merit a position of honor in the rich cultural tapestry of America more than the iconic seaside destination Coney Island does. And while most people would be quick to associate it with the modern amusement park or American vacationing as a whole, there is an oft-ignored side to Coney Island with just as much influence.
I'm not talking about giving Steve Buscemi a setting to saunter about in period garb—he's got Atlantic City. I'm talking about Coney Island being, quite possibly, the birthplace of al fresco dining in America as we know it.
Sure, this seaside resort and destination in Southern Brooklyn may not be the first place in this fair land where people dined outdoors. But Coney Island may very well have had the strongest influence on our unabiding yen to eat en plein air—and this influence has lasted for more than a century.
To better understand the deeply humble roots of Coney Island as a locale that is essential to our gastronomic history, I decided to take an excursion to this Brooklyn neighborhood. I wanted to see if I could catch a glimpse of our culinary past.
Hard as it is to imagine, outdoor dining was not always a thing in the Western world, let alone America. As one food historian explains: "For much of our history [eating outdoors] was fairly uncommon. Partly explained by dust and dirt from unpaved roads, even in the 20th century when this had been overcome there were still few outdoor restaurants, particularly with the spread of air-conditioning after World War II."
So where and when did al fresco dining in America become de rigueur, fashionable, a thing of delight and not necessity? As it turns out, this monumental occurrence happened in the peninsular neighborhood between Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach—a strip of land that used to be a barrier island but is now connected to the rest of Brooklyn by landfill. And it happened well before the turn of the 20th century.
Coney Island's identity as a seaside resort began in 1829, when its first hotel opened: the Coney Island House. It provided a respite for New Yorkers seeking a little sun, fun, and relief from the bustling metropolis that lies a mere 20 miles away. Other hotels followed suit in the second half of the 19th century.
What were they eating back then? Clams. The then-pristine beaches—it's damn hard to imagine now—yielded plenty of clams, easily raked from the sea. When the steam railroad was extended to Coney Island in the 1860s, hungry droves followed: "Visitors to Coney Island from the 1870's on could eat grilled clams, sleek with butter, for a penny apiece at Lucy Vanderveer's restaurant. Those that rented bathing suits for twenty-five cents at Tilyou's Surf House, received a bowl of hot clam chowder free."
Nowadays, the only bounties of the sea you're likely to encounter are used condoms and the occasional escort in mermaid drag.
Coney Island's identity as an amusement park was born in 1884. The first modern roller coaster, the Switchback Railway "drew lines of trailblazing thrill seekers and set off a craze that quickly spread around the globe," according to historians of the area.
Its enduring identity as an amusement park—raucous, a little sleazy, serving our basest desires to freak-the-shit-out on roller coasters and gawk at marginalized people—began. "By the turn of the century, everywhere you looked, the neighborhood was lined along the beach with bathhouses, clam bars, rides and games," the historians tell us. By the early 1900s, Luna Park was illuminated by 250,000 lights nightly. Dreamland included a Lilliputian Village that was staffed by three hundred dwarfs.
But the food? Pretty limited: clam bars, saloons, and the occasional full-service restaurant.
But then, along came a man named Charles Feltman—and history as we know it was changed for the better.
Charles Feltman was a German Jewish immigrant who, in 1867, was a pie salesman, plying his wares to the saloons and restaurants that lined Surf Avenue, the main drag in Coney Island. Despite his anonymity today, Feltman almost singlehandedly made al fresco diningan enduring American obsession.
Oh, and by the way: he is also credited with inventing the most American food ever created: the hot dog. By putting a hot sausage in a bun, Feltman made history.
Legend has it that Feltman wanted to expand his business out of pies and into sandwiches. He approached a local wheelwright who jerry-rigged the pie cart and turned it into the precursor to the countless "dirty water dog" carts littering the streets of New York today. According to Coney Island expert Jeffrey Stanton, "When the wheelwright finished the installation they fired up the stove for a test run." The wheelwright thought that the sausage sandwich would be nasty, "but ... tasted it and liked it—thus the hot-dog was born."
Feltman, however, was far from satisfied with just one hot dog cart. He leased property on Surf Avenue and built a restaurant—a grandiose and bustling restaurant with outdoor seating, where he served his culinary delight, the hot dog. Outside, in the fresh air. A true maverick, in the non-Palin sense of the word.
Even back then, though, politicos and food critics were not always amenable to innovators. Rumors abounded. Were hot dogs really made from dog meat? "Politicians alleged that they found a rendering plant making sausages for Coney Island out of dead horses," Stanton says. John Y. McKane, a local politico, protested, "Nobody knows what is inside these sausages."
But Feltman stood strong and Feltman's Restaurant on Surf Avenue became a shining beacon of al fresco dining. At its height in the early-1920s, Feltman's included nine restaurants, a roller coaster, a carousel, a ballroom, an outdoor movie theater, hotel, beer garden, a bathhouse, numerous themed bars, a beach pavilion, a full-scale recreation of a Tyrolean village and—most importantly for our purposes—an outdoor dining concourse lined with maple trees and staffed by singing waiters. It was the destination for dining in Coney Island and, yes, the dining took place outdoors.
Al fresco dining in America became all the rage. President Taft and Diamond Jim Brady visited. Feltman's logo? "Caterers to the Millions."
When the subway was extended to Coney Island in the 1920s, Feltman's business boomed: in 1923 he served more than five million customers. Most bought hot dogs for a dime apiece. Feltman's dining rooms could serve 8,000 customers at a time. His all time record was serving 100,000 people and 40,000 hot dogs in a single day.
Feltman was an immigrant who had come to this country with a dream and an impresario's talent for pulling it off. But how did he know that dining under the trees in his outdoor maple garden would become a flapper's wet dream?
Well, Feltman may have been inspired by beer gardens in his native land—he was from Germany and beer gardens there had long included an outdoor seating area.
But Feltman was also hooking into a tradition that had been popular on the Continent all the way back to the glory days of Ancient Rome: the pleasure garden.
Never heard of a pleasure garden? Sounds great, though, right? Well, get your mind out of the gutter; the pleasure garden has nothing to do with happy endings or bacchanalian fever-orgies and some particularly randy foliage.
No, pleasures gardens were rural entertainment sites, the most famous of which was Vauxhall Gardens, just a short trip by boat from London down the Thames. This was no mere garden. Instead, we're talking Chinese pavilions, musicians, ruins, water features and, of course, food—served outdoors!
Yes, the pleasure garden is the birthplace of upscale outdoor dining and Charles Feltman was the man who brought the delights of the pleasure garden to America—all in the form of his hot dog-spewing restaurant in Coney Island.
Feltman captured the American imagination and made al fresco dining an event by hooking into a long tradition that romanticized—nay, idealized—the experience of putting food into one's mouth in fresh air. He took the best of a long history of outdoor-dining-as-theater and brought it to Brooklyn. We haven't been the same since.
What remains of Feltman's today? Nothing.
Nothing, that is, other than a Nathan's.
Nathan Handwerker—the founder of Nathan's Famous, which opened in 1916 on the corners of Surf and Stillwell—was Charles Feltman's employee. Handwerker, clever fellow that he was, started his own business and undercut his former boss by selling hot dogs for a mere 5 cents.
Nathan's name, of course, lives on to this day. Nathan's Famous, now a nationwide chain with 40,000 outlets, sold 435 million hot dogs last year. Handwerker's flagship store still stands on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, casting a mere shadow compared to Feltman's glamorous emporium of yore. When I walked by, the unappealing storefront was empty; the interior was filled with rows of industrial-sized mustard and ketchup pump dispensers, all of which appeared to be forlornly awaiting a phantom crowd of summer revelers.
And how many hot dogs did the namesakes of Charles Feltman—the man who invented the American hot dog and popularized outdoor dining in the US of A—sell last year?
Feltman died in 1910 and although his family ran the business until the 1940s, the Great Depression had brought it to its knees. Feltman's upscale dream of al fresco dining faded to black.
As did Coney Island's glamour days. The demise of Coney Island has been a kind of slow, excruciating deterioration, punctuated by a few flares of hope that inevitably seem to flicker and fade. Fires have taken out many of the attractions. Urban blight and the vagaries of unscrupulous developers have taken a toll.
Today, Coney Island is an amalgamation of 50 or more separate rides and attractions; it's not a centrally managed amusement park like Disneyland or Six Flags. It is down on its heels and hardly a glamour spot, although it gets its share of tourists and locals on sunny summer weekends. And it does have its urban charms, if your tastes run to the filth-covered and slightly scorched. Which mine invariably do.
But the food? Nothing of note remains, nothing that could even come close to rivaling Charles Feltman's magnificent vision of al fresco dining.
Sure, there is one flicker of hope for the Feltman name. A local blogger and Coney Island historian, Michael Quinn, says he's planning to start a new business under the illustrious name of Feltman's of Coney Island.
"Being a history buff, I knew the history of the hot dog and the history between Nathan's and Feltman's," says Quinn. "With so much interest in the area, it just seemed like the right time – with a nod to the history of Coney Island." What will he sell? All natural, nitrate-free hot dogs on potato buns, as well as pork sausages.
But the legacy of Charles Feltman himself? Although little known, it is secure. His pleasure garden is immortalized in the thousands of al fresco dining experiences we all enjoy today.
All it took was a sausage in a bun. And a man with a big dream for a lowly food we call the hot dog.