Note: Originally published in 2016 and updated in 2019
I will choose Brighton Beach over the Rockaways any day, and it’s not just on account of my last name. This laid-back beach boasts irrefutable seductions: It’s easily accessible via the Brighton Beach stop on the B or the Q train, from which the sand is less than a five-minute walk. It’s spacious and rarely overcrowded. And the best part? It doesn’t feel like a damn American Apparel ad.
Though on the outskirts of what is essentially Little Russia/Odessa, the crowd that’s scattered across the beach is always diverse, and families are very much welcome. The bathrooms leave much to be desired (wear your shoes and hold your nose), but the water is consistently warm and tranquil and the sand is clean, you know, for New York. Unlike the Rockaways, the Brighton Beach boardwalk is relatively bare when it comes to food and drink (apart from Tatiana and Café Volna, two pricey Russian restaurants whose pleasures we’ll leave for another time). So while you won’t find tacos or happen across a hip flea market here, there’s a very undeniable allure to this boardwalk, beautiful and aging in the harsh sunlight. Whether it’s the gusto of foreign languages swirling around you, or the unparalleled people watching, there’s something about Brighton Beach that will make you feel much further from your apartment than you are, maybe even like you’re on an overseas adventure.
Before you set foot on the sand, hit up some of the small shops and bakeries that line the streets for snacks, salads and sandwich makings. You won’t regret it. One challenge is that in many stores the signs are exclusively in Russian, so if you have a friend with some Slavic language skills, hit them up for their assistance. Or get ready to point and nod and smile a lot. And keep in mind that the Q train will get you here in under 30 minutes from Atlantic Terminal, so it’s a solid shorefront destination even in the winter, when many of the hot dishes will be even more appealing. Here are three of the best spots to stop and stock up.
Exquisite Foodland (formerly Best Buy International Food), 409-413 Brighton Beach Avenue
What you’ll find: An excellent assortment of hot and cold foods at the buffet. Feast your eyes on the beef stroganoff bread bowls and chicken Kiev, right next to baked potatoes slathered in butter and dill. There is every kind of salad your heart desires: seafood salads with squid and sesame, salads with onion and three varieties of mushroom, and stacks and stacks of thin, fresh crepes (into which you can wrap the salads for a savory roll).
What you should get: I sampled their potato pierogis (petite dumplings filled with potato) and vegetarian olivye, and both were delectable and fresh. Olivye is a traditional Russian cold salad—and you’ll often see no fewer than four varieties of it at a dinner. It’s made up of carrots, pickles, cucumbers, potatoes, chives, eggs, peas, and often ham, and whipped with mayonnaise. While this may not sound appealing to everyone, I can tell you that the combination of savory flavors is incredibly tasty, and surprisingly refreshing on a beach day. I couldn’t quite get on board with olivye as a kid, but nowadays I’m a total convert.
What you should expect: Pushy senior citizens, just trying to get their hot food on. Also rude, terrible customer service, particularly if you look like you’re not local. It’s part of the experience. Collect your change and roll with it.
Brighton Bazaar, 1007 Brighton Beach Avenue
What you’ll find: Everything. No, seriously. Everything. Brighton Bazaar is huge, and you’ll find some wacky things here, including (but not limited to) pickled watermelon, pickled apples, dried and salted smelt, borscht, lamb kebabs, and flaky slices of Napoleon cake. While the buffet selection is impressive, part of the fun of Brighton Bazaar is exploring the endless shelves, which brim with every kind of Eastern European good from dozens of delicately wrapped chocolate bars to canisters of caviar.
What you should get: When in the land of all things get pickled, you need to stock up. Pair a few hunks of lamb kebab and a side of zesty pickled cabbage. If you really know what’s good for you, you’ll swing by Brighton Bazaar’s impressive cold cuts counter and order up a quarter pound of sliced smoked sausage to make your own sandwiches on the beach. (Kielbasa tastes even better when there’s ocean salt in the air.)
What you should expect: To suddenly feel the need to spend two-plus hours in here, relishing the smells and the strangeness.
La Brioche Café, 1073 Brighton Beach Avenue
What you’ll find: Pastries on pastries on pastries on pastries. This is an open-air sort of bakery where the goods are displayed directly from the oven, and hordes of people descend upon them like seagulls on breadcrumbs. You will feel like you’re in heaven at La Brioche, a heaven filled with cookies and rugelach and cheesecake, with sour cream cake and berry-filled danishes and cheese pastries, not to mention chocolate wafers, meringues, and freshly baked breads.
What you should get: This is one of those rare instances where you will probably enjoy pretty much everything. Go at it. I would definitely recommend any pastry you can find filled with tvorog, a sweet, crumbly farmers cheese.
What you should expect: A small, crowded space where you will likely get elbowed. The prices are deliciously cheap, but no one really speaks English so prepare for some potentially awkward communication.
In addition to these three, make sure to swing by any of the stands on Brighton Beach Avenue where you see older women selling pastries and pierogies. I never leave Brighton Beach without a buttery, doughy potato pastry that I usually wolf down on the boardwalk, before my feet even graze the sand. Brighton is also peppered with cheap fruit and veggie stores at every corner, so pick up some fresh blueberries, strawberries, and clementines to go with your meat and potato haul on your way to the ocean.
On my recent visit I gorged (elegantly, of course) on potato pierogi, veggie olivye, a potato pastry, two poppy-filled rugelach, and a big fat syrnik (cheese pancake). Here I am, weeks later, still salivating at the memory of it all.