When it comes to New York City’s beaches, it’s hard not to play favorites. The Rockaways offer a sense of escapism, Coney Island has its eternal nostalgia, and Brighton Beach has the best food. I was born in South Brooklyn (Midwood, to be precise), and have been spending summers at NYC beaches for most of my life. If you want to have the ultimate NYC beach day, whether it’s the peak of the summer season or if you, like me, enjoy standing near the ocean even in the middle of winter, Brighton is your best bet.
Brighton Beach also goes by the moniker of “Little Odessa,” thanks to its vibrant community of Russian-speaking immigrants. Here, you’ll find some of the city’s best Russian and Central Asian food, and to really get a sense of the breadth of cuisine available, you’ll want to make several trips.
Many of the neighborhood’s restaurants and shops are situated along Brighton Beach Avenue, which is conveniently located directly underneath the elevated train tracks of the B/Q line. This stretch is also just one avenue away from the boardwalk, making restaurants along the main drag the best option for grabbing food to bring to the beach. Whether you’re in the market for a lavish multi-course Georgian meal or some baklava by the seashore, check out this guide to see our top picks for where to eat in Brighton Beach.
Ostensibly, Kaffeine231 is a casual neighborhood coffee shop, but despite the name, you’re not here for caffeine. Arrive around noon and you’ll be greeted by the sights and smells of Samarkand Plov, the quintessential Uzbek street foods, simmering away in a pair of enormous drums. Depending on the weather, you’ll find them set up in front of the shop, or just inside the door. Choose from lamb or beef over rice, served with melted, cumin-laced peppers and onions. Each order comes with a hard-boiled quail egg, a whole head of roasted garlic, and an herby salad. Get there as close to 12pm as you can because once they’re sold out for the day, they don’t make more. The front window of the shop sells a variety of Uzbek pastries, including a formidable pumpkin samsa. On the sweet side, make sure to try Kaffeine231’s pistachio cake layered with fresh berries and whipped cream.
On my first visit to Hi Food Cafe, I saw a pair of elderly women walk in with empty shopping bags and walk out with those bags stuffed full of fresh lavash, so I knew I was in for something special. This place serves Armenian comfort food at its finest, and it’s worth doing a little bit of research so you know what you want before you get there. The lula kebab, a regional specialty made from ground meat (you can get chicken or beef, both are very good), is a must-try. Get it wrapped in lavash with sliced onions and herbs if you want to eat it on the go, or order it with a side of eggplant for a slightly more substantial meal. Don’t skip the lahmajoun, a flatbread covered in ground meat, cheese, and a spiced-but-not-spicy tomato sauce. If you see a tray of sweets make its way towards the glass case near the register, get one of whatever has just come out of the oven, whether it’s a flaky cheese-filled pastry or a sticky, cone-shaped Ant Hill Cake.
Toné Cafe is home to a traditional circular clay oven, where they bake the bread that forms the basis of popular Georgian items like khachapuri, the cheese-filled, egg-topped bread boat that seems to be everywhere these days. Toné has both a to-go bakery and a sit-down cafe with a nice outdoor seating area that’s both a pleasant alternative to the noisier restaurants under the train tracks and a great place to linger at the end of a beach day. Get an order of khinkali, the oversized soup dumplings you eat with your hands, liberally seasoned with pepper. If you’re fighting a hangover or are just looking to feel rejuvenated after this brain-melting year, a bowl of khashi soup is also a good choice - the broth is mild, comes with a heaping pile of minced garlic, and can be enriched with milk to make it extra soothing. Toné also has a strong wine list, including a wide variety of amber and skin-contact wines.
Mere steps away from the beach, Varenichnaya is the place to go for Russian dumplings of all shapes and sizes. The potato vareniki are smaller than your average Polish-style pierogi and come topped with dry caramelized onions that taste like candy. If you’re after pelmeni, the Siberian meat-filled variety is exceptional, though my personal favorite meat dumplings here are the manti, which are the size of a baseball and come topped with a generous handful of fresh chopped dill. If you find yourself craving Varenichnaya more often than you’re able to make it down to Brighton, they also sell their dumplings frozen in packs of 50.
If you want to have legitimate Turkish baklava without leaving NYC, go to the Brighton Beach outpost of Güllüoğlu, a brand so committed to bringing their national pastries stateside that they ship all of their products frozen from their central bakery in Istanbul. They have at least 10 different types of baklava at any given time, and the raspberry pistachio, chestnut, and walnut varieties are some of the best. If they have tel kadayif - a layered dessert made from shredded phyllo dough and pistachios soaked in a fragrant syrup - get that too. While the baklava is excellent, our favorite order here is the Turkish tea with sugar and lemon and a simit, a chewy twisted round of bread covered in toasted sesame seeds. Stop here in the morning and take your tea and pastry to the beach and you’ll feel like you’ve been teleported to a better dimension. Just be sure to protect your simit from the seagulls.
For total immersion into Russian food culture, head to Net Cost Market, which was previously known as Gourmanoff - everything is the exact same post-renovation except for the name on the sign. The market is housed in an old movie theater, and the entrance still bears the telltale ticket booth and red velvet ropes. If like me, you’re the kind of person who likes to peruse offal at the butcher’s counter or select from one of 50 kinds of butter, this is the place for you. Net Cost boasts an impressive beer aisle, a massive hot bar where you can find everything from blood sausage to borscht, and a bakery that specializes in dark, seedy loaves.
Kashkar Cafe is widely considered to be one of the best places to eat in Brighton Beach and it’s also one of the few Uyghur restaurants in NYC. When you get there, start with a pot of tea and take your time exploring the menu because there’s a lot to try, and you’ll want to try as much as possible. It’s easy to get caught up in the myriad fried, meat-filled appetizers, all of which are good - but the fried manty are the best. Get a pickle plate for some vegetables, then dive into some noodle dishes. Before you know it, you’ll be very full, and very ready to come back.
As one of my friends put it, there’s a tide that flows through Tashkent Market: If you want to shop here, you’ll need to commit to catching the wave and letting it carry you through the store, circling multiple times if necessary to get what you came for. The seemingly endless hot bar is stacked with Central Asian specialties, and it’s constantly being restocked with everything from fresh-baked baklava to creamy, layered salads and heaping piles of plov. The gyro stand near the entrance churns out chicken, beef, and lamb shawarma 24/7, and their housemade svekolnik - a bubblegum pink cold beet and labneh soup - is a must-try. Tashkent is also home to one of the best smoked-fish selections in the neighborhood, with both hot and cold-smoked varieties available. If the thought of coming here during peak hours is intimidating, go before 8am. You’ll have the store mostly to yourself, and everything on the hot bar will be particularly fresh.
The first thing I notice whenever I walk into Bakery La Brioche is the distinctive smell of caramelized honey. Then, I start taking in the wall-to-wall selection of pastries, cakes, and cookies. It’s pure sensory overload, and it’s absolutely delightful. Despite the French-sounding name, Russian sweets are the specialty at this bakery. Traditional layered cakes like medovik, made from thin layers of honey cake and sour cream filling, are sold by the pound, though you can also pick up individual slices. There are a shocking number of desserts here for under $10, so try everything that looks good and share it with someone you like. Or don’t.
As most children who grew up in South Brooklyn know, Russian candy shops are the best candy shops. The centerpiece of Vintage Specialty Food is bulk candy, nuts, and dried fruits, though that’s just the beginning. In addition, you’ll find packaged honey cakes, Turkish delights, and Turkish cotton candy, which tastes something like halvah and bears little resemblance to the pastel stuff you get at the circus. The butcher and cheese counters near the back of the store have well-curated selections, and on a good day, their spicy marinated olives are some of the best in the neighborhood.
You can’t come to Brighton without trying piroshki, one of the neighborhood’s classic street foods. These highly portable yeasted buns can be filled with anything from potatoes or cabbage to chicken liver, and vendors set up on practically every corner, especially during the summer. The best one, though, is located on the corner of Brighton Beach Ave and Brighton Fifth, outside a restaurant called Home Made Cooking Cafe. Look for the red and white checkered tablecloth and telltale plastic bins filled with fresh piroshki, and keep in mind that you’ll need to pay in cash at the table and not inside the restaurant. Each piroshki costs $1.75, and is filling enough so that one makes a solid breakfast or a light lunch.