All photos by Stacia Datskovska
Apr 10, 2023
An insider’s guide to Brighton Beach
Hop on Q-train before the tourists arrive and check out this enclave for dining, boutiques, manicures and a blast from the Soviet past
If you’re only somewhat familiar with South Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, then it’s probably in association with the following two things: Eastern European food and, of course, its beach, which borders the better-known Coney Island. While Brighton draws flocks of tourists in the hotter months, there’s a strong case to be made for why it should be your next, Q-train-accessible destination this spring — a period of time when the crowds are still thin enough to thoroughly enjoy the area.
“The food is great in Brighton, the people are friendly, and everything that you might need is right here,” says Alina Kruchin, who moved to Brighton Beach in the summer of 1993. “So much so that my grownup children have decided to move back.”
Start at the boardwalk
For those who aren’t afraid of a little breeze, the boardwalk is an ideal place to start your excursion. Adored by locals and visitors alike, it’s dotted with benches where people sit to face the sea or chat with a neighbor. You’ll be hearing a lot of Russian on Brighton Beach’s promenade (with Ukrainian, Georgian, and the occasional Uzbek, Polish and Armenian mixed in).
On any day (and in any given weather), informal groups of people expose themselves to the benefits of cold ocean water therapy, bundling into their dryrobes after a few minutes of vigorous swimming. On average, water temperatures in Brighton Beach’s frigid slice of the Atlantic range from 39 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit from January to March. In April and May, they can peak in the high 50s or low 60s. All this is to say: bring a swimsuit if you want (but at your own risk).
Get some food
There’s actually quite a lot to do in Brighton without getting wet. Stroll through a local supermarket, for instance (Tashkent, NetCost, and Gold Label are a few of my personal favorites), and educate yourself on Eastern European culinary staples beyond varenyky and borscht. At Tashkent Supermarket, you’ll be able to create your own meal from the self-serve food bar.
Still-warm cottage cheese pancakes called syrniki; festive salads like the potato olyvie and beet-based vinegret; decadent meat options such as Georgian chicken tabaka or Uzbeki lamb samsa; and other offerings like Japanese kani salad or beef teriyaki are all up for grabs (and almost immediate, irresistible consumption). To round out your food experience, browse the store’s sweets section — where you can buy assorted candies by weight — and the variety of pickled vegetables they have in stock.
If you’ve come during dinnertime, the options for an authentic food experience widen. Tatiana Restaurant and NIghtclub could rival The Woods or even the House of Yes, with its regular live music and what they call “The Show,” a frenzy of acrobats, traditional costumes, and leaping dancers presented to an eager, well-oiled crowd. Ocean View Cafe and Skovorodka (which translates from Russian to “frying pan”) are also dependable and popular choices to satisfy your pelmeni, herring, or pork cutlet cravings.
Pro-tips from locals
On a recent, brisk day in Brighton, we spoke to a few locals to get their not-for-tourists neighborhood tips. Ann Liberman, a 28-year-old Brighton Beach resident and born-and-raised Brooklynite, used to look down on the area, before realizing it could provide a “really nice, luxurious living experience without paying the top market rate.” She’s lived in a high-rise there for two years now with her boyfriend. In fact, Liberman currently spends more time in Brighton than away from it — regularly going to play ping pong and billiards at Boardwalk Billiards, rejuvenating at the Mermaid Spa banya, and more.
As someone whose parents emigrated from Kyiv and Lviv, Ukraine, Liberman appreciates the Eastern European delicacies in her neighborhood. She shouts out two restaurants in particular — Sky Wise and SteaMania — both about a 20-minute walk from the Brighton Beach subway station.
“[Sky Wise] is Asian fusion, but still with the whole Eastern European vibe,” Liberman says. “They have a burlesque show and really good music. It’s definitely a little bit on the pricier side, but if you want to have a fancy night out with good entertainment, you don’t have to go to the city anymore.”
Similarly, Liberman calls SteaMania — a seafood haunt that allows patrons to customize their own boils — “some of the best food I’ve ever had.” Some of the highlights of this Luna Park-adjacent establishment are the seemingly bottomless supply of garlic bread the owners bring out as a starter and the fact that, since the restaurant is a new-ish addition, they are “trying their hardest to win you over.”
The neighborhood’s main shopping drag is the stretch of Brighton Beach Avenue from the corner of Ocean Parkway to Brighton 15th Street, making it a manageable 15-block stroll to get a true feel for Brighton’s dynamic. On both sides of the avenue, you’ll see advertisements in Cyrillic script for dentists and podiatrists and travel agents; bins with discount, off-brand cookies and pound cakes; slippers, robes, vacuum cleaners, greeting cards, and handbags for sale; and the rare chain establishment like Starbucks or KFC. Besides that last part, all of this works together to create the undeniable feeling of going back in time, of entering a nostalgia-laced Soviet past you may not have experienced before.
Consider getting a manicure or trim at a barber here; having lived in Ukraine, I may be biased, but I am certain Eastern European beauty professionals are some of the top masters of their craft. Plus, a blowout in Brighton or a Russian-style manicure will likely cost you less than competing salons in Williamsburg.
Yelena Makhnin, the current director of the Brighton Beach Business Improvement District (BID), is constantly finding ways to better market the location to the larger New York population. Though she’s witnessed a general slowing down of activity in Brighton in the past few decades as the Russian-speaking community moves out to places like Florida, Makhnin is still a firm believer in the magic of the place.
“Brighton is a very good experience when it comes to learning about how communities with different ethnic backgrounds and different religions can live together in unity,” Makhnin tells Brooklyn Magazine.
She particularly emphasized Brighton’s boutiques: selling one-of-a-kind pieces from gold jewelry to authentic furs to Guillermo Forchino figurines at the gift store Kalinka.
Alina Kruchin similarly mentions that Brighton boasts multiple amber shops (she likes one called Kizima) where visitors can browse and buy “elegant, striking” objects made from natural Baltic amber.
Stores like these get especially busy around holidays like International Women’s Day, Orthodox Easter, and the Old New Year, but not anything like Saks Fifth Avenue on December 23, so no need to strategize extensively on when to visit.
Simply visit. Breathe in the sea air; work up an appetite from your walk down the promenade; stop by for manti and bliny at a supermarket; pick out a matching teacup and saucer set; and maybe splurge on a palm reading from Anna the Psychic (whose signs pepper Brighton’s nooks and crannies like a “Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar” ad).
“We are special. You don’t have to take a train or plane in order to travel from Turkey to Pakistan, from Pakistan to Ukraine, from Ukraine to Georgia,” Makhnin said. “You can do it all here, with our big variety of cultures.”
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