One of New York City's most exciting assets is its ability to transport people to new worlds for the price of a subway ride. Brighton Beach is one of those worlds. Also called Little Odessa—a reference to the Ukrainian city from which many of its residents hail—the Brooklyn neighborhood is known for its tight-knit, Russian-speaking community and the colorful shops, food emporiums and restaurants (much of their signage in Cyrillic) that line Brighton Beach Avenue beneath the rumble of the elevated subway lines. Once a beach getaway for wealthy New Yorkers, the neighborhood saw its first influx of Jewish immigrants—a number of them Holocaust survivors—in the 1930s, '40s and '50s; a second wave began when the Soviet Union relaxed its emigration policy in the late 1970s and continued through its eventual dissolution in the '90s. Georgians, Armenians, Uzbekistanis and many other groups from the former Soviet Union have settled here as well, their knowledge of Russian continuing to operate as a common bond. Georgia native Gio Asatiani, who works at boardwalk hot spot Volna, praises the sense of togetherness that different ethnic groups have established in Little Odessa: "We all found something familiar here, standing with each other. We speak the same language. It's definitely a community."
It's a community unlike any other you'll find in NYC. As soon as you set foot on Brighton Beach Avenue, you'll notice that few of the lively conversations at fruit stands and on the sidewalk are in English. Liquor stores hold hard-to-find treasures like Ukrainian honey-pepper vodka; a handful of caviar stands sell the delicacy at drool-worthy prices; and stores and restaurants tend toward the decorative and plush, as if they were transplanted from the Old World. Don't be shy to peek into windowless haunts and dive into conversation with shopkeepers, who at times might seem distant. Simply tell them their place of business is "beautiful"—which it more than likely will be—and the smiles will come.
Brighton Beach Boardwalk (between Ocean Parkway and Brighton 14th Street)
Tatiana Shakhanzanova, a local singer who works in the neighborhood, relaxes on the sand every morning. "I love this place," she says. "I come from around the Black Sea, and Brighton Beach has the same weather." Perhaps what distinguishes Brighton Beach most from its next-door neighbor Coney Island, which is within walking distance, is its tranquil atmosphere. While Coney is famous for its zany, step-right-up pace and ambience, Little Odessa is more of a family place, quiet enough that seagulls can be clearly heard—along with the occasional serenade of local accordion players. Plump, shirtless men pedal bicycles leisurely on the boardwalk, frequently stopping to chat with servers at the cluster of ocean-facing restaurants between Brighton 4th and Brighton 7th Streets. Female sunbathers can be seen sporting bathing suits in a kaleidoscope of patterns and shades. Brighton Beach is ideal for a quick summer or early fall getaway. While you're there, take advantage of the area's many markets and food emporiums to pick up treats for the beach or post-sunbathing goodies for the subway ride home.
3145 Brighton 4th St., 718-332-0341
"It's normal to drink vodka in the morning here," says Volna employee Gio Asatiani in a low voice as the bartender carries a trio of shooter glasses to a table of early tippling patrons. Volna is a popular boardwalk restaurant whose outdoor seating fills up at lunchtime during summer. Late in the morning, it's a quiet and friendly place to get coffee—or something a little stronger—as Asatiani and his colleagues meticulously arrange the tables' yellow-and-blue-stripe tablecloths and ham it up with talkative passersby. Beverage favorites here include Nemiroff for vodka and Baltika for beer. In terms of food, Asatiani recommends the restaurant's xachapuri, Georgian flatbread filled with cheese. If you're in a rush, you can pick up sandwiches at the "Volna on the Go" station next to the outdoor dining area, but it's worth having a seat to enjoy the casual atmosphere, ocean views and raki (crawfish), which Volna imports directly from Russian waters.
Tatiana Restaurant and Nightclub
3152 Brighton 6th St., 718-891-5151
Ask New Yorkers from outside the neighborhood to name a spot in Little Odessa, and quite likely they’ll say Tatiana. That doesn't come as a huge surprise, as Tatiana Restaurant and Nightclub—not to be confused with Tatiana Grill just next door, which is also part of the Tatiana family—has established a citywide reputation for providing one of NYC's most authentically Russian experiences. Ocean-view boardwalk seating is lovely for both lunch and dinner. If you really want to do it up right, though, make a reservation for a later table downstairs; this is where the nightclub part comes in. But before booking, keep two things in mind: first, you're booking a wedding-reception-like evening of communal dining and dancing, rather than just a table; second, if you want to fit in, you better dress sexy—very sexy. The home page of the Tatiana website provides some clues regarding its ambience (“a world of glamorous design, tasteful decorations, overwhelming scenery and perfect lighting for those intimate moments,” it promises). Dishes like beef Stroganoff and chicken Kiev are served buffet-style throughout the night, but the meal isn't the main attraction. Revelers pay from $55 to more than $100, depending on the night and how deluxe they want to go, to drink and shake it on the dance floor in the windowless space from 9pm to 3am. Feel free to bring your own bottle of vodka if you like (though there is a corkage charge), but the nightclub should provide plenty of alcohol that's included in the fixed price of your night. If you're a wallflower or just want to stick to the group with whom you arrived, be warned: by the end of the night, you'll have met everyone in the room (and likely be expected to remember their names).
3077 Brighton 1st Place, 718-648-0304
If you're not quite sure what to wear when you enter the world of Brighton Beach nightlife, Julia's Boutique can help. It's by no means a flashy store, but the selection should tip you off that going out in Little Odessa is not for introverts. Long and low-cut dresses as ornate as Fabergé eggs are pumped up with sequins and ruffles at Julia's; signage on the window explains that the store imports much of its inventory from Paris. A selection of ombre scarves in bold hues such as lime green and deep burgundy is also available, along with chunky necklaces and earrings to complement your outfit. The women who work the counter speak very little English, but they'll help you in and out of the often-tight dresses and gowns with a grin and chuckle, no matter what your first language is.
Vintage Food Corporation
287 Brighton Beach Ave., 718-769-6674
Vintage Food Corporation is a small Turkish store that specializes in flavored coffees, dried fruit and candies. With its dark wood fixtures, smiling shopkeepers and smell of roasting java beans in the air, Vintage is a welcome retreat from the bustle of Brighton Beach Avenue. While the focus here is Turkish treats (grape molasses, pistachio nougat and rows of inexpensive nuts, to name a few), plenty of Russian delights are on hand—like blackberry preserves and chocolate-covered apricots. The latter are also available sugar-free, as the shop offers plenty of sugarless candy and other sweets. Perhaps most impressive, though, are the prices. A pound of cashews, for example, is far cheaper here than in Manhattan, and you'll have no trouble walking out with your coffee (usually flavored with one of their rainbow assortment of syrups) and something sweet, perhaps baklava or some dried papaya, without breaking the bank.
273 Brighton Beach Ave., 718-646-1225
When she's not relaxing at the beach, Tatiana Shakhanzanova sings at National Restaurant—which is more nightclub than eatery—roughly once a weekend. A few afternoons a week, though, you'll find her working at Kalinka, a trinkets and souvenir shop across the street that's owned by her friends, to whom she likes to lend a hand. Sporting a bright-yellow track suit (which almost perfectly matches her bright-blonde hair), Shakhanzanova gushes about the site of her performances: "It's the best place in Brooklyn. Everybody dance, everybody sing, everybody have a good time." You’ll share her enthusiasm when you see the place. Opulent doesn't begin to describe National, whose golden doors open to a regal, winding staircase. Venture inside to find banquet hall–style dining, ostentatious chandeliers and a stage with large projector screens—as if performers in Cirque du Soleil–style costumes and sequined evening gowns weren't eye-catching enough. Patrons can stay and dance until 3am; the lucky connected can book the second floor for private parties. Hipsters occasionally flock here, seeking a night of ironic gaudiness. But their presence can't crack the earnestness of the local party, which they end up diving into headfirst.
St. Petersburg Bookstore
230 Brighton Beach Ave., 718-891-6778
Some local booksellers or large chains offer tiny subsections of Russian-language books; St. Petersburg Bookstore shakes its Tolstoy-, Dostoyevsky- and Chekhov-filled head at such a disgrace. That's because St. Petersburg is not just a bookstore—it's a Russian paperback, hardcover, magazine, DVD and game superstore. Although an advertisement on the door claims the store now has books in English, they are difficult to find. This is the perfect spot for anyone who speaks the language or is learning it (Russian lit grad students, this is the place for you). Even if you don't speak Russian, it’s still worth the trip just for the cultural experience. Did you know that Vogue, National Geographic, Shape, Esquire and many other renowned American magazines put out Russian editions? You'll find them here, along with nesting dolls and tea sets that make for great gifts and souvenirs.
1029 Brighton Beach Ave., 718-732-9797
East of Coney Island Avenue, just past where the elevated subway line curves away from Brighton Beach Avenue, lies a live-music venue with a somewhat confusing history. Opened in 1934 as the Oceana Theatre and converted to a four-screen multiplex years later, the mazelike complex went on to gain two more auditoriums and another name change, to the Atlantic Oceana, before becoming the Millennium. In 2015, it finally settled into life under its current moniker, the Master Theater. Name-calling aside, the Master Theater is a vibrant concert venue where visitors sing along to performances and occasionally dance in the aisles. The sizable space seats more than 1,300. Stars the likes of Ray Charles have given shows here, and today, big names in Russian entertainment are likely to visit whenever they come to New York. Local Russian musicians and singers play here often.
1141 Brighton Beach Ave., 718-743-3832
First you’ll be attracted to Café Kashkar's decorative orange sign; then you’ll be lured in by this tiny restaurant’s Uighur cuisine. An ethnically Turkic people living in Eastern and Central Asia, the Uighurs don’t have a big footprint within the vast New York City dining scene (in addition to Café Kashkar, there are a few Uighur eateries in Queens). The food is a complex hybrid of Chinese, Russian, Arab, Indian, Turkish and other types of dishes, which fuse together to create a distinctive and flavorful super-cuisine. Fried and boiled noodles, large dumplings (called manty), rice pilafs, pickled vegetables and Café Kashkar's popular kebabs are a few of the inexpensive menu's main characters. Favorites include the geiro lagman (halal lamb, vegetables and noodles in a tomato sauce) and samsa (layered dough pies with lamb). The interior is simple; when it's nice out, grab one of the two outdoor tables facing Brighton Beach Avenue.
Café at Your Mother-in-Law
3071 Brighton 4th St., 718-942-4088
You won't find "at your mother-in-law" written anywhere on the sign of this cute spot just north of Little Odessa's main drag. It’s a translation of the Cyrillic found on its awning, which is accompanied by a second name, Elza Fancy Food. Russian-speaking ethnic Koreans run the Tashkent (the capital of Uzbekistan) kitchen and restaurant, a refuge for hungry beachgoers. Diners rave about the plov, the Uzbek version of rice pilaf that contains cumin-braised lamb, carrots, sliced onions and saffron. Soups like kuksu (noodles in beef broth with sesame seeds, cabbage, dill and pickled cucumbers) are also a must-try. Feel free to BYOB, since the café doesn't serve alcohol. Plenty of windows, an inexpensive menu and friendly service make for a homey place to hang out—and a nice counterpoint to the old-school Russian joints that characterize the area.
3100 Ocean Pkwy., 718-265-1009
King Gambrinus is the patron saint of beer, which should give you a good idea of what to expect at this Russian fish palace in Brighton Beach. Nautically minded patrons lured by the cannons, life buoys and barrels lining the restaurant's facade won't be disappointed by its interior, which is manned by a fleet (pun intended) of waiters in sailor suits and boasts a ship-shaped bar. Gambrinus' maritime theme extends to its menu, which is seafood-centric, to say the least: in addition to classic items like caviar, smoked salmon, herring and a wide variety of shellfish preparations, diners can choose from an extensive selection of sushi and sashimi dishes. And with 12 draft beers on tap—including some Russian and Eastern European favorites—and plenty of vodka, expect to be reasonably boozed-up by the time you're finished eating.