There’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed a Coney, Coney Dog, or a "Coney Island-style" hot dog at some point, and there’s a reason the tiny Brooklyn neighborhood gets so much attention when it comes to its weenies. It’s the birthplace of America’s signature summertime food and home to the Fourth of July’s world-famous hot dog eating contest.
The name Nathan may come to mind when you think of Coney Island hot dogs, but did you know he was a real guy?
Nathan Handwerker was a Polish immigrant who worked restaurant jobs after his arrival in America at the age of 19. His first gig on Coney Island was at Feltman’s Ocean Pavilion, a block-long entertainment and dining complex that, during the 1920s, was considered the largest in the world. It claimed President Taft and railroad magnate Diamond Jim Brady as clientele.
In 1867, four years before opening the restaurant that bears his name, Charles Feltman, a German immigrant whose own humble beginnings included pushing a pie cart around Coney Island, served a pork sausage on a bun (no need for plates or utensils!) and cemented himself as the inventor of the modern-day frankfurter (his preferred term after the city in his native Germany). These early “red hots,” or “dachshund sandwiches” as they were also called, became an instant success, even making their way on the menu at Feltman’s Ocean Pavillion. Although the eatery was known for its Shore Dinner, a seafood platter of lobster, fish, and oysters, it once sold 40,000 frankfurters on a single day.
Feltman passed away in 1910, four years before Nathan started working at Ocean Pavilion as a bun slicer. Nathan saved his money, often sleeping on the kitchen's floor to cut expenses, and in 1916 opened his own hot dog stand a few blocks away.
Both businesses continued to thrive just blocks from each other—Feltman's as a mega-dining and entertainment complex with a ballroom and rollercoaster and Nathan's as a tiny counter selling only hot dogs, lemonade and orangeade. Nathan sold his hot dogs for a nickel, half the cost of those at Feltman’s. When customers were wary of the low price and questioned the meat’s quality, Nathan hired orderlies from the nearby Coney Island Hospital to wear white lab coats and stethoscopes while eating at his stand. Beachgoers assumed that if the frankfurters were good enough for doctors, they were good enough for them.
In the 1940s the Feltman family sold the business, and in the 1950s it closed for good. Meanwhile, Nathan’s Famous continued to grow, eventually franchising around the country and selling its frankfurters in grocery stores from coast to coast. FDR even served Nathan's hot dogs to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939 at a picnic at his Hyde Park residence. (The Queen inquired about the proper way to eat the American delicacy but chose to eat her hot dog in her own proper way—with a knife and fork.)
Michael and Joe Quinn, two brothers from South Brooklyn who grew up listening to their grandfather’s tales of Feltman’s restaurant, decided to open their own business after losing their brother Jimmy in the 2001 World Trade Center attack. They obtained Feltman's original spice blend through a family friend associated with the restaurant back in the day and got the rights to the name, and in 2015 the original Coney Island hot dog was back.
There’s nothing like enjoying a hot dog surrounded by the joyful sounds of the famous boardwalk. But due to the current COVID-19 crisis, even many New Yorkers may not get the chance to experience that this year. Thankfully, you don’t need to brave a plane or the train to Coney Island to take a bite of either dog—both can be found at grocery stores and online.
You can’t go wrong with either brand; both are all-beef with that natural casing snap and the delicious taste of summertime bliss. Both are also made with the old recipes. Nathan’s has been virtually unchanged in its 100-plus year history. Its longer, thinner dog has a stronger flavor and greasy juiciness that’s pure nostalgia. Feltman’s shorter, fatter dogs have a subtler spice and a beefier flavor, tasting a bit more artisanal. For true Coney Island style (most dogs that purport to be Coney dogs or Coney Island style aren't actually, but that’s a whole other story), enjoy with sauerkraut and mustard. Both brands have their own New York-style deli mustard, also sold online and at grocery stores nationwide. Nathan’s mustard has a stronger, tangier flavor while Feltman’s, made with apple cider vinegar, shows a little more restraint.
So whether sheltering in place in a tiny New York City apartment or grilling out in a big backyard in the Midwest, that Coney Island magic can still grace your summer. Oh, and to do it like a local, don't forget a beer from The Coney Island Brewing Company.
From now until Memorial Day, Feltman’s (a veteran-owned company) will honor fallen service members by donating a portion of its online sales proceeds to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors—a leading nonprofit that provides comfort, care, and resources to the families of America’s fallen heroes. (Feltman's also offers an additional discount for service members via ID.me.) Order online or find them at your local grocery store.
Let the historical summer grilling commence!