Famous Coney Island Hot Dogs

By on Thursday, May 4th, 2023 at 4:27 pm

Nathan's hot dog stand on Coney Island at Surf Avenue in 2023

My first Nathan’s hot dog was in the Paramus Park Mall food court. Nathan’s was a special treat, ironically, not because of their famous hot dogs, but because of their fancy crinkle cut fries — and the fact that they could come with a side of cheese sauce.

I wish now there was some sentimental connection I could bring up to contextualize the food court Nathans. Once or twice my father and I stopped at Nathan’s on the way to the Meadowlands for a New Jersey Devils hockey game. A few times we were at the mall in the middle of a Saturday afternoon and needed some lunch. But really, the food court was simply utilitarian. We were hungry, we ate.

As a kid growing up in 1980s suburban New Jersey, I knew nothing about the mythical Coney Island or the Famous Nathan’s serving as the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. Coney Island might as well have been Playland in Rye, New York, where the film Big begins. The lore and mythology that Nathan’s franchises play on did nothing for me. It was all about crinkle cut fries.


At the risk of becoming a living example of Jake Wolff’s viral Tweet about nonfiction writing tropes, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs were born on Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. Hanthan Handwerker, an immigrant from Poland, had worked at a restaurant in Manhattan five days per week, and planned selling hot dogs on the weekends during his days off.

Coney Island had always been a summer destination for New Yorkers making day trips, and shops like Nathan’s hot dog stand were traditionally seasonal businesses. His hot dog stand he built proved far more successful, and it soon became a full time job, all-year restaurant. Nathan and his family put in long hours building the business.

Coney Island Nathan's in November 2008 and April 2023

Another innovation of Handwerker excelled at was in finding new ways of cutting costs. He set up efficient kitchens systems and reduced waste by refrigerating the hot dogs. He also ordered a special blend of meat from his supplier to distinguish the hot dogs from competitors. And Handwerker was also a cunning marketer. On busy holidays like July 4th, Nathan’s sold longer dogs. The thinking was customers would remember the bigger size sausage and be more likely to return in the future.

Price was always a key component too. Nathan’s waged price wars with other Coney Island shops, and later with places like the Upper East Side against Papaya King.

The Nathan’s famous story is chronicled in two books. Famous Nathan, by Lloyd Handwerker, and Nathan’s Famous: The First 100 Years of America’s Favorite Frankfurter Company, by William Handwerker, both look at the history of the restaurant and family behind it. The story isn’t all successes either. As the family pushed to expand, they did make mistakes and had failed restaurants along the way. It grew to fifteen restaurants, 5 franchises and several hot dog carts before eventually it was sold to a larger corporation.


I traveled out to Coney Island for the first time to celebrate my college roommate’s birthday. The subway ride was about an hour from Byrant Park, where four of us met up. It was the middle of November. Coney Island remains a summer destination with seasonal attractions, but at least we saw the ocean.

Our primary destination was the original Totonno’s Pizza. But as we arrived at Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue, we descended from the elevated platform onto Surf Avenue. Directly across from us was Nathan’s Famous. The canary-yellow building topped with hot dog billboards and decorated with neon ornamentation beckoned us.

In that moment, I saw why Nathan’s had grown into an iconic brand. This was a palace dedicated to seasoned beef sausages. It was nothing like the cramped little food court stand I had grown up eating at.

We walked to the windswept beach, dodged a few drops of rain, and I played a round of Shoot the Freak, the one boardwalk attraction open year round. For two bucks, I shot a dozen paint balls at a guy dressed in a padded suit.

Shoot The Freak on Coney Island was a pay to play paintball game

During other excursions to Coney Island over the years, I’ve eaten hot dogs and crinkle cut fries and drank beers, but other times just walked by Nathan’s on the way from the subway to the beach. As I grew older, we shifted to Far Rockaway rather than Coney Island where there were fewer crowds, but also fewer hot dogs.

There was one notable trip to Coney Island in 2013 when we saw Huey Lewis play a free summer concert in a parking lot. Nathan’s was glowing with neon lights, and it was the first time I had walked through the carnival components of Coney Island’s amusement park. I didn’t have any hot dogs that time.


A few weeks before my kid turned two, the spring had turned momentarily into summer. Having a toddler is simply an endless cycle of identifying new ways to entertain them. Coney Island seemed like an ideal off-season adventure. I knew I wanted to stop at Nathan’s. Close to a decade had passed since my last visit, and I had read both book Nathan’s books, as well as Hot Dogs: A Global History.

Nathan’s interior had been transformed. Instead of a century-old seaside hot dog stand, it now looked like an upscale modern fast food restaurant with stainless steel counters and big bold san-serif fonts in white on black menu boards.

On my previous trips, I had ordered through an outdoor window in the Nathan’s patio area without ever stepping inside. Then it had been the height of summer. The patio was filled with young people in bathing suits. I was with a friend who had just returned from a semester abroad. He had blown up his long-time relationship, and now was struggling to balance several women who all wanted to date him. We spotted one of the mysterious women at Nathan’s. We were all there eating hot dogs at the very same time. It was the kind of plot crisis Sex And The City writers sit around debating whether the coincidence seems too far fetched. New York City is a tiny little town at the end of the day.

Three Nathan's hot dogs

Hot dog discourse can be contentious. A traditional New York style hot dog is topped with onions in spicy tomato-based sauce or sauerkraut. The official condiment is mustard. In Chicago, hot dogs are topped with a side salad and garnished with a pickle. Chicagoans also like mustard. Ironically, a “Coney” is not served on Coney Island, but rather in the midwest. It is a dog topped with meat sauce — what the east coast might call a chili sauce — and raw onions. And to add to the confusion, in my native New Jersey, a hot dog topped with chili is known as a Texas Weiner.

While I haven’t come across a hot I disliked despite eating variations of them in a half dozen other countries, there’s one combination dog I always come back to: cheese dogs. And I cannot lie: I top hot dogs with ketchup. Can’t stop, won’t stop.

The Nathan’s hot dogs were good, better certainly than even my memory of the Nathan’s in Paramus Park Mall. It’s just the opposite of what I expected. Nostalgia so often taints the present. It’s rare that a food attached to fond memories can hold up in the present, sort of the same way watching a film adaptation of a book we once loved where the author turned out to be a transphobic asshole just doesn’t hit the same way.

I dabbed the dog with ketchup. It was just a little bit greasy, flavorful, and juicy. I thought about ordering a third. I snacked on the fries we had ordered for the toddler. He didn’t like the cheese sauce, but he did seem to like the ketchup eventually dipping his fingers directly into it and licking it off.

Crinkle cut fries and two hot dogs at Nathans

Coney Island has been the target of redevelopment for years. The first proposals for large-scale redevelopment came out in the 1970s when New York City was nearing bankruptcy. Throughout the next decades, new plans, new politicians, and new scams have been floated.

In the aughts, there were plans to turn it into the Miami Beach of New York City with high rise towers and glamorous new attractions. Coney Island is a rarity along the east coast in that it is a southern facing ocean beach. High rise buildings are unlikely to ever cast a shadow across the beach as happens in the afternoons on east facing beaches.

One ongoing problem is local politicians were caught up in the idea that Coney Island must have some kind of all-season attraction, as though the beach itself wasn’t enough, and concerns that the wrong type of housing will attract the wrong type of person, further delaying the construction of essential housing in a city experiencing a housing crisis.

Hurricane Sandy devastated much of Coney Island. The storm surge destroyed thousands of homes. It washed away the beach, and left behind sand across the amusements. Now the city even wants to replace the historic wooden boardwalk with plastic.

I did notice on this most recent trip that construction on new housing had finally begun, although many of the parcels of land closer to the water were still underutilized. There’s a new plan now to build a casino along the waterfront. Surely that would provide all-season entertainment. Local elected officials are opposing that redevelopment too.

Today, Nathan’s is a publicly traded company, with numerous franchises across the country. Hot dogs with the Nathan’s name are sold in grocery stores, the product of licensing agreements. But through it all, on Coney Island, there remains the original famous icon.


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