Coney Island’s ‘Downtownification’ is underway

Coney Island’s ‘Downtownification’ is underway
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

The People’s Playground is fast becoming Downtown’s dining room.

The city’s push to upgrade the Coney Island Boardwalk is well underway — and Brownstone Brooklyn businesses are leading the charge.

Popular Park Slope eatery Zito’s Sandwich Shoppe will open a gourmet hoagie hub on Jones Walk near Luna Park, becoming the latest in a growing list of Downtown restaurants replacing game booths and Boardwalk bars that embraced Coney Island’s honky-tonk charm for decades.

Zito’s co-owner Marcello Bucca said he decided to invest in Coney Island after Tom’s Restaurant in Prospect Heights and Grimaldi’s Pizzeria in DUMBO snapped up properties in the amusement area — which the city wants to transform into an upscale, year-round tourist destination.

“The fact that Grimaldi’s and Tom’s are making bigmoney moves proves that it’s the beginning of a renaissance in Coney Island,” said Bucca, a Bensonhurst native. “New people are coming in. We’re banking that the area’s changing.”

Bucca’s also hoping that Coney Island beachgoers will be willing to pay Downtown prices: Zito’s will offer a Six Point braised roast beef sandwich with marinated mushrooms and house-made mozzarella for $11, while roast beef sandwiches at a Coney Island staple — the Island Food Court on Stillwell Avenue — go for just $4.75.

Some beachgoers are already kicking sand at the upscale changes Zito’s and Tom’s Restaurant will bring.

“I come out here to enjoy the hot dogs,” said visitor Amy Porter. “I’m not looking for a five-star dining experience.”

Richie Smith agreed.

“The beach is supposed to belong to everybody,” Smith said. “It shouldn’t be priced out of the reach of the average person.”

Longtime Coney businesses also say they’re wary of the new eateries and promise to fend off the gourmet competition, claiming that these carpetbagging businesses won’t be raking in the bucks they’re expecting during their first season on the sand.

“People are investing big dollars now but it’ll take quite some time to get a return,” said Michael Sarrel, the owner of Ruby’s Bar, an amusement area staple who has tried to keep the spirit of the iconic Coney Island Boardwalk alive by rebuilding his bar out of its weather-worn planks.

But Dick Zigun, who runs Sideshows by the Seashore, said the new restaurants should see a payoff once they open.

“These aren’t chains,” Zigun said. “These are quality places that are all Brooklyn-centric.”

Zito’s outpost will serve subs, potato croquettes, and other menu items currently found at its Park Slope market, which opened on Seventh Avenue near Seventh Street last August and boasts organic meets, cheeses, and locally-brewed beer.

The deli-sized space will replace Skin the Wire, one of the old-school Boardwalk game booths between Surf Avenue and Bowery Street that links Luna Park to Deno’s Wonder Wheel.

In November, the city evicted several longtime carnies and awarded the land to Central Amusement International, which was tapped to re-make the People’s Playground. One month later, Central Amusements announced that neighborhood businesses such as Ruby’s Bar and Paul’s Daughter would be allowed to remain on the Boardwalk, and inked deals to bring Tom’s Restaurant and a bigger Nathan’s hot dog stand to the iconic seaside walkway.

Tom’s is replacing Cha-Cha’s Bar, one of several beloved Boardwalk shops that were kicked off the promenade, while Grimaldi’s — a tourist favorite at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge — is opening a pizza spot on Surf Avenue near Stillwell Avenue.

—with Derrick Lytle

Reach reporter Daniel Bush at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-8310. Follow him at twitter.com/dan_bush.