Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Brighton Beach Memoir (part 2)

What the Italians call la passeggiata is surely one of the finest spectacles on earth, but there seem to me to be a limited number of outstanding spots on the globe in which to partake of this sublimely democratic pleasure. One of my favorites is the Piazza Navona in Rome on New Year’s Day, when the overstuffed matrons parade around the fountains in mink coats (even if the temperature is 60 degrees). There are a few great hangouts in Central Park, and of course any European cafĂ© on a well-trafficked thoroughfare affords the pleasures of what my father called simply “people watching.”

But for the sheer variety of humanity in all its full-blown lunacy, nothing quite compares with the boardwalk at Brighton Beach.

It’s around six p.m., on one of the few rare and balmy nights in this hellhouse of a summer, when Dave and I amble along between the broad stretch of sand and the restaurants, looking for the Tatiana Grill ( In the far distance people are swimming in the waters between Brighton and Breezy Point; in the near, neatly uniformed waiters beckon to passers-by to take a table and sample their fare.

When we find the place, which looks like it's been transported intact from the Riviera, we’re shown to a table right at the edge of the boardwalk and promptly served a carafe of vodka with two small snifter-type glasses and a bowl of ice. And then we just sit for the next three hours and soak it up.

There are Orthodox Jewish couples in yarmulkes and headscarves; Indian women in gorgeous saris; exquisitely dressed Russian girls teetering along in stiletto heels; fat couples and elderly couples; little kids and just about every type of canine known to humankind. Right in front of us, for more than an hour, a handsome hunk hangs with his friends while cradling in his arms a hairless cat of the breed known as a Sphinx. This turns out to be an irresistible babe magnet, as just about every cute young thing ventures closer to admire the wizened little feline. It's like using Yoda for date bait.

Farther down, a fashion shoot is in progress. A photographer and stylist and go-fers dance attendance on a skinny model with an outlandish mop of frizzy hair. She can’t be more than 18, but I’m not going to worry what her mother thinks of all this since she’s probably making more in an evening than I scrape together in a month. (Later we will see her posing again in the traffic island along Brighton Beach Avenue, a truly weird tableau, kind of like Vogue meets Dante’s Inferno.)

Still stuffed with liver and dumplings, we don’t have much of an appetite but order some pickled herring to keep the vodka company. We decide to return later to sample more of the menu, which includes traditional Russian staples like stroganoff and chicken kiev, as well as more exotic fare along the lines of foie gras with wineberry sauce, baby lamb tongue, and cold or hot green borscht. The restaurant doesn’t seem to mind a whit that our food intake is skimpy. We sit there till well after sundown, and no one badgers us to order more or leave.

For about 30 bucks, this beats dinner and a movie any day.
IF YOU GO: See the previous post. You should be up to page 123 in War and Peace by now.

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