Rockaway Beach makes waves

July 1, 2011

Never in my teenage years would I have pictured myself eating a gluten-free vegan doughnut on the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach.

But there I was, nearly two decades after my last visit to my hometown beach in Queens, biting into a lemon mini-doughnut at BabyCakes, a new arrival at the snack area between 96th and 98th Streets. Handing over the little delicacy was a cashier who looked like a waitress at a 1950s diner, with her pink uniform and white hat.

Around the corner, I spotted Ode to the Elephants, a restaurant originally from Puerto Rico, hawking “Beach Thai Food.” I’d never heard of such a cuisine. At the 86th Street concession area, my mother and I stopped to study the “Hot Melon” menu at Rippers. Turns out that Hot Melon is just a fancy name for fancy drinks like the Ecuadorian, a cucumber, mint and agave juice concoction. (My Ecuadorian mother couldn’t figure out what exactly was Ecuadorian about it.) At the 106th Street stand, we stopped to read a sign at the Caracas Arepa Bar. It advertised arepas (corn cakes), empanadas and juices as “the new beach food.”

These new food venues are part of a culinary migration from other New York City boroughs that’s bringing healthy gourmet fare at beach-stand prices to a place never before known as a dining destination.

Then again, Rockaway Beach has never really been known as a destination anything. When I was a teenager, crime and drugs were almost as ubiquitous here as hot dogs and french fries. But in recent years, Rockaway has gone from bedraggled to beloved by artists, surfers and Brooklyn and Manhattan hipsters.

“It’s so much more than the food,” said David Selig, the co-owner of Rockaway Taco, who led the foodie wave. Rockaway Beach “got so sadly neglected. I think a lot of humans out there providing energy will bring it back to life.”

There were plenty of energetic humans when I visited with my mom and my brother on a Friday in June: teenagers in colorful bikinis enjoying their first days of summer vacation; mothers teaching their toddlers how to swim; children building sandcastles. The latest Rihanna and Britney Spears tunes were blaring from someone’s boombox. The water was cold and the waves were choppy, but that didn’t stop us from hitting the surf.

We were going to do our part to bring Rockaway back to life.

My mother remembers a day at the beach when I was 4 or 5 years old. Somehow, while no one was looking, I wandered away from the family group. When my mother noticed that I was gone, a panicked search party was formed to track down the little redhead in the pink ruffled bathing suit. Thankfully, I was found a short time later crying in the arms of a young female lifeguard.

Back in the early 1980s, Rockaway Beach was a scary place to misplace a child. It was full of run-down public housing and other dilapidated apartment buildings. The sand was embedded not with shells but with empty liquor bottles. It was hard to believe that in its heyday, the peninsula on the southern shore of Long Island had been dubbed the “playground of New York.” In the early 1900s, people summered at Rockaway the way they do in the Hamptons today. Then the city built more modern facilities at Coney Island in Brooklyn and Jones Beach on Long Island, luring the crowds away. Rockaway’s hotels and amusement parks didn’t stand a chance.

But we Queens kids remained loyal to Rockaway, our gritty Hamptons. The subject of a 1977 Ramones hit and the setting of the 1987 Woody Allen flick, “Radio Days,” Rockaway Beach to us had a certain cachet, if only because it’s supposedly the largest urban beach in the United States.

Best of all, we didn’t need a car to get there. We’d meet on Broadway in Jackson Heights almost every weekend during the summer and hop on the Q53. We’d hang out near 116th Street, probably the busiest part of the beach because the train also stops there. My last visit to Rockaway was after my junior prom. Our corsages and boutonnieres still intact, we sat on the beach counting the stars until way past our curfews.

In the spirit of tradition, my mother, my brother and I first made our way to 116th Street. But this time, rather than grab a slice of pizza, we sprang for The Wharf, a waterfront restaurant that a friend had called a hidden gem. He wasn’t kidding. It is, in fact, hidden, behind a Lukoil gas station. Too bad it’s so hard to find, because the fish was fresh and the view of Jamaica Bay refreshing. The nun drinking Budweiser out of a wine glass at the table next to us also seemed to thoroughly enjoy her meal.

After lunch, we strolled down 116th Street to the boardwalk. During Rockaway’s peak, 116th Street had been compared to Fifth Avenue. But you won’t find any high-end stores or even a Starbucks there now. At Fashion Wave, a clothing and accessories shop that has the look of a Dollar Store, Daniel and I argued over whether to buy a Mets or a Yankees beach towel. (My mother settled it. Neither.)

We walked past the longstanding dive bar, appropriately called Sandbar, where people were drinking beer at outdoor tables. But we wanted sand, not a bar. We found a square of sand on which to park ourselves on the beach, but we didn’t last long without an umbrella in the 90-degree heat. I looked at the red and yellow umbrellas around me with envy.

Better to explore the boardwalk, we decided. We headed south, passing playgrounds with swings and handball courts and skate parks, our conversation occasionally interrupted by the bell of a Mr. Softee truck. My mother, a real estate buff, pointed out all the shiny new white condo buildings with balconies overlooking the boardwalk. “You deserve to live here,” said a sign on one.

I was more into people-watching. Or animal-watching, in some cases. We stopped to play with Alex, a parrot perched on the shoulder of owner Laura Flannery, a former Marine turned limousine manufacturer who has lived off the boardwalk for 10 years.

Flannery, proudly rocking a Yankees sweatshirt, said that she loves living in Rockaway because of its diversity. Once called the Irish Riviera, when immigrants from the Emerald Isle dominated its neighborhoods, Rockaway is now home to Hispanics, Africans, Indians, you name it.

“Everyone dwells together well,” Flannery said. “It’s a lovely place to live. I like the beach community. Isn’t it amazing that this is here in the middle of an urban environment?”

We ended our day not at one of the splashy new eateries but at the venerable drinking spot Connolly’s Bar, where the bartenders have Queens accents as heavy as the Guinness they pour.

Daniel and I ordered beers, apparently not the most popular beverage at this dark basement tavern. When I asked the bartender what so many people were sucking through straws out of small styrofoam cups, he handed me two cups with a little taste of each drink: a pina colada and a frozen lemonade. Daniel declined when the burly bartender offered him a cup of the frilly concoction. “I prefer beer,” he said.

“Connolly’s is world-famous for this,” the bartender insisted.

He proceeded to tell us how a crew of motorcycle riders once walked into the bar decked out in their leather paraphernalia and ordered round after round of pina coladas.

That’s the beauty of Rockaway Beach: It may be tough, but it’s got a soft side, too.

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