This article is presented in partnership with Connoisseur as part of our flavour tour of Brooklyn. You can watch our episode on Coney Island here, and read about one of its iconic establishments—Nathan's—below.
The American hotdog origin story is murkier than mystery meat. Some claim the first sighting was in 1880 around St Louis Missouri, others say a wrapped snag debuted at Chicago's 1893 World's Fair. Most agree it descended from a German cousin, the bratwurst, but how it crossed the oceans is lost in time.
The most common tale stars German immigrant Charles Feltman, who began selling "sausages in rolls" on Coney Island in 1870. Was he the first? Who knows. We're not here to challenge history, but we are here to say that Nathan's Famous, which an employee of Feltman's, Nathan Handwerker, started in 1916, is still making delicious dogs to this day. In the great tradition of American capitalism and competition, Handwerker undercut his former boss using a 5c dog (Feltman's were an exorbitant 10c). He then tacked 'famous' onto his name, which lent the business a certain star quality. Another important American tradition.
Nathan's dogs are cheap, delicious, and made using a "secret spice recipe" according to senior director Bruce Miller. Miller started working behind the registers when he was 21 and stayed for 38 years. "The classic is a hot dog with sauerkraut and sautéed onions," Miller explains. "Then there are the chilli cheese and bacon cheese, which are more of our specialty items. All our hotdogs are grilled, not boiled or fried. We peel and chop our potatoes and cook them in corn oil. We want to be able to serve a lot of food, but make it fresh."
The Coney site started with a 20-foot counter and now takes up a city block. As it has grown, the menu evolved to include burgers, cheesecake, clams on the half shell, frog legs, chicken burgers, cold beer, and other seaside things. During summer the line stretches down Surf Avenue and the coupons flow freely: buy one dog, get another for 5c.
The place can grill 10,000 hotdogs a day, which doubles on July 4th during Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest. Notable stomachs such as Japan's Takeru Kobayashi and Las Vegan Miki Sudo have claimed the prestigious Nathan's belt. The current leader is Joey Chestnut, a dude from California who downed 73 dogs in 10 minutes in a feat that was disgusting to watch.
You don't need to travel to Coney to find Nathan's. The place sells over 500 million hotdogs a year at 50,000-plus spots round the world. But the flagship store is part of Coney's tapestry, like the boardwalk, the roller coasters, and the seagulls. In these parts, no one gets off the island without light sunburn and a classic dog in their stomach.
Presented by Connoisseur
Photographer: Tony Choy-Sutton