I had no idea Brighton Beach existed until, about six years ago, I watched the Russian film Brat 2, in which the main character (played by Sergei Bodrov Jr., RIP) purchases a car in Brighton Beach for his roadtrip to Chicago. Intrigued by the possibility of authentic Russian food on the east coast, I swore I would check this place out someday.
On Saturday morning, I finally made it out there. I was staying at Tracy’s place on the Upper East Side, so it took me about an hour and 45 minutes to get to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. On the subway ride, I was surrounded by families on their way to the beach, lugging with them chairs, umbrellas, boogie boards, and coolers filled with food and drink. Exiting the subway station and stepping onto Brighton Beach Avenue was like entering a completely different world. Storefront signage and ads were in Cyrillic, sidewalk vendors hawked everything from socks to pillows to Georgian pastries, angry men cursed at each other in Russian, and babushkas sunned themselves outside their apartment buildings. I wandered into a few stores to check out the products. They were filled with the cookies, chocolate bars, cheeses, juices, gigantic bottles of kvas, and frozen bags of pelmini that you would find at any corner store in Moscow or Petersburg. The stores were packed with babushkas towing their granny carts, mowing down anyone who dared get between them and the sausage counter. Yes, it was just like being back in Russia.
Since I was so close to the ocean, which I haven’t seen in God knows how long (ok, it’s been about seven months), I walked a few blocks to the boardwalk to check out the “beach.” Let me just say that, while Oceanside, CA, the beach where I spent a majority of my summers, is certainly looked down upon from those in Newport and La Jolla, it’s still a million times better than Brighton Beach and Coney Island. They were crowded and dirty, with a cheap carnival atmosphere, a plethora of old men in speedos, and no waves to speak of. Dude, I miss the West Coast.
“Moscow on the Beach” Notice the hammers and sickles? (Sorry, only photo I took. Oddly enough, I wasn’t very inspired to pull my camera out and start taking a million photos like I usually do)
Once Tina and Margaret arrived in Brighton Beach, we decided to grab a quick lunch at a Georgian restaurant before heading to the banya. Of course, the quick lunch turned into large servings of nigvziani badrijani, khachapuri, khinkali, and shashlik. It was probably not the most ideal food to eat before an afternoon at the banya, but it was all incredibly delicious, rivaling anything I ate in Tbilisi.
After lunch, we took the subway a few stops to Neck Road and eventually found the Russian Baths of NY, where Grisha (the only member of our group, by the way, who is actually Russian) was waiting for us. We had originally planned on going to the Wall Street Bath & Spa in Manhattan, but the Russian Baths of NY was much closer, and quite frankly, sounded a bit more proletariat than the Wall Street Baths, which, I imagined, were full of analysts from JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs discussing derivatives while splashing each other with cold water in the shvitz. No, there would be none of that in this Brooklyn banya. The banya was a lot smaller than I expected, and in addition to the indoor pool, saunas, and steam rooms, also had a bar and restaurant that served the usual Russian dishes. The walls were lined with framed hockey jerseys, which I thought was a little odd, because I don’t usually associate hockey with saunas and pools.
Despite studying in Russia, I had never been to a banya before, so this was an entirely new experience. Basically, you enter the Russian sauna, stay in there for as long as you feel comfortable, and watch the Russian men in felt hats beat themselves with dried birch tree branches. When you can’t stand the heat any longer, you exit the sauna, take a quick cold shower, and then jump in the chilly pool. You repeat this several times, occasionally stopping to drink a half-liter of Baltika beer and snack on dried fish. There were hardly any people at the banya, which wasn’t surprising considering it was 93 degrees outside. Still, the several hours we spent at the banya left us incredibly refreshed and relaxed. All in all, not a bad way to spend a Saturday in Brooklyn.
By the time we were finished with the banya, it was nearing dinner time. We headed back to Brighton Beach, looked around a few stores, walked along the boardwalk, and tried to find a decent place for dinner. We wanted to go back to the Georgian restaurant we had lunch at, but it was closed for a private party. We eventually ended up at some other Russian restaurant that was alright. I had pelmini, and it was pretty indistinguishable from what you’d get in a cheap restaurant in Petersburg. The last thing we did before leaving Brighton Beach was, of course, purchase vodka. Surprising, I know.