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Nathan’s Famous: A Coney Island Institution

Although today one can get Nathan’s hot dogs in towns all across America, Nathan’s Famous is still synonymous with Coney Island. The Coney Island legend opened in 1916 and has been serving hot dogs on Surf Avenue ever since. While Coney Island has changed over the last 93 years, Nathan’s has remained a constant, remaining open all year round, rain or shine.

Nathan Handwerker, a Polish immigrant and founder of Nathan’s, did not in fact invent the hot dog, but he does deserve credit for making it one of America’s most popular foods. Moreover, it has been argued that Handwerker is the father of American fast food, providing cheap, quick, and easy food for the masses then as now.

The hot dog, though, is still a Coney Island invention. In fact, many Americans use the term “Coney” to refer to a hot dog. The hot dog first appeared in 1867 at Feltman’s, an outdoor beer garden, restaurant, and small amusement park situated where Astroland was until recently. Handwerker started his hot dog career at Feltman’s, but after several years raised enough money to open his own stand down the street. While Feltman’s charged a dime for hot dogs and gave people a dining experience, Handwerker only charged half that amount and provided his food on-the-go.

The five-cent hot dog was accompanied by sides and other items, all also costing only five cents each. When, a few years after Nathan’s debut, the NYC subway opened in Coney Island, conveniently located across the street from the hot dog stand, and the public could ride the subway from all over the city to Coney Island for just a five cent fare, Coney Island’s era of the “Nickel Empire” was born.

Nathan’s grew in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, and the establishment expanded. The present-day appearance of Nathan’s has not changed substantially since the 1950s, and more importantly, neither has the quality of the food. Nathan’s has remained one of Coney Island’s best-known attractions. Each year, its hot dog eating contest, held on the Fourth of July, draws thousands of visitors to the amusement area, helping to make Coney Island a unique destination in the City.

MAS believes that the contribution of Nathan’s Famous to American culture and to Coney Island’s spirit should be recognized by designating the building as a New York City landmark, along with several other historic resources in Coney Island.