You never forget your first visit to Fire Island — the pristine beaches, friendly white-tailed deer, auto-free exotica and impossibly cute red wagons. Also: volcanic, delirium-inducing cocktails, losing your shoes, missing the last ferry, almost being run over by a police vehicle after falling asleep on the beach, crashing illegally on a friend’s couch.
OK, not everyone’s inaugural trip to the Isle of Fire will go awry like mine. Not every day-long food tour will end up a misadventure requiring three days and change. But let’s not kid ourselves. When it comes to this storied sliver of sand, chaos is an ever-present possibility. The good news is that for every plight and problem it creates, there is a bar or eatery lying in wait to appease it.
You’ve just spent 30 minutes on the ferry with a boatload of rowdy teenagers, vaping moms and elderly couples one-upping each other with tales of friends suffering from cancer. How to celebrate your survival?
Head to CJ’s. Crawling distance from the Ocean Beach ferry landing, this ramshackle little watering hole has been a cherished first stop for almost 50 years, not least because of a little drinkie known as the rocket fuel cocktail. Whether they or Flynn’s (in Ocean Bay Park) serve the better potent potable is a subject of endless discussion on Fire Island. What no one disputes, however, is that the rocket fuel is the femme fatale of tropical drinks, capable of both the seductiveness of a piña colada and the wholesale carnage of a dirty martini.
Evening has come, the sun has slipped without effort into the bay, and you’re in the mood for something low-key yet racy, namely a light dinner at a restaurant where you’ll get hit on by someone reading a Daniel Silva spy novel at the bar. Where to go?
Run-don’t-walk to the Albatross, also in Ocean Beach. There awaiting you is a semi-successful plate of crispy shrimp dumplings followed by a creditable bowl of clam chowder, a rich if muculent blend of seafood, potato and milkiness. Best of all is the Albatross’ greyhound cocktail, an inspired commingling of Tito’s vodka and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. After one, you’ll be confiding in every stranger within earshot. After two, you’ll completely forgive their taste in books.
Where’s the best place to eat when you’ve lost your shoes?
We’re waiting, Frommer’s and Fodor’s. Answer: Le Dock. For one thing, the charming hamlet in which it is ensconced, Fair Harbor prides itself on being a “barefoot community,” a kind of nudist colony for feet. For another, the eatery’s run under the leadership of chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has mercifully come to an end. As of last fall, well-regarded island restaurateur Michael Miller took over as chef and co-owner, returning the formerly overpriced, under-portioned restaurant to form with a semi-Italian focus, which is to say that the linguine with crab-stuffed shrimp is first-rate but so is the chin-dripping-juicy bacon cheeseburger. Given its bold St. Tropez-like awnings and faux-Gallic name, Le Dock probably had to try something different with the humble French fry, but its take — two-dimensional planks that crunch and chew at once — is nothing less than inspired.
You hailed a water taxi for a trip to Cherry Grove, but got your LGBT towns confused and ended up in the Pines instead. And you’re hungry.
Calm yourself, both communities have lots of good eating options, although the latter’s best food — so declared my taxi captain, anyway — may well be found in the back of a quaint little grocery known as the Pantry. There, the specialty is huge, freshly prepared sandwiches with names like Pines Bombshell (grilled chicken) and Fantasy Island Wrap (turkey), or in my case, a soft bun-encased crispy flounder almondine that dazzled when I dressed it with a zippy side of wasabi-infused kale slaw.
OK, so you’ll walk to Cherry Grove. But before embarking on that 30-minute odyssey, shouldn’t you at least make a pit stop at a bar where you can eavesdrop on arguments over who makes the best salad spinner and whether someone’s paint chip will EVER match the wall, to the accompaniment of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls?”
You should, preferably at the Blue Whale. The drinks and food at this harborside venue are as good as the people-watching, which is saying something in the dude-is-wearing-what?! Pines. Oh, and don’t miss Saturday mornings, when that tired staple of flyover country eccentricity — the drag brunch — comes to life in ways it rarely does in Louisville. Toot toot, hah, beep beep!
You finally made it to the Grove, only to discover that the ferries there leave only for Sayville and not Bay Shore, your own point of embarkation. Like legions of your Fiery forebears, you then searched for accommodations in vain, attempted to sleep on the beach where you were almost run over by a police vehicle, and then sneaked into a friend’s cottage, where you crashed on the couch and then bolted at first light, not wanting to be discovered by the friend’s partner, who “can’t stand freeloaders.” But now it’s 7 a.m. and you’re wandering the streets of Ocean Beach with no place to go.
Hardly. Miscreants like you aren’t the only reason that Rachel’s opens early, but you’re in the top five. The crumb cake there — a brown sugar deep-pile carpet over yellow cake — is as legendary as the cafe itself, which dates to 1975 and was thoughtfully restored and raised up on stilts after an unfortunate run-in with superstorm Sandy. The place is wonderful at any hour of the day, but it’s just after dawn, when soft light plays on wooden tables and Chopin’s Nocturne in E-Flat commands the sound system, that Rachel’s makes the biggest impression.
It’s time you admitted it: People in the late stages of middle age simply do not sleep on a beach. Can you ever regain your dignity? Food-wise, that is.
Yes, and you can do so right down the street from Rachel’s, on the wide veranda at Maguire’s, with its spectacular sunset views of Great South Bay. Dunking their exquisite Long Island steamers into a rich clam broth or swabbing a puddle of rich reduction with tender wagyu can feel both soulful and sensible. And haven’t you resolved to be sensible? To be mature? To get back to Fair Harbor and find those shoes?
Where’s the best place to go after you’ve found your shoes?
Why, Le Dock again, of course, although this time for a festive frosé cocktail and a plate of sweet stone crabs paired with an irresistible mayo-mustard sauce.
You’re just about to take the last water taxi to Ocean Beach, but would like to pop into an eatery in the Grove for a quick dinner that will nonetheless not be quick enough to keep you from missing the aforementioned water taxi. Does such a place exist?
Procrastination, thy name is Top of the Bay, a restaurant that takes itself incredibly seriously, and with good reason. The wooden tables and refined atmosphere at this upscale dining establishment seem worlds away from the surrounding madness, even once you learn that the name refers not to some 34th-floor revolving affair at the Hyatt but a mezzanine-level dining room that barely hovers over the Grove’s zaniness. Beach food for people who don’t like beach food, the TOTB menu features lots of intriguing surprises, such as meltingly good baby artichoke hearts, a superb pan-seared cod with lentils and fried potato straws, a bracingly good after-dinner espresso gelato, and a martini sure to send you back on the road to perdition.
Resolutions notwithstanding, you passed a long evening the details of which are too extensive and embarrassing to go into here. Let’s just say that you’ll be sailing home in stone-faced silence — just as soon as you find a place willing to serve up simple shame-based breakfasts to patrons still wearing last night’s clothes.
One word: Floyd’s. You will sense a heavy fog of regret hanging over the picnic tables at this outdoor morning place, and feeling that every eye is on you. No eye is on you. Literally every single person in your field of vision has done something of which they are not proud during the previous few hours and days, and there’s something oddly freeing about that. Floyd’s will not question your past choices or penchant for enormous $5 piles of bacon and big blueberry muffins fresh from the oven, not even your complete ignorance about how you’ll get back to Ocean Beach and the ferry home to Bay Shore. The code of silence on Fire Island is strong.
Floyd’s, 156 Bayview Walk
Sand Castle, 106 Lewis Walk, 631-597-4174
Top of the Bay, 159 Dock Walk, 631-597-6028
Le Dock, 62 Bay Walk, 631-583-5200
OCEAN BAY PARK
Flynn’s, 1 Cayuga St., 631-583-5000
Albatross, 320 Bay Walk, 631-583-5697
CJ’s, 479 Bay Ave., 631-583-9890
Maguire’s, 1 Bungalow Ln., 631-583-8800
Rachel’s, 325 Bay Walk, 631-583-9552
Blue Whale, Harbor Walk, 631-597-6500
Pantry, 57 Picketty Ruff Walk, 631-597-6200