It can be hard not to think you’re having the best meal in New York City when you have your toes in warm sand, a hot dog in hand and a front-row seat to a sweeping view of New York harbor and the downtown Manhattan skyline.
Even if the hot dog is perfectly ordinary — which it was — there’s little that can beat the experience of lunching at the new Water Taxi Beach on Governors Island on a summer Friday.
Read: When the rambunctious crowds aren’t there and the place isn’t teeming with kids.
Not that Water Taxi Beach, which officially opened July 11, is only about its location. It serves basic, somewhat inexpensive, boardwalk food done nicely — the burger patty didn’t taste like it’d been defrosted just minutes before and the fries would not have been out of place on a steakhouse plate.
Having been to my fair share of beaches, I’ve found that these qualities in boardwalk food, sadly, are a rarer find than one would think.
The more noteworthy thing about Water Taxi Beach, however, is that in the years to come, its opening could be seen as a tipping point for Governors Island, a relatively sleepy, 172-acre nub of land just off the Southern tip of Manhattan that served as a U.S. Army post and then a U.S. Coast Guard post until 1996, when the island was emptied out.
The state of New York now owns Governors Island and has been gradually sprucing it up and opening chunks up to the public. There is biking, kayaking — even miniature golf. If you’re into running, the island offers a path with fantastic views of Ellis Island, Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty while you’re at it.
Accordingly, the island’s visitor-count, naturally, started rising — according to a September 2008 New York Times story, Governors Island, which is only open during the summer and for a small part of fall, drew 100,000 tourists last year. In 2007, only 56,000 people visited the island and the year before that, the number was just 26,000.
Even so, the food offerings on the island had been limited. Until Water Taxi Beach and all its faux-beach finery set up, there was nothing that even remotely resembled any of the mainstays of the Hamptons or Fire Island sets.
This third branch of Water Taxi Beach, which also has trucked-in sand and hot dog stands in Long Island City and the South Street Seaport, has a menu that reflects the leanings of the Carrie Bradshaw crowd. Alongside the $3 hot dogs and $6 burgers are $4 soy dogs and $5 noodles with smoked tofu.
Sure, you have to join a slow-moving line in the sweltering sun and belly up to a counter in order to buy your tofu noodles but it’s not dissimilar to what you’d have to do on a boardwalk anyhow.
But the food offering that truly impressed me was the condiment station — which is almost the size of your average New York City street food cart.
I had an inkling things were going to be good when I spotted a few Sriracha bottles perched on the counter. But that was only the tip of a pretty deep condiment bench that included (besides the usual suspects) pineapple ketchup, tomatillo sauce and a blue cheese dip.
We sampled several and they all stood up well to the fries, which were well done — crispy yet soft inside and flecked all over with sizable granules of salt. The burger and dog, as mentioned, were perfectly decent specimens.
To get some form of comparison, we also checked out the island’s other food establishments which, at the moment, number just three. Veronica’s Kitchen, the Jamaican food cart that serves up jerk chicken, was closed when we got there.
But George’s, a basic Greek deli-style food-cart that sells $4 cheeseburgers and $6 Greek salads, was open for business.
For $7, we got a gyro platter. The flabby, flaccid rice tasted and had the mouthfeel of days-old rice hastily warmed up in the microwave.
As for the gyro itself, it was a little lacking in flavor. I know it’s unfair to compare a little cart to the relative behemoth that is Water Taxi Beach but, comparing apples to apples, I’ve had far better versions from street carts. (Even from one parked near Battery Park that was so sketchy the guy didn’t skip a beat while frying up meat even after a massive gust of wind blew a cloud of visible street dirt right onto his griddle.)
By the time we ended the day with a lemonade and a freshly brewed raspberry iced-tea at Pyramid Coffee near the ferry terminal, we were unable to eat another bite. (So, no verdict on its sandwiches this time, alas.)
But as we sat in the quiet, leafy shade and looked out onto the sliver of water that separated us from the bustle of Manhattan, we reflected on the meals we had had on the island.
One was the ordinary done to perfection — the other was so barely ordinary it was hardly worth noting.
And therein lies the difference.
Getting to Governors Island
Free ferries leave every hour on the hour between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. from the Battery Maritime Building in lower Manhattan between Friday and Sunday during the summer. Check the schedule here: http://www.govisland.com/Visit_the_Island/directions.asp