Gut Instincr

New York Press' Gut Instinct: Rockaway Eats

This picture is amazing on multiple levels. Show me the guns!

Last week, I rented a three-bedroom apartment a block from Rockaway Beach. Save your quips and sharks, housing projects and Ramones songs. For this fan of sand, surf and clams, Rockaway Beach is paradise.

Every morning, I awoke around dawn and brought my boogie board to the Atlantic, located a block from my abode. I fearlessly rode fierce waves, screaming with kind of childlike glee I thought had vanished when my armpit hair sprouted. Innocent abandon is tough to re-create when you’re no longer innocent.

“Is that why you’re having a cocktail at a.m.?” my girlfriend asked on maybe third, or fifth, day of our stay.

“It’s vacation, baby,” I replied, sipping tart gin gimlet nice and slow.

When on holiday, it’s socially acceptable gorge on deep-fried shrimp, ice cream and booze before noon. A vacation should blow restraint and routine to smithereens. Goodbye, calorie counts and self-control. Hedonism, you’re in the driver’s seat. It was pretty easy to pleasure myself at Rockaway Beach. When I wasn’t gliding across waves, was exploring area eateries and bars. By now, Rockaway Taco is old hat. I won’t bore you with stories of fish tacos as crisp tortilla chips. Instead, I’ll discuss The Tap & Grill (97-20 Rockaway Beach Blvd. 98th St., Queens, 347-246-6769).

Once, the Rockaways contained a terrific amusement park called Playland. Its Atom Smasher roller coaster climbed high above the Atlantic, before whistling down. There were games of chance and batting cages. Then, in 1985, the amusement park died so condos could rise. Nothing remains except for a sign at the Beach 98th Street stop announcing Playland.

However, several couple blocks from station you’ll spot Tap. It’s one of the scant remaining amusement concessions and, since 1934, the Rockaways’ oldest clam bar. I wish it still looked that way; since its Depression inception, it’s been renovated: tropically painted walls, TVs broadcasting horse races, tiled floors. Nonetheless, there’s handsome wraparound wooden bar and prices frozen in time. Pints of Michelob run three bucks, while half pints cost $1.75. Pay more, but feel like you’re drinking less.

“They go down easy,” the bartender explained to me one noonday, when I was gathered at The Tap with fellow vacationers.

“I see,” I said, watching a septuagenarian couple slurp halfsies, then order another round. We, too, bought beer—full pints, mind you—then ensured we had our daily allotment of grease. The Tap makes arteryhardening into an art form. Beer-battered onion rings were malty and crunchy. Clams were shucked, battered, then given a quick hot-oil bath. Even the fat fish taco was friedgolden precision.

When on holiday, it’s socially acceptable to gorge on deep-fried shrimp, ice cream and booze before noon.

“How’d you like it?” the bartender asked. I pointed to my plate: all oily crumbs. Along with grease, the Rockaways offered a wealth of drinking dens. Rogers Irish Tavern proved welcoming, with paint cleaner-strength cocktails and free peanuts. Irish Circle was welcoming, if pricey and TV stuffed. Lifeguard and surfer hang Connelly’s had a perfect frozen piña colada. Bungalow Bar provided brilliant sunset views of Jamaica Bay. But my dive-loving heart pounded hardest for Kerry Hills Pub (115-10 Rockaway Beach Blvd. betw. 115th & 116th Sts., 718-318-1964; Queens).

It’s a dank cave decked out with dusty Irish signage, stained-glass chandeliers and a mural of women writhing on a boat. One afternoon, I sat beside elderly men with grey hair and skin watching the Yankees game. “Come on, pinstripes. Hit the ball!” boomed a beefy gent who looked like a cop gone to seed. I ordered a buck-fifty half pint of Bud served in a slender frosty glass. It tasted good, better than crappy quaff had any right to taste. It’s dive magic.

Keep prices basement low, and even shitty beer can evoke champagne.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” asked a gentleman to my right. His arms were as skinny as pretzel sticks, his mustache recalling walrus tusks, his back bent like a tree battered by sea breeze. “Do you like tanks?” he asked. He brandished a book entitled The Tank Killers. As a wee lad, I gobbled up my local library’s illustrated books on warfare. I was fascinated by World War II German field marshal Erwin Rommel, whose ferocious Panzer tanks ground across Northern Africa like enraged elephants. But I didn’t utter a peep. Instead, I shrugged and drank my beer. It was as cold as my questioner’s response.

“All I asked was, do you like tanks?” he spat. He clutched his glass like a weapon, one I never read about but understand well. “Hey, I do like tanks,” I said. In a dive, customers only want a cold, cheap drink and a little common ground.

“I like tanks,” he said. His face contorted into what I assumed was a smile.

I smiled too, as my sunny beach afternoon disappeared in a dark dive, one half pint after another.

Read—and vote for—the original column at New York Press' website.