CITY ISLAND — Some evenings when Barbara Burn Dolensek sits on the porch of her 113-year-old Victorian home on the western edge of City Island, she can glimpse the Empire State Building.
“I can see that New York’s there,” said Dolensek, 73. “It’s close — but not that close.”
Such is the appeal of the roughly 1.5-mile-long island across the bridge from Pelham Bay Park: it’s just a train (6) and a bus (Bx29) ride away, yet once you’ve arrived, it’s as if you've found a secret seaside village.
No longer the shipbuilding hub that it was for more than a century, City Island remains anchored to the sea — there are marinas, anglers, yacht clubs and, of course, seafood restaurants.
Some 4,500 people live on the island, but it’s visitors’ cars that line the main drag on warm weekend evenings — crawling past the town’s single gas station, school and bank — to reach those famed eateries.
But no worries — most clam diggers (City Island old-timers) welcome mussel suckers (that would be you).
If City Island was once renowned for shipbuilding, it’s now known for something else entirely.
“Everywhere you used to see boat yards,” said John Persteins, owner of the nautical curio store, Trader John’s. “Now it’s pretty much a restaurant island.”
There are at least 30 places to find food along the central strip, City Island Avenue, estimates Dolensek — “everything from white tablecloth to fried fish.”
Of course, seafood is the main draw. For that, head to the island’s north or south ends.
In the upper half, among others, there are the Lobster House (691 Bridge Street), whose giant neon crustacean sign sadly toppled during Sandy, Crab Shanty (361 City Island Ave.), with its famous garlic bread, and Seashore Restaurant and Marina (591 City Island Ave.), with its popular clam chowder and waterfront views.
At the other end are Sammy’s Shrimp Box (64 City Island Ave.) and Fish Box (41 City Island Ave.), the latter a lively 500-seater, Tony’s Pier (1 City Island Ave.), which caught fire during Sandy but promises to reopen before the end of 2013, and Johnny's Reef (2 City Island Ave.), which offers fried seafood, frozen drinks and a sweeping vista of the Long Island Sound.
For more turf options, try Artie’s (394 City Island Ave.), whose logo of a cow and lobster jumping over the moon hints at its menu options, Bistro SK (273 City Island Ave.), which claims to be the Bronx’s only French restaurant, and the Black Whale (279 City Island Ave.), a local favorite with brunch, pasta and backyard seating.
No summer excursion to the island is complete without a stop at Lickety Split (295 City Island Ave.), a cheerful ice-cream cottage that scoops out cake-flavored “Birthday Bash,” coffee-and-fudge “Bittersweet Sinphony” and ever-popular “Red Velvet.”
If you find a free moment between all those meals, you can explore the fully walkable island.
“That helped pay the heat one winter,” quipped Dolensek, who is vice president of the island’s Historical Society, which runs the free museum.
Check out the museum's shipbuilders’ tools, model minesweeper, the naval warship designed and built on the island during WWII, and Revolutionary War cannon ball unearthed in nearby Pelham Bay Park.
Then stroll down City Island Avenue, where alongside the restaurants sit art galleries, gift shops and antique stores, including Trader John’s (246 City Island Ave.).
Stop to marvel at Grace Episcopal Church (116 City Island Ave.), constructed in the 1860s by island shipyard carpenters who styled the rafters like a ship’s hull, Pelham Cemetery (King Avenue), with its views of Hart Island and graves dating to the Revolutionary War, and Ambrosini Field (City Island Avenue near Winter Street), a playground where the equipment is ship-shaped.
If you start to feel landlocked, head to Jack’s Bait and Tackle (551 City Island Ave.), where a four-person motorboat rents for about $70 per day on the weekend. But be warned: the owners suggest lining up by 4:30 a.m., since the first-come, first-serve rentals are quickly snatched up after the 6 a.m. opening.
Like most places, the island’s real treasure is its people, who pride themselves on being down to earth (and sea).
“You can be what you are,” said Barbara Hoffman, a Historical Society board member. “There’s no pretense.”
Her husband, Frank, an 81-year-old clam digger, grew up on the island then raised his family there. He still kayaks or swims around it daily.
Good places to meet locals like the Hoffmans are the island’s half-dozen or so yacht clubs, such as the Morris (25 City Island Ave.) or the Harlem (417 Hunter Ave.), where pints of beer in the glass-walled bar complement the sunset-facing views.
If you’re not content to converse with the natives, then try biting into one at Papa John’s Deli (325 City Island Ave.), where the cheesy, meaty sandwiches are named for the people (Eddie, Mattie, Caitlyn, Chelsea) and the workers (FDNY, NYPD, Sanitation) who eat there.
“I know everybody here,” bragged owner Steven Cottrell, speaking not just of his store, but of the island. “I could write a book about this place.”