This is a guest post. Matthew Wolfe is a journalist living in Detroit.
Many major American cities, particularly those that once, long ago, would have been called “blue collar,” can claim as part of their civic heritage a signature junk food. The food is usually messy, often greasy and always – to borrow a term from famed football coach, analyst and tailgater John Madden – a sinker. Philadelphia has its cheese steaks, Chicago its deep-dish pizza, and Baltimore its crab cakes. Never willing to let Chicago one-up it at anything, Detroit, too, has its own, lesser-known local delicacy: the Coney Island hot dog.
Although named after the frankfurters sold in southern Brooklyn, the Coney Island, also known as the “Coney dog”, or simply the “Coney”, is an invention of Michigan. A “Coney with everything” is a beef or pork hot dog set in a bun, doused in chili, slicked with deli-style mustard, and surmounted with a handful of diced onions. The chili is thin, usually beanless and, while individual recipes are nearly always secret, often contains beef hearts. Ketchup can be added to the Coney, but Michiganders seldom do, believing it gauche. Two Coneys with fries and a Coke constitute a standard lunch, but orders of twice that size aren’t uncommon.
The two foremost purveyors of Coneys in downtown Detroit are Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island, which, due to a generations-old fraternal feud, happen to share a wall. The story goes that Constantine “Gust” Keros, a Greek immigrant, opened American in 1917 and soon after sent for his brother, William, to join him in the U.S. and learn the hot dog trade. Several years later, the brothers suffered a falling out, and William, in a fit of pique, moved into the tiny space next door (or, depending on who’s telling it, threw up a partition in the middle of American’s dining room) and founded Lafayette Coney Island, taking its name from an adjacent street. Since then, hundreds of Coney Island restaurants, most of them still owned by ethnic Greeks, have popped up throughout Michigan. To this day, American and Lafayette remain arch rivals, standing side by side but fighting an endless cold war for Detroit’s allegiance.
On a recent unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon, I strolled into Lafayette for a quick bite. The restaurant, which occupies a sliver of space running widthwise through a triangle-shaped block, is drab and cramped. The decor is Postwar American Diner: faded formica countertops, low-slung vinyl bar stools, and pies in glass display cases. The menu is only about a dozen items, consisting of standard Coney fare: dogs, chili, fries and “loose” hamburgers. Cans of pop are kept in an ice-filled sink. The register is a clanging mechanical contraption.
I took a seat at the counter and went with a single Coney and a pack of potato chips*. Although no longer owned by the Keros family, most of the waitstaff at Lafayette are still thick-chested, hairy-armed Greek men. All of them wear short-sleeve white shirts, white aprons and expressions of perpetual fatique. When one of them takes an order, he barks it in shorthand to the fellow working the grill: “Gimme one of each light chili, heavy onions, bowl chili!”
Service is variable: sometimes the staff is jocular and attentive, bantering with regular customers and even performing the occasional magic trick; other times, they are brusque and careless, as if aware that Lafayette’s reputation by now supercedes the actual experience of eating there. Yet, these men are bearers of a tradition, and this makes them loveable, caprice and all. Today, one of the owners, a short, bespectacled man who could pass for Henry Waxman’s swarthy twin, is hunched over the counter, complaining to a regular customer about the film crew shooting a remake of the Reagan-era classic Red Dawn down the street. The owner, face crushed into a scowl, is worried he’s getting fucked and is mulling avenues of legal recourse.
*A brief digression: Whether its cars or cola, residents of Detroit are extraordinarily allegiant to local brands. Nearly everyone drives American, and many city eateries will stock neither Coke nor Pepsi, only Detroit’s own Faygo. This unflinching loyalty occasionally places Detroiters into the uncomfortable position of having to defend to outsiders a local product they know to be not just inferior, but outright heinous – examples include the Pontiac Aztec, Insane Clown Posse, and the Detroit city council. Fortunately, the local brand of potato chip, aptly named “Better Made,” is crisp, flavorful, and neither excessively salted nor oiled. I’m unsure whether Better Mades are available outside of Metro Detroit, but I’m betting that if some enterprising soul were to purchase the distribution rights and introduce them into a complacent potato chip market, they could be a giant killer.
A Coney doesn’t take long to eat. Lafayette’s chili, the dish’s focal point, is very good: mild, faintly gamy, and actually containing a few beans. The hot dog, which Lafayette has a bad rep for occasionally burning, is cooked perfectly and has a pleasant snap to it. Mustard lends the sauce a welcome acetous tinge, and the onions, while not very strong, provide a nice textural counterpoint. This being Michigan, where the fickle winds of the Great Lakes play Hell upon the predictive powers of local meteorologists, it’s not insignificant that Coneys are a fine all-weather food: they’ll warm you up on a cold day, but won’t slow you down on a hot one. On a previous visit, I had also tried Lafayette’s chili cheese fries and found them excellent, a fine fortification against boney limbs and hangovers.
American may be the older restaurant, but most Detroiters tend to consider Lafayette more authentic. This may have something to do with American’s renovation in 1989, when they it took over an adjacent building that filled out the end of its triangular block, then proceeded to expand both floor space and their menu. Suddenly, the cozy promixities of the lunch counter were eliminated in favor of islands of two- and four-person tables. With it was lost all the communal charm inherent in being made to elbow up against one’s grubby fellow man.
It didn’t help that American also chose to replace three of its four walls with glass paneling, giving the place the look of a terrarium. Recently, I’ve been writing an article on gambling, and the other day I spoke with a casino designer. He told me that well-designed casinos arrange their slots to give the gambler maximum privacy. “When’re they’re playing, slot players tend to feel physically vulnerable,” said the designer. “They like to hole up in nooks and crannies to give them some sense of protection.” The same, I suppose, could be true of people digging into a couple of sopping Coneys. At Lafayette, not only do you have a stronger sense of place, but you can be pretty sure no one’s staring at you.
Maybe Lafayette’s more popular because American tries too hard. If you’re out on Michigan Ave. staring at the two storefronts, the manager of American will often wander out and try to hustle you inside. Detroiters, with good reason, consider this sort of hard sell unseemly. By contrast, Lafayette, with its dinge and its dyspectic staff, plays it cool. It’s no wonder that Lafayette is where the last call crowd has its 3 a.m. sing-a-longs and crying jags, and it’s not surprising that Lafayette is where Patti Smith and MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic'” Smith held their wedding reception in 1980.
I polled a few patrons as to why they were eating at Lafayette and not American. One said the chili at Lafayette was better – much better. A lanky fellow who worked downtown said he’d eaten at both and thought they tasted about the same, but, for amorphous reasons, usually ate at Lafayette. “Part of it is that it’s the original,” said his girlfriend, who sat across from him, picking at a loose burger. “Everyone knows they were here first” (probably wrong, but what she says feels like it should be right). Sitting next to me at the bar was a middle-aged man and his father. The man said they’d driven down from Sterling Heights, a suburb a half hour north, just to drop in for a couple of Coneys. He said this was a thing they’ve done regularly since he was a boy. “It’s about tradition,” said the man. “Every time I have a Coney anywhere, it reminds me of having one here at Lafayette with my dad.” His dad, an oldster wearing a 3rd Infantry Division baseball cap, ate his chili and nodded.
I finished my meal and paid. Although no longer hungry, I felt compelled, out of curiosity and a sense of fairness, to stop in at American. I hadn’t eaten there since June, and when I did it was as a hungry man, not as a critic. American’s menu is far more extensive – a sign outside proclaims Wednesday “Fish Fry Night” – but I stuck to a Coney-with-everything and ate it walking down Michigan. The verdict: American has a better hot dog – it’s both larger and more sapid, not to mention consistently unburnt – but Lafayette has better chili. Given that in both cases the flavor of the chili dominates the palette, I suppose the overall edge in taste goes to Lafayette. However, having a strong opinion as to which Coney tastes better is a bit like taking a hardline stance on which is the best downmarket skin mag (Is it Club or Swank?). The products are so similar, their aims so base, that at three in the morning, either would seem to do – unless, of course, one brings tradition into it.
|Lafayette Coney Island
118 W. Lafayette Blvd.
Detroit, MI 48226
|American Coney Island
115 Michigan Ave
Detroit, MI 48226