Words and Photos by Daniel Wood
In Detroit, where we call soda “pop,” we call our chili-dogs “Coney Islands.” Throughout the city there are hundreds of Greek owned restaurants serving up these hot dogs covered in chili sauce and raw onions named Coney Island. The name recalls the birthplace of the hot dog but this treat was born in Motown. In the heart of downtown there are two historic spots, owned by brothers and side by side, which have been serving up this coveted concoction for over 70 years. The competition between Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island is fierce and there isn’t a Detroiter who hasn’t had to pledge allegiance to one shop or the other.
My dedication to Lafayette Coney Island runs so deep that I have never set foot inside American next door. The thought of ever doing so disturbs me greatly and many people on both sides feel the same way. Both claim the superiority of their chosen establishment without ever having tasted the competition. This extreme allegiance has more to do with style and history then taste because both restaurants have a common origin and similar menus.
Gust Keros immigrated to Detroit from Greece in 1910 and opened American Coney Island in 1929 on Lafayette Avenue. His nickel dogs were so successful that he sent for his brother William and trained him in the business. When the storefront next door became available, William started Lafayette Coney Island. The two have remained side by side for the past 70 years and are still owned by third generation family members. This friendly rivalry has supported them through Detroit’s rise to industrial power and fall into racial strife. Both are opened seven days a week on downtown streets where most stores are boarded shut. Their clientele of office workers, city employees, police officers and diehards who drive in from the suburbs have kept them open 24 hours a day.
In 1989 American made the risky move of expanding into the corner building and remodeling. Lafayette, however, seems unchanged since the day it opened. The Formica tables and cramped interior lend to its sense of authenticity. The menu is simple, chili-dogs, with or without raw onions, a loose meat hamburger or “loosey”, a bowl of chili, with or without beans, and fries. Lafayette recently expanded their menu by adding chili fries, if you can count combining two things already on the menu an expansion.
Three generations of my family are loyal to Lafayette Coney Island. My grandfather worked for a butcher which supplied the real casing franks for Lafayette. My father became a regular as a police officer working a downtown beat. Visits to Lafayette were frequent throughout my childhood. Whenever we were within a ten-mile radius we would stop in for a dog with the special chili sauce and raw onions. Before a ball game, after Christmas Eve church services, on the freeway to the airport, whenever. The satisfying aroma of chili and onions would be with us the entire drive home.
I enjoy sitting at the counter in full view of the grill where the cooks are heating the dogs and steaming the ground beef for the chili. Your order is shouted, in a thick accent, by your waiter from your table and is served almost instantaneously. My standard order is two Coney dogs with mustard and raw onions and a bowl of chili with beans topped with more raw onions. Guaranteed to keep you awake for days. Ketchup is available but does not belong on a true Coney. The toppings are piled so high that half will end up on your plate anyway.
The chili sauce is thick and flavorful, but neither spicy or tomato-y. It compliments the sharp raw onions and all beef frank perfectly. Nothing can compare. There are now restaurants throughout Michigan serving Coney Islands. The concoction spread to Ontario, Canada and upstate New York in the 1930’s; possibly by traveling salesman visiting Detroit. However, outside the state these chili-dogs are simply called “Michigans” after the state of their origin. You can order a frozen 10 lb. brick of chili sauce if you have an army to feed, but my advice is to go to the source and visit Lafayette Coney Island next time you are in Detroit.
Lafayette Coney Island
118 W Lafayette Blvd
Detroit, MI 48226
Phone: (313) 964-8198
American Coney Island
114 W Lafayette Blvd
Detroit, MI 48226
Phone: (313) 964-6542
The history of ‘Michigans’ in upstate New York:
Michigans from the Plattsburgh Press-Republican
Seeking devotees of American Coney Island to offer a rebuttal or anyone with comments on Coney Dog culture to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.