Coney Islands Come Naturally in Detroit

Graffiti outside my hotel window from the Westin downtown. Ho-Ho-Ho!

Christmas graffiti outside my hotel window in Detroit. Ho-Ho-Ho!

I had to make a run to Detroit right before Christmas, completely unexpectedly, and not necessarily where one might want to venture with the holidays looming. But Detroit is an iconic location. It’s the Motor City, home to the automobile industry and General Motors. There is Motown Records and its famous studio, Hitsville, USA. Detroit is also known as Hockeytown and where the 11-time Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings reside. This was a jumping town not that long ago, but it has seen better days.

Between 2000 and 2010 the Motor City’s population fell by 25 percent, shifting its ranking from the nation’s 10th largest city to 18th. At its peak in 1950, Detroit had a population of over 1.8 million people. By 2010 that population had fallen by 60 percent to 713,777. The suburbs swelled with wealth and the downtown fell into disrepair. Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013. The lack of jobs, crime and vacant properties make its problems palpable, and a strange place to visit for those not from the area. The architecture is lovely. The art deco mixes with the gothic, giving it a classic sense, but from a time that no longer exists.

The Westin in downtown Detroit was a lovely hotel, but next door was a condemned office building.

The Westin in downtown Detroit is a lovely hotel, but next door was a condemned office building.

The most obvious issue is the blight. This place reminded me of David Byrne, from the Talking Heads, in his oversized “Stop Making Sense” suit. There is way too much material and not enough humans to fill it up. I woke up on a weekday at the Westin downtown and it was virtually quiet outside. Not a car horn, no bustle, no airplane engines – just silence, and way too much of it for a major city.

Its neighborhoods are longstanding, and now are becoming miniature social experiments. Remaining long-time residents are being joined by young people of all ages and races, as property prices have dropped to much more sane prices not seen in major cities for 30-years. Cool kids and Do It Yourself, or DIY types, can take a chance on Detroit. Vacant lofts or old houses can be bought for less than what a car costs, often going for between $5,000 to around $20,000. This allows folks to relocate and take a shot at making a go of it in the Motor City. Everyone bonds together in these neighborhoods, like tribes, to put their stamp on the city.

As each of these miniature neighborhood-mixing bowls takes shape, together they join and begin to reinvigorate a downtrodden Detroit and offer a giant mixing bowl that just might appeal to young people and entrepreneurs in the States and Canada.

Players and fans filled the Westin, as it was headquarters for the North Carolina Tarheels, in their bowl game against Rutgers.

Players and fans filled the Westin, as it was headquarters for the North Carolina Tarheels, in their bowl game against Rutgers.

One of the traditional calling cards in several neighborhoods is the local independent Coney Island hot dog joints that dot Detroit’s cityscape. There are literally hundreds of these mom & pop spots across the region. It may seem like an odd fit, but in fact the Coney Island-style of hot dog, topped with beanless chili, onions and mustard, originated in Michigan.

The name comes from when the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce in New York banned the use of the term “hot dog” on restaurant signs in 1913. Immigrants took the term too literally, and mistakenly thought there was actual dog meat mixed in the sausage. But those were your garden variety hot dogs on a bun. We’re talking real Coney Islands up here in Detroit.

With the repercussions from the mortgage crisis and other economic hardships still resonating throughout this Rust Belt city, there’s a feeling reminiscent of the situation facing immigrants coming off the boats in New York in the early 1900s. Cheap is good, and this inexpensive meal that fits in your hand fits your budget as well.

Call them Coney Islands, Coney Dogs or simply Coneys for short – in Detroit they know exactly what you are talking about.

Detroit 5I’m only going to be in Detroit for 15-hours, so I need to hit the money shot of Coney Island dogs, and make it count. I figure I can make two stops, one to actually sit down and eat, and one place to get an order to go. In such a situation there is only one solution, head over to 118 W. Lafayette Boulevard in downtown Detroit.

Here you will find Lafayette Coney Island, which has been open for over 100 years. Next door at 114 W. Lafayette is American Coney Island, open since 1917. If you have ever visited 9th and Passyunk Avenue in Philadelphia, where Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s face off daily for cheesesteak supremacy, it’s kind of like that.

Both Lafayette and American have national reputations, you can’t go wrong, but what if you could only eat at one? Which one?

Don’t worry the locals will help guide your way. There’s four of us needing to be seated, including a 10-year old and a 2-year old along for this adventure. I’ll sum it up this way. Lafayette is a tight fit. It’s a narrow restaurant, tiled floors and walls, little wooden tables and definitely a shared dining experience. American has more space, a more modern feel, but obnoxiously decorated like a perpetual Fourth of July celebration on Ellis Island.

I was thinking I would go for the extra space at American, as it was near empty, but a couple guys going into Lafayette yelled out to us saying, “Hey you don’t want to go to that one. This is the real deal.”

Enough said. And they were right.

The "Special" at Lafayette will satisfy.

The “Special” at Lafayette will satisfy.

It was packed, which is a good sign, and there were three tables pulled together in a corner that allowed us to get the young uns some space. Often you will end up sharing multiple tables at Lafayette, so plan to make friends.

The back story on Lafayette and American is that like many chili joints, they have a Greek heritage. Brothers Bill and Gus Keros opened the original restaurant at this location in 1914 by brothers Bill and Gus Keros. After getting into a business dispute the brothers split their restaurant into the two establishments that exist today.

I can’t say enough for our waiter. In the cramped confines the kids could have gotten out of control, which quickly would have bled over into other diner’ tables, but he knew this. He started making these amazing bird calls that captivated the attention of my 2-year old, then came back later and did a magic trick to fascinate the whole table. Have you seen two forks teetering on the end of a toothpick balancing on the top of a salt shaker?

Detroit 7As for Lafayette itself, it feels like Detroit. There are folks of all ages and races inside. Clearly kids were back in town from college and this was a must visit. There is Detroit Tigers stuff on the wall and miscellaneous photos of famous diners. This joint is popular with Eminem, Kid Rock, Henrik Zetterberg (Red Wings), Nick Lidstrom (Red Wings), and Drew Barrymore, among others.

The kitchen is exposed with a counter up front where diners can sit. Wherever your waiter takes your order in Lafayette, it is yelled in short-form across the restaurant loud enough for the kitchen to hear. If you want to see a sight watch a waiter bring out 12 Coneys on plates running down one arm from fingertip to shoulder while carrying a tray of fries in the other hand.

I went with the American Special. This is a dog on a steamed bun with loose hamburger, chili, sweet onions and mustard for $3.75. I’m not usually a big onion fan, but had a feeling I should check these out and it paid off. The casing on the dog had a snap to it, the chili and meat had amazing flavor and the sweet onions seemed to almost dissolve into the chili. Instead of being crunchy and pungent, they blended into the chili and added a sweetness into the overall flavor. Throw in some cold beers and chili cheese fries and life was good in Detroit.

Detroit 4I did wander next door to American afterwards to get one of their combo dogs to go. Nothing wrong with it either, but it felt more like your typical fast food joint. American was far too orderly and lacked the character of Lafayette.

Come hungry to Lafayette Coney Island, just go with the experience, and bring cash, cause that’s all they take.

118 W. Lafayette Blvd.
Detroit, MI 48226

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