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By Laura Stec

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About this blog: I've been attracted to food for good and bad reasons for many years. From eating disorder to east coast culinary school, food has been my passion, profession & nemesis. I've been a sugar addict, a 17-year vegetarian, a food and en...  (More)

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Best Coney Island in America

Uploaded: Dec 31, 2018

Happy New Year and hi from Detroit. I’m visiting friends and family, while getting in some of the classic hotspots. Happy to report what used to look like a war zone not too long ago continues to spruce; especially the ol’ / new Woodward Avenue, now quite posh; a twinkly-lighted street with sleek, Shinola-esque window displays all afoot. If you find yourself thinking "oh, just another too expensive downtown area-story," I say hold on. This is Detroit, finally rising from the ashes, and we can all celebrate that.

This year’s downtown holiday soiree included a stop at the always-impressive-though-you-probably-didn’t-know-that, Detroit Institute of Arts. Housing one of the largest and most significant art collections including Picasso, Matisse, Warhol and Van Gogh, who knew the DIA is among the “top six museums” in the United States?



Lunch brought us to Lafayette Coney Island, what many consider to be the “best coney island in America.” (Do you disagree? Do we even have coney islands in California?) Owner Gust Keros opened American Coney Island (next to Lafayette) in 1914, 13 years after he immigrated to Detroit from Greece. Soon after his brother, William Keros, opened up Lafayette Coney Island right next door.



The Keros brothers’ businesses competed side by side for the best coney dog in Detroit for close to 100 years. About 25 years ago, William sold his restaurant to his loyal employees who still own it today.

We crammed in - the old dining room was packed, it’s walls filled with fading sports and celebrity photos. We got lucky to find 4 seats at the counter. “Times haven’t changed much,” my brother-in-law shared. “This is what it looked like when I was a kid.”

The menu hadn’t changed, that’s for sure.



Our waiter was a wild-eyed man who spoke some practiced combination of English, Greek and deli gibberish, channeling his inner SNL Billy Goat Tavern as he yelled out orders to the grill cook; “Coney, coney, coney, coneywif, coneylooo, friechee, friechee, friechilichee….



Photo by Benzinga

I have such heartfelt, sweet, childhood memories of going to the coney island, even though I’ve never been a coney fan. Instead, I prefer a Loose Hamburger (ground seasoned beef, white onion, yellow mustard on a hotdog bun), one of only ways I will eat beef today. Thinking more about why I still eat this type of beef, and why it was all such the adventure, I realize the food probably wasn’t as much of the draw, as going out to a restaurant. We never went out to eat in the late 60’s – early 70’s, no one did, except for very special occasions like a graduation. In that era, no matter your age, the coney island was a foreign trip to an exotic location.

Our order came. I chose Loose Hamburger ($3.50)



and Chili Cheese Fries ($4.00).



Oh, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. My brain immediately travels back to the late 1960’s. I’m 8-years old once again, looking up from the counter, recalling body memories that run deep. Not just the taste of the food, but the sound of the crackling grill, the smell of chili, the crunch of onions, the laughter of family and fellow fans. I was infatuated with all of it back then, one of my first Food Parties! A joyful experience I will never, ever forget.

We finished the day’s tour at John K. King Used and New Books, named one of the World's Coolest Bookstores.





It’s a four story, aging building, packed with old wooden bookshelves stuffed with 10’s of 1000’s of books, and a lot of people buying them.



Get lost in the twists and turns of the library stacks, while you listen for the wisdom pouring out from the pages before you. If you make a jaunt to the Motor City, add John King to your tourist stop as well, and find your secret treasure buried among the history.

Detroit vs. Everybody? It’s a sign you see a lot around town these days.



It appears Detroit is winning. :)



photos unless noted by LSIC



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Comments

 +   2 people like this
Posted by BJK, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 1, 2019 at 8:26 am

There is NO such thing as BEST or ANOTHER Coney Island. There was only ONE Coney Island. No other Nathan's, the Cyclone, Tornado, Thunderbolt, Bobsled, Fascinations, Shatzkin's Knishes, Steeplechase...if you had grown up there you'd understand. But once Fred Trump and his son, Donald, started building "projects" there it was ruined anyway.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Stick With the Genuine, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jan 1, 2019 at 8:37 am

> There is NO such thing as BEST or ANOTHER Coney Island.

Absolutely. This is 'fake news'. *just kidding*

Regional fare (i.e. SF sourdough, Philly Cheesesteaks, NY bagels etc.) cannot be recreated ANYWHERE else with 100% authenticity. Local H20 used in the bread dough + cuts of meat & the way they are sliced/cooked make a big difference.

BTW...some readers were under the false impression that you were a devoted vegetarian based on your writings. You are obviously a carnivore and p/t vegetarian (which many people are).

No big deal but your advocacy & promotion of vegan-style menus will now be taken far more lightly.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Common sense, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jan 1, 2019 at 9:55 am

Common sense is a registered user.

"Regional fare (i.e. SF sourdough, Philly Cheesesteaks, NY bagels etc.) cannot be recreated ANYWHERE else with 100% authenticity. Local H20 used in the bread dough + cuts of meat & the way they are sliced/cooked make a big difference."

Agreed! Even Alfredo di Lellio of "fettuccine al' Alfredo" fame noticed it, touring the US to demonstrate his simple noodle dish. Even bringing his own flour from Italy, the noodles came out differently here. He figured it was the local water and its minerals.

I had to read into the blog's story to make sure what the title meant by best "Coney Island" (generally a place, and a beach Web Link ). Since not everyone in the Bay Area grew up in Detroit (or even the East Coast), it helps if writers explain or gently introduce quirky regional terms on first use (example: "Coney Island hot dog"), if they aim to be inclusionary and not just writing to an in-the-know little clique. That's a small quibble though -- the meaning came out in the story.

Still, excellent blog post, Laura!

BTW: I don't know why any reader would mistake you for a strict, "devoted" vegetarian (rather than a vegetable enthusiast) based on your writings, unless the mistake was wishful. The blog's standing intro spells out clearly that you were a vegetarian for a while, and you've mentioned meats off an on. That earlier comment was a misreading, don't worry about it.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Jan 1, 2019 at 10:04 am

My wife is returning to Detroit this spring for her 50th high school reunion, and I am sure her classmates will love your recommendations. Especially appreciate your pics. Thanks!


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Laura Stec, a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge,
on Jan 2, 2019 at 7:48 am

Fascinating Common Sense - and you bring that to this post. I thought EVERYONE knew about Coney Islands - I had NO idea that it was not a common term, though I did notice there are none in the CA areas I have lived. What an interesting thing that says about life. If I just assume everyone knows coney island restaurants, I wonder what else I assume everyone agrees on, just because I grew up with certain experiences that I now term "normal" and even "sentimental" in importance.

Googling "Coney Islands in CA" turns up places like "Coney Island West" and Bobs Detroit Coney Island,"easy proof that the few out west have roots back east, and especially in the Detroit area, where coney islands are found everywhere.

I also just googled, "Where did coney island originate?"

A: "There's a mystery that's still out there, but we were able to determine that the first hot dog concoctions were created by the Greeks and Macedonians who immigrated to Detroit. Legend has it that these immigrants got the idea because they passed through New York, Ellis Island and Coney Island."

Thank you for teaching me more about the history of these restaurants, and about life!


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Laura Stec, a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge,
on Jan 2, 2019 at 10:02 am

And to Stick with the Genuine, no, I am not a purist and have never proposed to be so. What I have been is around the food/health/environment since the late 1980's, when I started one of the first food and environment education programs in the country. 30 years of educating on food issues has made me MUCH more interested in talking to the "non-converted" rather than the "converted." You need no convincing, but a lot of others do. Perspective has shown me that eating a touch of meat, or simply not judging those who do, gives me a lot more street cred with the "non-converted," more ability to relate to them, and more possibility to connect. Plus as a professional chef, I work for clients who sometimes want meat. I no longer judge anyone for what they eat, but am most interested in making plant-forward dishes appealing and inspiring for all eaters. Let's change the world with great tasting food!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Emailed from Florida, a resident of another community,
on Jan 2, 2019 at 2:41 pm

Thanks Laura. I did not make it to Detroit this holiday season and your story brought back great memories. My first trip to Lafayette was with my dad and his 'group' of boyhood friends from St Ann's parish. It was a right of passage.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Another email from Florida, a resident of another community,
on Jan 2, 2019 at 3:28 pm

Hi Laura we didn't make it to Lafayette's Coney Island this past Christmas,but have enjoyed it many times the past few years.We have yet to find a decent Coney Island here in Fl. I guess it is ingrained in us as Coney Island hot dog lovers that Detroit does, in deed, makes the best to be found! Just my opinion!


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Common sense, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jan 3, 2019 at 9:55 am

Common sense is a registered user.

Like probably many other Americans who didn't grow up with them, I'd seen references occasionally to "Coney Island hot dogs." Various Wikipedia articles are related, and they strongly link the US sausage specialty (in New York, Michigan, Indiana, and elsewhere) to early-1900s Greek and Macedonian immigrants (when the Balkan Wars produced many refugees from that region). One article adds this delightful and enlightening history, explaining the name you used to title this blog post:

' In 1913 the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce in New York had banned the use of the term "hot dog" on restaurant signs on Coney Island, an action prompted by concerns about visitors taking the term literally and assuming there was dog meat in the sausage.[3] Because of this action by the Chamber of Commerce, immigrants passing through the area didn't know the sausage in a bun by the American moniker "hot dog." Instead, the handheld food would have been known to immigrants as a "coney island." ' -- Web Link


 +   8 people like this
Posted by If You Only Knew What Went Into Hot Dogs, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jan 3, 2019 at 2:38 pm

If people only knew what kind of ground-up animal parts went into most hot dogs, they would probably have second thoughts about eating them.

It's always entertaining watching countless spectators at AT&T Ballpark scarfing these things down. Like eating meat garbage.

We bring box lunches...assorted sushi. About the only time we are compromised is with the overpriced beer concessions (or when the Giants are playing lousy..which is frequent these days).


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Common sense, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jan 4, 2019 at 9:25 am

Common sense is a registered user.

"If people only knew what kind of ground-up animal parts went into most hot dogs. . . We bring box lunches...assorted sushi."

In fact, some of us have an excellent idea what ingredients go into sausages like hot dogs, having eaten in countries where the miscellaneous parts (lungs, hearts, etc.) remain popular in traditional separate specialties, not just ground into sausage fillings; and/or growing up with such dishes. "Variety meats" have a long history as inexpensive nutritious foods with creative uses, even though they've fallen off the radar of middle-class Whole-Foods-shopping America today.


Food historian Karen Hess once famously pointed out (in "The Taste of America") that the history of recipes consists mainly of housewives inventing something interesting out of ingredients the gentry wouldn't touch. Variety meats and sausages are old-fashioned proletarian foods. Disdain for which (and for those who consume them) endures with updated language and notions (see above), even as some of the masses persist in getting real joy from unfashionable, un-hip, unenlightened chili dogs. Under whatever name.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Veggie Delight, a resident of another community,
on Jan 5, 2019 at 12:57 pm

> In fact, some of us have an excellent idea what ingredients go into sausages like hot dogs, having eaten in countries where the miscellaneous parts (lungs, hearts, etc.) remain popular in traditional separate specialties...

You forgot to mention pig lips...yumm. I guess the seasonings cover everything up.

Most sausages are made from random meat garbage.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by R.Davis, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jan 5, 2019 at 5:55 pm

R.Davis is a registered user.

QUOTE: Most sausages are made from random meat garbage.

A old German sausage maker once told me that ground animal intestines add a certain gritty texture to some sausages...bon appetit.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Greart link, a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge,
on Jan 5, 2019 at 10:00 pm

There are 500 diners in the Metro Detroit area alone that serve Greek food and “Coney dogs" -- hot dogs smothered in chili or ground beef, plus mustard and onions. There are plenty more elsewhere in Michigan, across the Midwest, and beyond.


Interesting history of the coney: Web Link



 +  Like this comment
Posted by Oscar Mayer, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jan 23, 2019 at 8:43 pm

Scrolling downwards...I guess sausages originated as poor people food given the meat scraps and assorted crap that went into many of them.

Nobody grinds USDA Prime cuts for sausage fare.




 +  Like this comment
Posted by John Z, a resident of Portola Valley,
on Mar 14, 2019 at 7:55 pm

Wonderful post, Laura. I especially like the way the taste of a Coney took you immediately back to Coneys past. Ironically, your post had the same effect on me. In the mid to late '60s, my friends and I needed almost no excuse to pile into someone's car and zip down Woodward to Coney Central -- the Lafayette. We even did this after prom. Thanks for bringing back these memories.


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