Motown pride: Why the Coney Island hot dog is more popular in Detroit than Brooklyn

Personally, I think American is trying too hard. Via Facebook.

Personally, I think American is trying too hard. Via Facebook.

The warm weather finally hitting us brings with it thoughts of Coney Island and hot dogs. But for me, I’m not talking about the ones in Brooklyn. You see, for me, you can take the girl out of Michigan, but I still got a lot of Midwest quirk when it comes to adapting to the BK lifestyle. My hand still makes the perfect map of Michicgan to show people where my hometown is. Once at a Checker’s, I accidentally referred to wanting a Coke as “pop” without realizing it and was given Pip’s because that’s what the employee thought I meant. Prepping for brunch at work, I misspoke referring to the bodega across the street as a “party store” and was met with confusion and questions from my coworkers from what exactly makes it a “party.” I’m constantly craving Detroit Made BBQ Better Made Potato Chips, Faygo Red Pop and Ghettoblaster from Motor City Brewery, I have strong opinions on Motown and a love/hate relationship with “Don’t Stop Believing,” and though my love for Zetterberg’s beard is eternal while love for sports limited, I lose interest in the NHL season soon as the Red Wings are out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But what I’ve been finding myself pining for insistently lately (mostly when drunk) are Coney Dogs from D1 (Detroit One) Coney Island in Detroit. That’s right, both hot dogs and diners where they serve the hot dogs are called “Coney Islands” in Detroit. 

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A "Coney" at American Coney Island in Detroit. Via Flickr user Eugene Kim.

A “Coney” at American Coney Island in Detroit. Via Flickr user Eugene Kim.

Let’s allow some time for that statement to settle in a bit. There really are “Coney Islands” in Michigan. We’re also the home of the Original Coney Dog, the best meal with chilli cheese fries a girl can get for under $5 (including tip).

Baffling, yet exciting at the same time, right? If you’ve never had the fortunate opportunity to take a trip to the Great Lakes State, I’m sure you might be a little up in arms with plenty of questions: How could this be?! What exactly is a Coney Dog? Why do people in Michigan even refer to diners as Coney Islands in the first place? Can I find a true Coney Dog here in Brooklyn? Etc!

To ease my Coney-separation suffering, I am more than pleased to put on my hot dog hat that makes me an uncertified expert to spread some knowledge and educate the Brokelyn masses on the best type of weiner on the planet.

What is a Coney Dog?

According to most reports, the “coney dog” originated in 1914 by George Todoroff in Jackson, Michigan. It’s a magical delicacy that Detroiters take great pride in: an beef-pork frank with no fillers, topped with hearty portions of beanless beef chili with decadent spices, chopped onions and mustard, all snuggled together in a fluffy steamed bun. Each and every one perfect in their own way like a snowflake, Coney Dogs are made with love, local ingredients and tradition. Different “Coney Island” establishments have their own secret family recipes for the chili and sauce, but each and every one comes with that satisfying snap when you take your first bite.

It’s traditional for beans to not be included in the chili for a Coney Dog, and if you so much as consider adding ketchup to one, don’t. There is no need to fuck with pure perfection, and Detroiters will call you out on it.

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Parkside Coney Island diner in Detroit. Via Flickr user Thomas Hawk.

Parkside Coney Island diner in Detroit. Via Flickr user Thomas Hawk.

What are “Coney Islands”?

A Coney Island is a Greek-American diner that provides not only Coney Dogs (their namesake) as the main feature, but they provide traditional Greek dishes along with standard American classics. Only at a Coney Island can I get a Coney Dog and enjoy screaming “Opa” while my waitress lights me Saganaki on fire and I fear for the plants hanging above catching.

At the beginning of the 19th century, many Greek and Macedonian immigrants traveled from their war-torn countries landing at Ellis Island; they eventually moved farther west and opened Greek-American restaurants in pursuit of the American Dream, while also earning money to send for the rest of their families. With the rising auto industry, this brought many to settle in Detroit (hence Greektown, a section of Detroit).

The theory behind this success was that a working man was a hungry man, and Coney Dogs were the answer providing a filling, yummy meal on the cheap.

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Via Flickr user Maia C.

Via Flickr user Maia C.

But using the name Coney Island? There’s no clear blip of why the term “Coney” was coined for this special weiner, but many have speculated it pays homage to when immigrants would arrive in New York and start off as street meat vendors in Coney Island, thanks to the blow up success of Feltman’s and Nathan’s popular hot dogs.

Rumor has it the term of endearment of “Coney Dog” instead of “hot dog” came to light when in 1913, Coney Island Commerce banned advertising with the phrase “hot dog.” Allegedly this was because it caused visitors and new citizens to believe that the franks were made from REAL DOG, which even as an labeled “intelligent” child, I believed until I was about seven.

Where is the best Coney Dog in Detroit?

A "Coney" at Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit. Via Flickr user Eugene Kim.

A “Coney” at Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit. Via Flickr user Eugene Kim.

I have been to many a Coney Island around Metro Detroit and Downtown Detroit, and the best Coney Dog I’ve ever had the honor of putting my mouth parts on hands-down is from Lafayette Coney Island, located directly next door to American Coney Island.

Damn. Talk about some heated competition! If that’s not already scandalous enough, both restaurants were started up by brothers!

In 1917, Greek brothers Constantine “Gus” and William “Bill” Keros opened up American Coney Island on Lafayette and Michigan Ave in Detroit. Business was booming, but even the best of times can cause brother’s to bump heads. Years had passed, and rumoured disputes lead to William opting out of business with his brother and starting his own joint: opening his own Lafayette Coney Island right alongside his brother’s restaurant in 1936.

Like any good All-American sibling rivalry should, the Lafayette vs. American Coney Island runs deep. Many die-hard Lafayette regulars can’t even fathom ever walking into American Coney Island, and the feeling is mutual from American patrons. Much like a weiner rendition of Romeo & Juliet, I just want us to get along, but I also want Lafayette to win, because not only is their chili sauce spectacular, but employees like Faisal Ali does magic tricks and I’m a sucker for magic tricks!

A photo posted by Faisal Ali (@faisal__ali) on

Realistically, if it wasn’t for Lafayette and American Coney Island, Coneys might not have taken off as well as they did. With the success of these two feuding restaurants (and their lack of trademarking the name Coney Island), it paved the way for many other diners to spread the love of the Coney, as well as the name! The Keros bros made the Coney Dog what it is today! Amazing things do come out of Detroit! This is nothing new!

Wow, Hope. You’ve really turned me on to the idea of a Coney Dog and now I have the overwhelming need to try one. Is there anywhere I can get a Detroit Coney Dog in Brooklyn?

Yes they have! You may have missed their pop-up stints at Berg’n and in Williamsburg, but Ed and Bev’s are coming to the Riis Park Beach Bazaar this summer! Even though they’ve got a slight spin on the traditional Detroit Coney (they use a brisket chili for their topping), they got Coneys, they got chili cheese fries, a variety of Better Made chips, and even Saganaki and Avgolemono at slightly higher (but cheap for Brokelyn) prices! There is so much Detroit pride here I could just cry tears of happiness.

So there you have it! If you ever happen to be in Detroit or near Detroit or in Michigan, head on over to a Coney Island and prepare yourself for the foodgasm you’ve been waiting for, but that other hot dogs just couldn’t get done. You have no idea what you’ve been missing out on.

Follow Hope, who feels like she deserves an award for self-control on the use of the word “weiner” in this post: @HavingHope14.

One Comment

  • I’m from Brooklyn, and recently moved to Cincinnati, where I was surprised to find Coney Island dogs are “a thing”. Even more surprising, the name is from Cincinnati’s Coney Island amusement park, which was started in the 1860s as “Ohio Grove, the Coney Island of the West”. The park still operates today.