Note: The other day I was chatting with a coworker about Detroit eats. She moved to Southeast Michigan from West Africa a few years ago, and she’s been discovering local culture and cuisine. The topic of Coney Island came up, and she was intrigued by Metro Detroit's love of the Coney Dog and the restaurants that serve it. As a local, I attempted to explain the phenomena; the gist of our conversation is below.
Coney Islands, however, are far superior to diners. I’ve been to a few short-order restaurants when visiting cities to the east, and they just don’t have the same appeal. My main complaint is the menu is too vast. Everything from antipasto salad to fried zucchini is offered, and yet nothing is particularly appetizing. (A friend of mine speculates an uncommon diner item – say, pan seared halibut – is likely to come from a freezer.) Coney Islands, on the other hand, specialize in a specific types of food – Coney Dogs, cheesy fries, cheesy fries on top of Coney Dogs, etc. Basically, high-calorie, high-fat vittles. But, boy, is it tasty!
The Detroit area is dominated by four Coney Island restaurants: American, Lafayette, Leo’s, and National. American and Lafayette are next to one another in Downtown Detroit; Leo’s and National locations are spread throughout the suburbs. Some people are loyal to one brand, but I’m an equal opportunity coney customer. American and Lafayette do, however, date back nearly 100 years, so they do have a certain historic charm.
I’ve noticed Coney Islands are one of the attractions that people who leave the area miss most. Often visiting transplants will post photos of dogs and chili to social media while dining out. Other expats will then add comments lamenting how much they miss and adore the fare. Some of these social media enthusiasts have even resorted to ordering a “coney kit” (hot dogs, buns, heartburn med) online, but admitted their box lunch was inferior to in house coney dining. I find it touching that folks long for a taste of "The D."
So, what’s the appeal of Coney Islands and Coney Dogs? Why does the homegrown contingent think so highly of both? My theory: it’s the experience of delicious low-cost comfort food in an inviting atmosphere. And, really, there's nothing better than that.
I'm Eli Natinsky and I'm a marketing and communications professional. This blog explores my work and professional interests. I also delve into other topics, including media, marketing, pop culture, and technology.