American v. Lafayette: Battle of the Detroit Coney Islands8:36 PM
January was full-on Detroit month for Brad and me. We spent at least three consecutive Saturdays in the motor city, partly because of the car show, partly because we wanted to see some new sites, and very much because we enjoy food. And what is the most Detroit-y food you can think of? That's right (I'll go ahead and answer for you)--coneys.
So, there's this "battle of the coneys" going on in Detroit, and it's been happening since the early 1900s. Rumor (history) has it that two restaurants have been competing for nearly 100 years, and everyone and their mothers seem to have a favorite. So, who's right? I had to put my investigative skills to work.
American Coney Island
The first. The original. Numero uno. Opened in 1917 by Greek immigrant Constantine "Gust" Keros, this coney is one of the oldest businesses in Detroit and the first coney island in the city. A couple years ago, the restaurant expanded to include a Las Vegas location, but that hasn't stopped the original from remaining true to its roots. The ever-popular, natural-casing hot dog with secret recipe chili, mustard, and onions is a Detroit staple that continues to attract locals and visitors to this day.
What's it like to actually visit American Coney Island? Not too shabby, actually. Walking into the building, Brad and I found ourselves inside a roomy, red-white-and-blue piece of Americana. There were plenty of places to sit on that early Saturday afternoon, and while we waited a few minutes for someone to come by, our waitress was super friendly and our food came out quickly. Best part--the coneys and french fries were simple, but really, really good. If you know me, you know I don't usually like hot dogs that "snap"...but I think this Detroit-style dog is starting to grow on me.
Lafayette Coney Island
To be impartial, we of course had to follow up with American's next door neighbor, Lafayette Coney Island (opened shortly after American Coney Island by Gust Keros' brother). We got our chance after the car show the following weekend, and despite the tiny, crowded restaurant, I was hopeful that we were in for a treat. After all, isn't that a point of a dive/hole-in-the-wall/sketchy-looking-place that stays in business for years? It's usually because the food is really, really good.
So, we walk in, claim a table (tiny table, tiny space...I get that, it's cool). I look on the table for a menu, see a plastic display thingy that I think is the menu, then realize it's just an ad. Which is good, because there are lots of fingerprints and other things caked on the plastic frame, and I am very happy to not touch it if I don't have to. A few minutes later, our waiter comes over with two glasses of water, his hands on the part of the glass we're supposed to drink out of. His hands are very hairy. I know right away I will be asking for a straw as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
When Brad tells our waiter we haven't been here before and we don't know what's on the menu, the waiter flips around the ad thing I'm afraid to touch, and behold!--there's the menu after all. Good thing I can read from across the table.
After we order, I take in my surroundings. There are crumpled napkins and food on the floor by my feet. The ketchup bottle is caked in dried ketchup and grease. Meanwhile, a woman asks where the restroom is, and she and her child disappear somewhere behind the kitchen. At this point, I'm starting to wonder how health inspections work.
I will say, however--the camaraderie that this place fosters is pretty impressive. There's a large table near the back packed with people, and they're Skyping with someone and laughing and seem to be having a really good time. And the waiters--some are rough around the edges, while others are quick with a smile. But all are quick to serve and obviously very work-oriented. Thumbs up for this.
The food comes, and yay! Coneys and fries. I take a bite.
In my opinion, the coney honestly doesn't taste much different than the ones served up at American Coney Island. The Lafayette version, however, almost tastes like it's boiled . . . plumper and not as crispy as the coneys at American.
Suddenly, the unthinkable happens. Almost in slow motion, Brad knocks over the ketchup bottle . . . right onto my french fries.
Let's see if I can find the right emoticon for this situation. I think this will suffice: D-'X (That's me weeping.)
Brad, who is probably more grossed out than I am, responds with the grand gesture of offering his unmarred fries to me. Maybe I'm caught up in how hilarious the whole situation is, but I just throw away the fries in the line of attack and eat the ones on my plate that (I hope) are untouched. It's possible that I now have a case of the Lafayette Ketchup Cooties, but after a few weeks, I'm still able to function fairly well . . . so we'll consider this decision a success.
Conclusion: The Better Coney
Okay, so my decision is probably pretty obvious. If you didn't pick American Coney Island, please scroll back to the top of this post and read it again. Article skimmer.
Verdict: for flavor, atmosphere, friendly service, and a claim that you tried Detroit's oldest coney establishment, I recommend visiting American Coney Island. If you like a grittier atmosphere that feels more exclusive (mostly based on limited space), feel free to check out Lafayette Coney Island. It wasn't my favorite, but so many Detroiters refuse to eat coneys anywhere else.
Have you visited one or both of Detroit's most famous coney island restaurants? Which is your favorite? Let me know why in the comments!