Lost Island Found

Michael Nagrant / 03.23.19

In Detroit, there are a pair of hundred-year-old hot dog stands known as the Lafayette, and American, “Coney Islands”. Though this is basically what they serve, they are not known as the Lafayette and American “chili dog” parlors. The alleged reason for this unconventional New York-area naming of hot dog spots located in Michigan is that the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce banned the term “hot dog” in 1913 because they feared people might assume the sausages were filled with the carcasses of cute puppies.

The belief is that immigrants who came through Ellis Island and visited or settled near Coney Island in Brooklyn, including the Greek and Macedonian founders of many regional “coney” restaurants, had never been exposed to the term “hot dog” and therefore only knew the sausages instead as “coney islands”. 

That may not be true. Famous Coney of Fort Wayne, IN, open in 1914, is thought to be the first coney restaurant in America. If that opening date is correct, it doesn’t make sense that the Macedonian immigrants who founded it would use a name whose origin was dictated by a law passed only a year earlier.

The establishment story of Lafayette, and American, make the naming theory seem even murkier. As legend has it, American Coney Island was opened first in 1917 by Gust Keros, who immigrated to America in 1903. If Gust immigrated ten years before the law was passed, he would likely have been familiar with the term hot dog.

There’s a lot of truthiness employed in the history of coney restaurants. For example, consider that the additional details of the American story, supported by the current owners, include the fact that Gust worked with his brother Bill, but they had a falling out, at which point Bill opened Lafayette. However, that founding story was disputed in a 2012 book, Coney Detroit. Authors Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm scoured official city directories and other historical artifacts and believe both brothers actually opened Lafayette in 1923, and that Gust left to open American in 1936. If this timeline is true, maybe the Coney Island law did figure in to the name?

What is true, is that because the corner of Lafayette and Griswold streets in Detroit is still inhabited by both American, and Lafayette, Detroit is now synonymous with the Coney Island hot dog, a snappy-skinned weiner topped with sweet and tangy Greek-style chili, a confetti of raw onion, and a squiggle of yellow mustard.

What is also true is that both establishments are part of what may be Michigan’s greatest internal war. I’ve seen families park outside both restaurants and then disband. Half the members head for Lafayette, while the other half walk through the doors of American. They then exit after their meals and start a street brawl.

Ok, that last sentence isn’t true. Not that I know of first hand anyway, but it’s very possible.

You can fudge your origin story, make arguments about who came first, who is best, and who invented what, but one thing I do know is that the Stanley Cup visited Lafayette Coney Island.

It almost didn’t happen. Like Chicago, Detroit is full of die-hards and armies of third shifters. In Chicago, that’s why 6 a.m. bars exist. In Detroit, a Big Three assembly liner often caps off a shift with a coney dog breakfast. That’s why American is open 24 hours and Lafayette closes briefly at 4 a.m. and reopens at 8 a.m. The Stanley Cup story is that in the late 1990s just after 4 a.m., second generation owner George Keros (who died in January 2019 in Naperville, IL) saw two dudes knocking on Lafayette’s plate glass windows, holding the Stanley Cup. Though he just closed, he opened up again and let the historic silver chalice and some reveling Detroit Red Wing players inside to celebrate. Photos of the occasion, along with so many autographed celebrity 8 x 10s, still adorn the walls.

I’m a huge Red Wings fan, so this lore means a lot to me. But, I’m mostly a Lafayette guy because it’s where my own dad, a GM-affiliate machinist, former UAW organizer, and Ford Motor Company tool and die man took me as a kid.

Lafayette is Tom Waits. American is Billy Joel. Which is to say patrons of American, a Disney-esque lair of ‘Merica, serves the kind of people who are likely to smash their car in to a tree during a drunken bender. The patrons of Lafayette are more likely to drown themselves in booze and pills and/or make a date with a razor. Lafayette is a lonely heart club full of burnished stainless steel and tulip-style seats. The glazed tiles are capped with a halo of sea green-colored wall.  Hunkered down over a sausage, you feel like you’re eating at the bottom of a vintage swimming pool as imagined by Edward Hopper.  American has more flag iconography than a MAGA convention.

Lafayette is my kind of scene. However, because I am a professional food writer, I once stepped in to American so I could do a side by side tasting. Lafayette won, but, then again, as evidenced most recently by Aunt Becky of Full House and that lady from Desperate Housewives, a blinded parent will do anything to give their kid an advantage. What I do know about Lafayette is that they use beef hearts in their chili, and the lacy brew has a funk and richness that gives it an edge.

Being a Detroiter with a love of the coneys, I was psyched to hear of the plans of another Detroit transplant, Jesse Fakhoury, to open a Chicago-based Coney Island, Lola’s, named after his daughter. As happy as I was, I am not a total homer. When I heard he was using chili from Detroit’s National Coney Island, I expressed some skepticism via Twitter. Surely, he should make his own, and if not, maybe he should call the owners of Lafayette?

Given that skepticism, when I arrived at Lola’s, whose dining room sports a mix of prison-chic cement block, and knotty wood paneling that looks like it was cribbed from a Vernor’s ginger-ale barrel, I ordered a single coney. At Lafayette, I might order three, or, depending on how much liquor I’ve had, five.

Before I devoured the first dog, I sucked down a Faygo Rock & Rye float. Faygo Rock & Rye is a fizzy, creamy cherry soda, one of the few things I often import (along with McDonald’s hot mustard nugget dipping sauce, which has not disappeared in Michigan as it has in Chicago) to Chicago from Detroit. I also ordered some of Lola’s avgolemono, the traditional Grecian lemon-egg soup. This brew might be the best version of its kind served in Chicago. Many bowls are too lemony, feature soggy rice, or a grainy curdled egg, but this was smooth and thick, but not gloppy. The lemon perfume hovered for a second, but it didn’t linger like you’d been assaulted with a can of Pledge.

Lola’s also serves Boston Coolers, aka Vernor’s ginger ale floats. The name is a nod to Detroit’s Boston Boulevard. Honestly the only thing missing at Lola’s was a bag of Better Made BBQ chips, but they can work on that.

But, back to the coney. Halfway through inhaling the pillowy steamed bun and relishing the toothy snappy of the grill-caramelized sausage casing and the rich blanket of chili cut by the tang of yellow mustard, I ran back to the Lola’s counter to order a second helping.

It’s been a few years since I’ve had a Lafayette dog, but the National Chili Co. chili used here has a touch of sweet spice. It’s also features the right time machine texture of fine ground beef gravy that takes me home, if only for a moment, to the “D”.

Lola’s is located at 2858 W. Chicago Avenue in Chicago, IL.