Hailing from the East Coast and the diner capital of the United States (New Jersey) I was a little caught off guard when I arrived at the University and all of the in-state kids kept talking about “Coney Island.” I imagined the residential Brooklyn neighborhood, which is swarmed by tourists and dotted with crowded beaches, a ferris wheel and greasy boardwalk concessions. It wasn’t too special. Eventually, though, I realized that the Coney Island I was familiar with wasn’t the same Coney Island new friends and classmates spoke of with such affection. Their Coney Island wasn’t an amusement park, though it is a different sort of novelty in and of itself.
The Michigan Coney Island is a restaurant. Rather, a genre of restaurant — all similar in nature and menu items with individual idiosyncrasies and quirks that make them distinct. These eccentricities are how citizens of Michigan select their “favorite” Coney Island. There are apparent loyalists to one chain, and once “you find your Coney place” it’s game over. There’s National Coney Island, Jackson Coney Island, Abe’s Coney Island, Virginia Coney Island, American Coney Island, Kerby Koney Island, Leo’s Coney Island; to name a few. The first one opened in 1914 in Jackson, Michigan, and now these hot dog kingdoms span the entire state. From what I gathered from some research on the topic, Coney Island has served a large purpose in providing affordable, easy lunch options for workers in the auto industry in the early-mid 20th century. There are 500 Coney Islands in and around Detroit alone.
The menu is standard from chain to chain. The pinnacle is the “coney dog” which is a hot dog in a steamed bun, topped with chili, diced raw onions and yellow mustard. The dog has donned the nickname of a “coney” and is essentially the state food of Michigan. More staples are the “loose hamburger,” which is essentially a sloppy joe; loaded chili fries; a variety of different Greek dishes (kebab, gyro, greek salad) and typical American diner dishes like pancakes and omelettes.
After more than three years at the University of Michigan, I’ve heard countless stories and love letters to these strange establishments from in-state friends who look back on their high school years with fond, half-fuzzy memories of Coney Island. I’ve heard so many reflections of winding up in a booth at Coney Island, or hungover desires to have a 10 a.m. coney dog or the chicken finger pita awaiting my friends come Thanksgiving. At some point, I became intrigued.
Being that many of my own teenage memories were made in the now-closed Red Bank Diner or the still-standing, luminescent and sticky Americana Diner after a pitchy Saturday night high-school production of The Little Mermaid, Coney Island enticed me. I didn’t feel exactly appetized by the idea of a hot dog on a chipped white plate or pancakes drenched in watery syrup, but I also felt some attraction to the idea of seeing what it’s all about. So when I finally had the opportunity present itself, in the very early hours of a Sunday morning in September in Birmingham, Michigan, I took it.
We walked in, 2 a.m., under the influence of many vodka laden beverages. The interior of Leo’s is sort of a panopticon, and sort of a rare form of ’70s hell. It’s as though whoever designed the restaurant wanted everyone to notice how much alcohol can affect formerly well done makeup and blown out hair to a point of near decrepit. The lighting is bright fluorescent and burns your eyes and reflects off of the shiny tables so that all you can bare to do is sit. At two in the morning, everyone in the place is under 26 and nobody ages for the 30 minutes they spend touching shoulders in a sweaty booth eating chili with friends and friends of friends who all have the spins. It’s an ethereal experience. The food at Leo’s is a 0/10 in a culinary way, but a 10/10 in serving its purpose: to be as greasy and inexpensive and nonsensical as possible.
As we waited for our order to be brought to the table (I did not do the ordering for sake of authenticity), the two Michigan natives I was with swapped stories of times they wound up in that very Leo’s Coney Island. Leo’s was the place they came after drinking vodka from water bottles at age 18 in someone’s basement, or to reconvene and reminisce in the morning, soberly, after a night out at age 20. It’s the place they came with their lacrosse teams after a big game they lost, where they stumbled, haphazardly, arm in arm with their three best friends on Christmas break after freshman year of college as though nothing has changed, a place they regarded as a beacon of greasy hope after every night out, and on every trip home.
We had the nachos supreme which, in the moment, tasted pretty good, or I just ignored how disgusting it is to put chili and onions on top of tortilla chips and proceed to eat them under hot, fluorescent lights. We also had coney fries, with cheese, which weren’t good but also weren’t bad, and boasted the hidden delight of more strangely thin chili. We finished the grand buffet of approximately 3000 calories with bacon cheddar potato skins and an additional side of fries that were absolutely pallid in color. The next morning I shivered with every recall of the way the chili sat atop those soggy tortilla chips.
I can not imagine eating at Leo’s Coney Island sober, or at any time before 11 p.m. and after 5 a.m. But the meal was a larger realization in the experience that a restaurant can bring to diners — an experience that sometimes has nothing to do with the food. There’s an ambiance there. There are memories ingrained in the walls. There are stories of firsts, lasts, bests and worsts. You remember who you ate with, when and what and why even if you’ve been 1000 times before because it’s distinct and it’s a reminder of home, or of being 20 years old or perhaps it just reminds you of Michigan. Leo’s Coney Island doesn’t succeed for its hot dog or chicken finger pita, though the menu covers pretty much all the bases of quintessential drunk food and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t eat it again. It succeeds in its authenticity and its integrity, in its desire to put up no facade. It does not try to be anything it isn’t, even if the air smells like meat and, for that, I’d return.