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Detroit

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Pride in Place

Think the Coney Came From New York? Think Again

Pride in PlaceOnce a man's vision for the perfect hot dog, now Detroit shorthand for a diner.


Perhaps more than other large cities, Detroit boasts a well-honed sense of place — shaped largely by its assortment of locally developed culinary treats: Sanders ice cream topped with its exclusive hot fudge, Vernors ginger ale, Better Made potato chips. But in addition to these legendary names is an indulgence that screams "Detroit" — the Coney dog.

Despite its geographically deceptive name (and the counterclaims of a few other cities), the Coney dog is most clearly identified as a Detroit creation. In 1917, when Gust Keros immigrated to Detroit from Greece, he made a stop in New York City and visited the legendary Coney Island amusement park. Seeing the locally popular, but utterly simple, hot dogs served by the vendors, Keros arrived in Detroit with an idea for how the classic red hot could be improved.

After some experimentation, he settled on a version consisting of a grilled natural-skin dog on a steamed bun and topped with chili (his own secret recipe), mustard and diced onions. Often it would be served alongside a heaping portion of french fries or onion rings.

Once in Detroit, Keros soon entered the restaurant business, convinced that his new concoction would be a big hit and attract customers looking for something new. He wasn't disappointed. Business was brisk, providing a steady stream of customers to his new American Coney Island restaurant on Lafayette Boulevard — enough to warrant 24-hour operations. A few years later, Keros brought his brother Bill over from Greece and taught him the business. Bill soon opened his own eatery, Lafayette Coney Island, right next door — beginning a storied local rivalry that continues today.

But the drive to imitate soon proved to be infectious. Shortly before American Coney Island opened, George Todoroff started his restaurant in Jackson, Michigan, serving similar fare, and later claimed that he came up with the idea three years prior to Keros. Soon after, a slightly different version appeared in Flint (about 50 miles north of Detroit), which was sourced from local ingredients and boasted its own unique flavor. In Cincinnati, Ohio, yet another style evolved, this one including a generous helping of cheese over the chili and onions.

Amid all the claims and counterclaims, it seems no one can know with certainty just where the Coney dog was born, but one thing is clear: Detroiters' appetite for the delicious delicacy hasn't waned. While Coney Island restaurants have spread beyond Michigan, the vast majority remain concentrated in the greater Detroit area and along the southern tier of the state. Since the original owners never trademarked the name, any prospective restaurateur can open an establishment and use the name Coney Island, although most such businesses are still operated by emigrants from Greece, Macedonia or Albania, or by their descendants.

And today, Coney enthusiasm has found its way to the West Coast! In 2011, a group of celebrities, including actor Tim Allen and director Sam Raimi, opened Coney Dog in West Hollywood. Despite being located in faraway California, the restaurant offers a true Detroit experience, complete with items that scream "Michigan," including Vernors ginger ale, Sanders hot fudge and, of course, mouth-watering Coney dogs.