If you’re a Detroiter, you should probably stop reading now. You’ve likely already done the “Detroit Coney Dog Challenge,” and have strong opinions of your own as to which dog rules. I don’t want you getting all Snarky McSnarkerson on me for this long-overdue life adventure.
If you’re NOT a Detroiter, remember when I told you that the first food experience you should have when you visit is a chicken shawarma? I stand by that commandment, but I think the second thing you should do is the Lafayette vs. American Coney Island Challenge. Mind you, I’ve lived in Michigan all of my life, and have lived six blocks from Detroit for the last five years, but I hadn’t even done this until a few weeks ago.
It’s an excuse to eat hot dogs covered with chili and fries covered with chili for lunch, and wash it down with cheap beer. Word of warning: you’ll probably feel lethargic the rest of the day. Don’t plan anything else except maybe a short walk and plenty of couch time.
If you’re unfamiliar with Coney Island restaurants, they are a type of Greek-American restaurant that primarily serve “coneys” – natural casing hot dogs in steamed buns, topped with chili, yellow mustard, and chopped white onions. Another popular menu item is chili fries or chili cheese fries, utilizing the same chili that tops the hot dogs.
While there are hundreds of Coney Island restaurants in metro Detroit, Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island in downtown Detroit are the most famous. They’re right next to each other, as two Greek immigrant brothers established the original one. They got into a business dispute, and in 1917 split their restaurant into two side-by-side establishments that still exist today.
A group of friends and I braved extreme cold temperatures to head downtown for a gut-busting lunch one Saturday. I decided, for the sake of consistency, to order the same meal at both restaurants: one coney with everything and one order of chili cheese fries.
We started at Lafayette Coney Island. The atmosphere there is dark, cramped, bustling and old-school. Expect to play musical chairs and be commanded where to sit by the staff, who will move things around and usher finished patrons on their way in order to find you a seat quickly. If you’re extremely claustrophobic or don’t like being teased by the old man servers, this isn’t the place for you. On the up side, a lunch trip should take 10 minutes, tops. Your food is delivered, piping hot, less than 2 minutes after you order it!
I figured the main thing differentiating the two restaurants is the chili, so I’ll focus on that. The chili at Lafayette is thin and dark. It’s flavorful, but in the words of a Top Chef judge, it’s “one note.” Once you’ve had a few bites of it, it kind of loses its luster. Don’t get me wrong – it’s delicious, but I wish it had more spice to it.
After a mental-math exhibition by our elderly server (adding up the price of 8 coney dogs, 6 orders of fries and 5 beers in his head), we headed down the sidewalk a few steps to American Coney Island. The atmosphere of American is nearly the opposite of Lafayette – it’s spacious and well-lit by windows on all sides. However, the staff wasn’t nearly as “welcoming” as Lafayette was – they basically just ignored us other than barking out “find a seat!” when there really weren’t any. After we finally found a table, we had to track somebody down to clean it for us, and then track somebody else down to place our order. Off to a rough start.
The food at American took a couple of extra minutes to be delivered, which I owe to the fact that it’s a larger establishment. It was served in the same messy, casual fashion as at Lafayette – the servers stacking plates of food all the way up their arms to make deliveries – thus, the edges and bottoms of all plates being covered in stray splotches of chili.
The chili at American was thicker and chunkier than its counterpart at Lafayette. In my opinion, it was also tastier. It had more spice to it and I thought it just had a more interesting flavor. I think this is saying something, considering my mouth was coated in chili and cheese from Lafayette, and I was already full by the time we even sat down at American.
All in all, I think the experience itself is the real winner of the Detroit Coney Challenge. While I liked the chili better at American, the crazy atmosphere at Lafayette was just more fun and authentic, and thus makes it the WINNER in my book! The loser = my stomach ache the rest of the day.