As I’ve stated before about a hundred times, Detroit is home to some fantastic food and history. Any type of food you could think of can be found being served, in a respectable manner, somewhere in the city. It’s home to fine dining, an entire neighborhood of all things Greek, Mexican Town, the best deep dish pizza being served outside of Chicago, and some of the finest Coney Islands in the country. Specifically, Detroit is home to Lafaytte and American Coney Island. Deep in the heart of downtown Detroit these two historic spots, which just happen to stand side by side, have been serving up Coney favorites for over 70 years. The competition between Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island is fierce and there isn’t a Detroiter who hasn’t had to offer their dedication to one shop or the other. The family’s friendly rivalry has allowed both locations to flourish through Detroit’s good times and bad.
Both establishments are incredibly special to the city. Entering doesn’t mean simply receiving a simple meal, it’s an experience. At both establishments, the food is being prepared in the front of the house with a window to the outside, which offers culinary entertainment to passing pedestrians and customers walking into the door. All of the employees are older Greek men, who immediately come for your other after you’ve taken your place at your table. Once you have told your server what you wish to eat, it is yelled across the restaurants to the cooks in their distinctive code, who often have your meal cooked and in front of you within one minute. Both have something that most restaurants lack these days, which is character. As long as they are standing, you can almost guarantee that children you see sloppily eating a chili dog will one day be doing the same thing with their children.
Growing up, American Coney Island was my go to stop before Lions and Tigers games. This was mainly because my Father preferred Lafayette, which is how most people come to select their favorite. I’m a habitual contrarian, but for some reason this tradition always stuck with me. I won’t say that I completely pledge my allegiance to American, but I’ve always been one to visit that side of the block.
When I watched the first episode of the Travel Channel’s Food Wars and noticed that the two would face off later in the season, I felt it necessary to make a trip and give you a view from someone who has been eating at both locations and all food in Detroit for 20 years.
Yes folks, this is Food Wars, Epic Portions Style.
Opened in 1917, American Coney Island sits on the corner of W. Lafayette and boasts the larger location of the two. It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, businesses in the Detroit area and has been family run and operated at the exact same location for all of its 90 plus years. The inside is vibrant and looks a bit like a 70’s cafe, with a black and white checkered floor topped with vinyl chairs and a large number of tables. On the walls hang pictures of the many famous customers over the years, with an obvious focus on the recent visit by Adam Richman. It still has the old time feel, but it has obviously been updated over the years.
The food at American Coney Island still stays true to the original, which isn’t much of a surprise since it has been family run since its creation. The hot dogs are specially seasoned and cased naturally, while the chili sauce is specially prepared using the same recipe since the day it opened. The hot dogs have a distinctive snap when you bite into them, which you simply can’t get at a Kerby’s or any or chain Coney Island. They are flavorful, and perfectly cooked with a little bit of char on the outside. They aren’t enormous, so it is easy to eat 2 or 3 in a single visit. They are normally topped with onions, but I opted to go without so I could get a true taste of the dog and the chili. You can also get them topped with shredded cheese, which one of my frequent toppings.
The chili is dark and bolder than most chili out there. It’s obviously a chili “sauce” meant to top hot dogs but is absolutely delicious in a bowl by itself, with a Roloids desert. It’s some serious stuff. Combined the two make a pretty tastey coney dog, but I truly believe the chili tastes better by itself. The bill for a chili dog, a bowl of chili, and a large drink came out to about $7.00. It’s a little pricey for the amount of food you’re getting, but it’s worth it to experience such a historical location and eat some good old fashioned Coneys.
Lafayette Coney Island, which sits next door in a much smaller building, first opened in 1929 and has also been family owned ever since. Their location is much less updated, and greatly resembles an old 1940’s cafe. The kitchen is located in the middle of the restaurant, with seating along the sides and a small dining room in the back. Their location allows about half as many customers as Lafayette, which makes usually makes it a more crowded establishment. Come during lunch or dinner service and you may find yourself sharing a table with a complete stranger. Even though service is much more chaotic than American Coney Island, the employees make it work. You are often required to yell your order across the restaurant to your server, who yells it to his cooks in their own code.
There are several differences from American Coney Island. It stands in stark contrast to the American Coney Island next door, a larger, cleaner, more decorated and stylish venue. Lafayette may not be as clean, but it’s still nothing terrible. If you’re looking for an eating establishment that has a completely clean record, I don’t think you would have much of an interest in either of these places. They also do not accept credit cards. In fact, the cash register looks to be the exact same one the place opened with. Make sure you bring cash, or you will be taking a talk across the street to find an ATM.
During this particular visit, Food Wars was filming additional footage including extreme close ups on the food.
The hot dogs at Lafayette Coney Island have that exact same snap as American Coney Island, which is caused by the natural casing and a perfect char from the cooking. The skin breaks when you take a bite and it explodes with flavor, just like a good hot dog should. The difference is the hot dogs at Lafayette seem to have a much better flavor. I’m not absolutely sure what it is, but the hot dogs at this place are unbelievable. They come straight off of the grill steaming hot and need to sit for a minute or two before consumption. This was impressive to me. I don’t remember the last time I ate a hot dog at a restaurant that had come straight off of the grill. Usually the hot dog you receive has been sitting in a warmer for some time.
The chili complements the hot dog perfectly. Lafayette seriously has some of the best coney dogs I have ever had. The hot dog gives you that nice snap and delicious flavor, while the chili offers a delicious accompaniment, rather than overtaking the entire dog.
Like I said, the chili is less of a “sauce” and more of an actual chili here. It is far less bold than American Coney Island’s, and has a more complex flavor. It is lighter in color and flavor, and won’t require you to drink a half bottle of Pepto-Bismol afterward. It’s almost a blend between coney chili and a pot of chili that you would make at home. It was amazing to me how the chili could have a somewhat subtle flavor when eaten by itself, but accompany the chili dog so well. After tasting the coney dog, it’s very surprising to taste the chili and realize just how much flavor the hot dog offers.
The chili and a coney dog will cost you around $4.50, which is much more affordable than a trip to American Coney Island.
And now.. The results.
I don’t want to sound cliche or anything, but this is seriously as close to a push as you can get. Both offer very similar menus and takes on Coney style food. Both have some things things that are better than the other, that cancel out other options that are not as good. I though the chili at American Coney Island was much better than at Lafayette. That bold, dark flavor is so delicious and unique. The coney dog was better at Lafayette, mainly because hot dogs at Lafayette are far superior to those at American Coney Island.
If I had to pick a winner I would have to go with Lafayette Coney Island, simply because it is more of a Detroit experience. If you’re looking for authenticity, then you’re going to want to go to Lafayette. It may have been established at a later date, but you can get a sample of how the place has always been. American Coney Island is still incredibly authentic, but it has obviously been updated throughout the years.
The price at Lafayette is also far superior. You can eat more for less, and experience more of their menu. You can eat multiple coney dogs and still keep your lunch, dinner, or midnight snack under $10.
My advice to you is to do exactly what I did and try both places. Get a coney or two at American, then walk right next door to Lafayette and eat some more. It’s a fun experience and offers a great look into the history and culture of the city of Detroit.