When it comes to Detroit’s classic coney rivalry, most people profess serious Lafayette vs. American loyalties. We’re no different (although some of us also like National, Leo’s, Zef’s, or just about anything that combines chili and hot dogs). But Hour Detroit readers have spoken in our “Best of” poll. So when we decided to spend an entire day at a coney, there was only one choice. Here’s our report:
9:06 a.m. My first daytime visit here. It’s weird. As a former Detroit News employee, I came here often with colleagues after last call for a coney and perhaps one more beer. Employees prep for the day: stirring pots of chili, separating links of hot dogs, refilling mustard and ketchup bottles. Big bowls of chopped onions and yellow mustard stand at the ready. Ali Alhalmi has worked here for 38 years. He says they’ll go through 25 or more pots of chili a day.
9:22 a.m. Lafayette is a popular breakfast/lunch spot. One of the first customers is Nathan Fisher, who works at Ernst and Young. “It’s a Detroit institution. It’s fun to bring in family and friends.” He likes the informal nature of the pricing. “There have been times I’ll bring 20 people and order piles of stuff,” he says. The staff does quick calculations on the fly, maybe less than what the board indicates.
9:55 a.m. Drake Brown and Dalton Berg from Milford stop en route to a Red Bull Hart Lines competition at Hart Plaza. They’ve been to American next door, but never to Lafayette. Dalton says he likes the chili better here.
10:11 a.m. Henry Givhan from Detroit swings by before his shift at Chrysler in Toledo. He’s added ketchup to his coneys and chili cheese fries (calm down, purists).
10:23 a.m. Terry Wyer sits at the counter. The former metro Detroiter is visiting from Capetown, South Africa. This is his first proper meal since getting into town. He’s not a fan of onions, but says the combo with chili and mustard makes the coney.
10:51 a.m. Three generations of Ramseys from Brownstown arrive. Tim Ramsey, 37, comes every weekend with friends after a night on the town. “We can’t go home without coming here.” His go-to is three coneys with everything, heavy on the chili. He’s been coming here since he was a kid. “I like the authenticity. … It’s almost like a big family get-together.”
10:55 a.m. Dawn Hazelton and Kamay Washington from Atlanta are in town for a graduation. Dawn, an instructor at Savannah State University, says she looked Lafayette up online. It’s the first for both of them. Dawn takes a bite and nods. “It has a nice snap. …It’s the onions and snap.”
11:06 a.m. Carlos and Brenda Molina stop in on their way from Chicago to Toronto. They learned about Lafayette from Anthony Bourdain’s show.
11:18 a.m. Jim Fidler walked over from DTE Energy. He orders two with everything, fries, and a Coke. His father brought him here; he brings his kids when they go to ball games.
11:34 a.m. Faisal Ali entertains customers with tricks and by balancing plates on his arms. He’s making a silverware/saltshaker/toothpick sculpture at Detroiters Michael and Hanna Jackson’s table. Retired cop Michael has come here for 40 years. He says they also have the best lemon meringue pie.
*FYI: Faisal is a social media beast. I post his picture on Instagram, and about 30 seconds later he’s on his phone liking it. He has 2,000-plus followers. He shows me his feed; one picture is of him in Egypt wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey.
11:56 a.m. A dozen people from GM come in. Faisal listens carefully to each order, claps, and then starts yelling to his colleagues. “Fifteen and nine, one plain, six heavy heavy, two with cheese …” I lose track. The crowd claps when he finishes. I ask how he remembers orders; he says: “Practice.”
*FYI: In layman’s terms, that’s 15 hot dogs on nine plates, six heavy on the chili, mustard, and onions times two. (I think.)
12:09 a.m. It’s getting crazy busy. Martin (our photographer) beckons me to talk to Patrick Sullivan. The Beverly Hills resident has been coming here since he was 3 years old. His dad brought him here — I’m sensing a trend.
12:20 p.m. State employee Deborah Webb is dining with her colleague Kenyatta David. This is the only coney island she’ll go to. “If I go next door I will get hurt” by family members, she says.
12:23 p.m. Kathy Kotula was raised on Senate Coney Island, and was loyal to it until “20 minutes ago.” The Lafayette first-timer and Michigan.com account executive is having lunch with her client, Lamar Mixon.
12:48 p.m. Another Faisal trick. He grabs a carton of milk and a glass. He starts to pour the milk and then slowly lowers the glass as the liquid streams in. He doesn’t spill a drop.
1 p.m. My editor Steve writes “coney time” in his notebook and my time is up. I leave without eating because I’m off to an interview. But I’ve been here before; I’ll be back.
12:20 p.m. Arrive to relieve Dorothy and realize I’ve overpacked. Brought my laptop, etc., in case things get slow. Fat chance. The place is SRO; I take my “man purse” back to the car.
1 p.m. Dorothy fills me in on her reporting. Sounds like the story’s done already. A spot opens at the counter, so “two coneys and a Coke, please.”
*FYI: Even though it’s packed, the time lapse from placing an order until the dogs arrive: less than 2 minutes. These guys rock!
1:20 p.m. Things die down a bit; Martin takes off. He’ll return for the Tigers vs. Royals crowd.
1:30 p.m. A crew from mlb.com (Major League Baseball’s website) are filming their “Key to the City, Presented by MapQuest” series. The host, Matt Fisher, goes to baseball towns on a quest: Eight hours to see, do, and eat iconic stuff — while not spending more than $100. They’ve done the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, the Penobscot Building for a “zombie escape experience” (A what?), and now lunch. They’re also taking a Diamond Jack’s boat tour, then stopping for beers at Nemo’s. They’re filming a July segment? We’re here for a July story? Karma!
2 p.m. Hanging with the mlb.com crew. Faisal does more tricks. Someone suggests the host visit the “posh” bathrooms. He returns saying it “feels like a submarine.” Well, it is down a marvelously narrow stairway in the basement.
3:15 p.m. Rachael Powell and Mark Deibert are here from Colorado. She grew up in Lake Orion. “I’ve never been a tourist in Detroit,” she says. They’re staying at the Inn on Ferry Street, dinner at The Whitney, and then Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. Then a ballgame tomorrow.
*FYI: Why Lafayette? “A guy on the street said this one’s better,” Mark claims. His culinary verdict? “Fantastic!”
3:49 p.m. The place is totally empty … for a mere 4 minutes! Staff catch their breath, clean dishes, restock the ice, scrape off the grill, make phone calls.
4:30 p.m. Smoke break. A cook from St. Brigid’s Bathtub Pub nearby sits outside. They offer some mean looking ribs and corned beef, but it’s not crowded. He says it’s tough competing for customers with “the best coney places in the world.” He persuades me to come in for a beer (twist my arm, it’s Friday).
*FYI: If you’re nice, the Bathtub folks let you “tag” their wall. The brave (buzzed) pile up chairs on tables to make their mark higher up the wall. My signature stays at ground level.
4:37 p.m. A guy at the carryout counter tells the cook: “I saw you guys on the Travel Channel.” I truly am among celebrities.
5:30 p.m. I decide to skate early. I see familiar faces near the door. David and Cheryl Jansen’s daughter went to Mercy High with my daughter. When I tell them why I’m here, David says: “We have a story.” (Doesn’t everybody? But they do.) David and his two daughters gave a Christmas gift to Cheryl: She’s throwing out the first pitch at tonight’s Tiger game! “One coney, light onion” is her pregame meal of choice. Big finish!
Dinner/Tiger Game Shift
6 p.m. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous. I’d been here before, but never alone (and rarely sober). Martin offers advice: Make friends with the Lafayette crew. It’s a peak pre-Tigers game crowd: decked in orange and blue. My first instinct: friendly little boys shoving their faces full of coneys. Eleven-year-old Paul Gregory is here from Grand Rapids with his dad. “I like Lafayette for the flavor,” he says matter-of-factly.
6:30 p.m. Avdija, who’s worked here 33 years, becomes my right-hand man, pointing out anyone with a good story to tell. He’d make a kick-ass journalist.
6:45 p.m. Maya Smith, a Detroit native, brings in two first-timers from Ohio before the Hall & Oates concert. “My father used to drive a Detroit city bus … this was where he preferred to go,” Smith says.
7 p.m. Crew shift change. New faces prep for the night ahead.
7:15 p.m. Samir Purovi has worked here for five years with his dad, Avdija. In walks a group of 20 men — a bachelor party. Matt Nicholson almost leaves since his wheelchair won’t fit through the narrow aisle. Samir rushes over and takes off leather cushions from the stools to make room. The bachelor, Anthony Tarqunio, sits next to his dad reminiscing about coming here since he was 8.
7:34 p.m. My eyes water as fresh onions are cut.
7:45 p.m. “The most un-American thing to do is to go to American Coney Island,” says Mark Weber as he devours his second coney. The event director for the Detroit River Regatta Association and his wife, Lori, have been coming here for 30-plus years.
8 p.m. Two people in American Coney Island uniforms stop in and purchase two chili cheese fries. Avdija chuckles. “They do that all the time.”
8:15 p.m. Rusty Fournier and a buddy make Lafayette their first stop after landing at DTW from a trip to Florida. They still have on golf polos. They point to a wall with pictures of celebrities. “See up there right above Kid Rock? That’s us,” Rusty says. Their tradition is to host an annual coney eating contest. The Lafayette employees laugh, remembering when the photo was taken.
8:45 p.m. Avdija insists I meet Dave Garr, definitely a regular who knows all the employees by name. He owns a limo company and waits for a show to end.
8:51 p.m. Avdija is the best assistant ever! He pulls me to the end of the counter and says, “Now here’s a story.” I meet 80-year-old Ron Schechter with his son and 6-year-old granddaughter, Zoe. The proud grandpa tells memories from 50 years ago when he would come late at night with his brother-in-law. His son Steve chimes in, “The Pistons used to play at Cobo, and after the games we would come here,” he says. “Now she’s coming here — it’s her first time.” Ron hugs his granddaughter.
9:05 p.m. “Pardon me … I couldn’t help but listen to you interview that grandfather … that was amazing,” says Rob Dickens. He’s in Detroit for the first time from New Zealand. His company sponsors the Red Bull skateboarding contest that happened today. His assistant gave him an itinerary, he says, holding up the email on his phone. “I was told I had to try a coney … but she put in all caps that I was not to go anywhere but Lafayette.” I offer a list of more “must-sees.”
9:15 p.m. Samir takes a picture of me with some employees. Even though the cook, Sam Sefari, won’t smile for the camera, I catch him grinning from ear to ear after I show him the picture on my phone.
9:35 p.m. Odaliz Abreu moved here last year from the Dominican Republic to work as a Henry Ford physician. He “pinky swears” it’s his first time here, and until today had no idea what a coney was.
9:45 p.m. Filmmaker Chris McNamara from Windsor says he never finished the documentary he started about Lafayette. “We would come over here for punk shows and that first bite was a transcendental experience.”
10:30 p.m. “My dad used to deliver pop here,” Steve Daisy says: “I remember being inducted in the military in 1965 and eating my last meal here before I went to Hawaii.”
10:45 p.m. A fresh pastry delivery arrives, the crew insist I try one. I take an apple fritter. These employees are some of the nicest men I’ve ever met. They’re hilarious, and once they warmed up to me they treat me like family.
10:50 p.m. Sal places 18 hot dogs on one arm and six more on a tray. I take a picture. “Tag us on Instagram,” he says.
11 p.m. I hug the employees goodbye. One says: “You see that picture right there (on the wall of fame)? We’re going to take it down and put our picture with you up there.”
10:55 p.m. I park a few blocks away. The city seems dark and dead in every direction but one — toward the coneys. It dawns on me: This late-night oasis formed by Michigan Avenue, Lafayette Boulevard, and Shelby Street deserves its own name. The Coney Capital? Coneytown?
11:05 p.m. I arm myself with a coney and a Coke. Michael Korn parks on the next stool. “I’m in the wine business,” he says. “And I love taking French people here because they know the story of General Lafayette.” He asks the crew if they’re familiar with the Revolutionary War icon. Their response is the same as mine. “Who?”
11:34 p.m. Standing room only. The wait is 5-10 minutes. A minor Bro-drama plays out:
Bro 1: “I’m not going to American!”
Bro 2: “It’s the same thing!”
Bro 1: [Scoffs] “No, it’s not!”
12:15 a.m. A well-dressed couple fresh from the Hall & Oates show talks rock with scruffy twentysomethings from the Faith No More concert. Coneys: bringing people together since 1917 (or thereabouts).
12:25 a.m. Heads swivel as 10 high-schoolers file in wearing dresses and tuxes. Belleville High School Prom was at the Roostertail tonight.
12:35 a.m. A squad of Tiger fans come from the casino. One of them, Curtis Heisel, was feeling particularly lucky, having caught a foul ball at the game.
12:56 a.m. The prom parades back to the limo. Miraculously, not a single dress nor tux is tagged by coney colors.
1:15 a.m. A minor lull. I ask Avdija if the peak hour has passed. He looks me dead in the eye and utters a prophecy: “You wait,” he says. “Two ’o clock.”
2:06 a.m. It’s a regular shouting match here. A Tiger fan gets change and proceeds to “make it rain,” flinging dollars over his table. Someone at the counter drunkenly knocks over a pop. Avdija’s stoic expression tells me he’s seen it all before.
2:12 a.m. One particularly drunken patron — call him Matt — hobbles in on crutches. Slurring, he tells me something about a baseball game. His shorts are smeared with mustard and chili, and he has a credit card out. He’s informed it’s cash only; I leave him to decipher the ATM.
2:15 a.m. I need a breather. Outside is the roar of motorcycles, rap music, drunken couple fights, and two shirtless men brandishing beer bottles. I duck back inside where it’s saner.
2:22 a.m. Samir dashes out to catch a hobbling Matt, who seems to have “forgotten” to pay. He claims he’s getting cash from his car. Samir is skeptical; Matt offers his phone as collateral; Samir takes it. Matt stands on the sidewalk, asking the rest of Michigan Avenue to help locate his car. Help doesn’t come. He staggers back inside; his bill is somehow settled. I ask Samir if they see a lot of dine-and-dashers. “To be honest, no,” he says.
3:05 a.m. It’s quieting down. I chat with Lt. Gary Posluszny of the Detroit Police, two months away from retirement. Samir does a quick calculation and estimates that over 30 years, Lafayette’s served Gary 27,000 cups of coffee.
3:25 a.m. Three cops and two stragglers remain. Chairs are being stacked. Isn’t closing time 4 a.m.? “When it slows down, we close,” Samir says. “It’s a family business. We close when we want.” The drunk and hungry are left to knock on the doors.
3:30 a.m. The crew mops the floor. They sing in Albanian. The stiff smell of bleach burns off the chili fumes. The high energy of the night is blanketed in the calm of routine.
3:45 a.m. One bank of fluorescent lights goes off. Employees untie aprons. Avdija divvies up the tip jar. The cops go off into the night.
3:50 a.m. Avdija lights a cigarette … the signal the long day is done. Sam the cook sits down and cracks open a root beer. “Case closed,” he tells me. “Write that down. We work again tomorrow.”