Two hot dog joints sit side by side on Lafayette Boulevard in downtown Detroit. They are the oldest and most famous places in the city to grab a Coney Island, the city’s specialty hot dog loaded with chili, yellow mustard, and onions. But perhaps even more famous than the restaurants is the supposed rivalry that has developed between them over a century of business.
It all began when Greek immigrant Gust Keros opened a hot dog cart on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Lafayette, where he sold his Coney Island hot dogs. The cart was a success, and in 1917, he moved to a permanent residence on Lafayette, pretty much where it stands to this day, and called it American Coney Island.
He brought his brother Bill to the country to get involved in the business; however, in 1924, Bill opened Lafayette Coney Island right next door instead. Whether this was due to a dispute or just a business decision is still shrouded in mystery. What isn’t a mystery though is that with their close proximity to each other and customers to fight for, a rivalry quickly emerged; this was as much to do with the customers as anyone, as Detroiters pledged allegiance to one or the other but never both.
American Coney Island has a nostalgic, red, white and blue diner interior and has since expanded to other locations in the city and even in a casino in Las Vegas; it also sells a Coney kit and merchandise on its website. Lafayette, meanwhile, doesn’t even have a website, and the décor has gone unchanged for years; therefore, it is often seen as the more no-fuss and authentic place. And, as the restaurants have changed, the customers’ loyalty has become about more than just the different ingredients and recipes.
Despite its 100 years of history, the Keros family still owns American Coney Island. Grace Keros, Gust’s granddaughter, is now the owner and has often played down the rivalry while reminding everybody that her grandfather was the true creator of the Coney, and insisting that American is both far superior and more popular.
The family rivalry is over though, as the family sold Lafayette to its employees almost 30 years ago. Food networks, however, have continued to push the competitiveness, with Man vs. Food and Food Wars both having taste tests between the two and featuring loyal customers defending their choice. Grace’s cousin even pretended to be a member of the Lafayette staff on TV in order to add an edge to the story.
With that in mind, it seems that the true rivalry is actually between loyal Detroiters who have chosen their favorite based on their own nostalgia, experiences, and attitude, and refused to change ever since. So which of these two famous restaurants is the superior one? That is purely subjective, but for a true Detroit experience, once you’ve picked one, be sure to stick with it.
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