Places like Leo’s Coney Island represent something. For Michiganders, they are monuments to working-class food culture.
Two “Detroit-style” restaurants opened years ago in Phoenix, where I had been living. Of course, I was curious. One promoted pizza a la Buddy’s and Jet’s. The other was advertised as our kind of Coney Island. I went in for a pie from the first place only once, and left with nothing but a Faygo Rock & Rye after a store employee explained to me and the only other customer there that, with business slow as it was, I was working alone. and prepared to fulfill our orders as long as we were patient with the proprietary cake-making process he was still learning. Restaurant Customer Rule: If you go somewhere hungry for professionally prepared food and the staff warns you that they may not meet that reasonable expectation, politely excuse yourself and perhaps come back another time. As for the Arizona chili dog joint, it disappeared beneath dunes of disappointment perhaps a year after its hyped debut.
During all my years living and well-fed in the desert, my only point of reference to Detroit’s Coney Island lore was the story of Hatfields and McCoys about the Lafayette and American restaurants on Michigan Avenue; Their long-running dispute over chili-covered sausages also reflects the peculiar myth of the fictional Olympia Café, a frenetic family food business, foreign but familiar, comically captured in all its simple, no-nonsense glory by Saturday night live The immortals John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd long ago. Restaurants that fit that profile still tickle my fancy.
So how do I love you, Leo? Let me count the shapes. First, you serve a classic Coney for a song ($2.69, with everything). Dogs with natural casings have that clicking sound that makes the difference. You also get bonus points for roasted beets and artichoke hearts in your Greek salads ($6.29-$11.29, four sizes) and for including calorie counts in your menu descriptions. They give me pause and, occasionally, willpower. Other times, often when I’m weak, a few thin, crispy onion rings ($3.79) and a small handful of fried chicken wings (five for $7.99) assuage my guilt about gluttonous orders. For the record, I’ll also praise the hand-battered cod ($7.19-$11.99, sandwich or dinner with fries and slaw) and a club sandwich ($8.19), which is the standard by which I measure Professional patience and pride of any short-term cook or cook. The experience taught me how painful it is to prepare this multi-layered sandwich when there are many people. The amateurs and the apathetic come together, which is noticeable in the lining. Committed chefs create appetizingly colorful, precisely cut equilateral triangles from this glorious combination of meat, cheese, garden produce, and mayonnaise-spiked toast. And you Leo people are true artists in this particular medium. Bravo! Bis! Of anything I would say to keep you humble, the lemon rice soup ($3.69 cup, $4.19 bowl) left me cold. Mine tasted pretty close to pure lemon curd. More chicken/broth would have added some tasty balance to the bowl.
Aside from Leo’s consistently satisfying food, there’s something to be said for servers who are comfortable calling customers “Honey” without seeming inappropriate or artificially flattering. They just feel refreshingly comfortable in their own skin; not cautious and/or careful with every word, and is allowed to be, presumably. And notice the winter clothing trees placed at each stall. That’s so Michigan to me. I can’t wait to hang my first scarf of the season on one and order a hot chocolate for $2.59. Plus, I love how practically every seat in the house at Leo’s is a booth There’s something two tones more comfortable and cozy about sliding into one than simply grabbing a chair at a table. That’s what I say. Since each Leo’s is pretty packed every time I visit, the people-watching experience is usually a bonus as well. Watching young parents proudly watch their little ones stuff their cheeks with chips and pancakes feeds my soul as a parent who remembers when. (Spying faces in the crowd still sporting surgical masks is also hilarious. Half of the holdouts continue to wear them only as face masks; an effective defense, one assumes, if one were trying to stop the spread of inferior lipstick or dandruff. goat beard… Sigh.)
Back in my old neighborhood after nearly four decades out west, I feel like I’ve come full circle in a life’s work devoted entirely to food, from working-class Dearborn to fine dining in Scottsdale and back again. the suburbs of Detroit. These days, I meet again regularly for breakfasts and lunches with two of my best childhood friends. John is a retired, white-collar “Ford’s” career man (which Michigan’s answer to Mark Twain, Mitch Albom, once famously observed that we Mitten-Staters so personally and possessively claim as our own) , and Bret pastors a Christian church in Dearborn. Heights. We met on our first day of kindergarten and I have yet to meet a better man. As far as a server goes, I like to turn a meal in a good restaurant and good company into short stories of what they entail social experiences that nourish us all, body and soul.
The merits of places like Leo’s, or chains like Florida-based First Watch and Illinois-based Brunch Café, are many. Give me a menu that causes some degree of difficulty when deciding what to order (breakfast, lunch or later) and let me order it at any time of the day. Sometimes I crave Cobb salad at 10:30 in the morning. Some nights I want to have breakfast for dinner. Coney culture hangouts cater to that. Places where service is human and genuine, not forced or distant, satisfy the sociability we crave. Once again, Coney culture delivers.
Visits to Leo’s have given me more confidence in guessing what ingredient might have been missing from those Phoenix restaurants that seek to cater to what Michiganders culturally cultivate: real Michiganders. When you’re raised as a working-class Detroiter, you learn the value of a dollar and where you can spend it wisely among family, friends, and other people in the know. exactly where you come from. That’s Leo’s.
Leo’s Coney Island has 72 locations in Michigan. More information is available at islaleosconey.com.
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