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Several Polaroids of old photos of a coney island diner in Downriver, Detroit, Michigan. Courtney Burk

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The Anatomy of a Downriver Coney Island

One writer’s memories growing up in a diner in metro Detroit

I grew up in my parent’s coney island Downriver. My father started the restaurant eight years after his family immigrated to Detroit from Poland in 1975. Going on 40 years, Pete’s Place has seen many changes from the once-small coney island that served the classics with a Polish addition. Coney dogs, chili cheese fries, and large salads with extra sides of pink Greek dressing accompanied Polish dishes like stuffed cabbage, kielbasa and sauerkraut, and freshly rolled pierogi. My babcia and dziadek, the Polish names for my grandparents, would hand-roll the potato-and-cheese and sauerkraut-stuffed pierogies in quantities of a thousand every two weeks.

In the years before I began working there, the restaurant still embodied much of its coney island sensibility: spinny stools tucked up to a low bar lined with regulars taking full advantage of the unlimited coffee refills. Staff in white button-ups and, later, collared short-sleeved shirts so servers could stack plates up the length of their arm. Bumpy plastic red or brown cups stacked high beside the soda fountain. The sizzle of water sprays under a lid on the griddle to melt the cheese on a burger patty. The clank of perforated pans steaming hot dog buns above boiling water. At each table or stool, a plastic basket holding individually wrapped slices of bread, butter packets, and saltines or oyster crackers.

My dad’s coney island underwent many iterations and expansions over the years. The first was located in a Brownstown strip mall on Telegraph Road, between Sibley and King. It was right next door to the Market, a grocery store owned by my uncle and his family where my dad got his first taste of the restaurant industry. Two more locations sprouted from the first — one in the former Taylor Lanes bowling alley replaced the Brownstown location when it closed in 2020, and another tavern-style restaurant in Taylor, at 12245 Telegraph Road.

A polaroid of an old photo of a diner.
A polaroid of an old photo of the interior of a diner.
A polaroid of an old photo of a cook in a diner.

Everything for my dad and his restaurants began in Eastern Market. He and his brother were sitting at the stools of a coney island, the bustling Gratiot Central Meat Market happening around them. My dad was captivated by the motion of the service — dropping plates, refilling coffee mugs, and orders echoing across the warehouse. He realized this was something he could do. Shortly after, he left his job as a butcher in the back of the Market, which at the time was a liquor store with a small meat counter, and at the age of 19 decided to go all in on an 800-square-foot building and open a coney island.

Michigan has countless coney island restaurants across the state, each with its own amazing story. In Detroit, there is a longstanding rivalry for the best coney island restaurant based on the idea that they serve the best coney island hot dog, known as the coney dog. The construction is simple: A natural casing hot dog is tucked into a steamed bun and layered with coney sauce, diced raw white onion, and yellow mustard. The main difference and source of the heated rivalry is in the sauce.

The no-bean, chili-like coney dog sauce is rich, mildly spiced, and meaty. Few places make it the same way, and the sauce’s consistency varies wildly depending on the restaurant. Lafayette’s chili has more meat, American’s is slightly spicier, and Duly’s uses a special blend of spices.

The secret of Pete’s Place’s coney island hot dog (sorry, Dad, I’m spilling the beans) was in sourcing the ingredients from Detroit. Detroit Chili Company, which came frozen in a brick, is dropped into a 1/3 stainless steel 6-inch pan. It is then filled with water and warmed up. Coneys have fallen off the menu since my childhood in favor of better-selling dishes, but the salty chicken noodle soup that I swear has healing powers and the family sauerkraut remain popular items.

Beyond the sauce, the coney dog needs to have a signature snap from the natural casing that breaks through the soft and soggy masterpiece. There’s also the smell of the dog itself, and the one that greets you as you slide up to the white counters or tabletops inside your favorite coney island. I began working in the industry at 15 and still remember the smell of burnt coffee, grease, and smoke lingering on my clothes long after my cashier and to-go shifts. Although smoking sections, indicated by plastic prohibition signs scrawled with profanities, have been banned, I still smell a hint of tobacco whenever I step into a coney island.

It takes me back to early-morning shifts with the dozen breakfast specials and various ways one can flip eggs. To the super-late nights at the bar addition to the Taylor location, where I would barter with the swaying regular to order another round of the crispy-yet-soggy chili cheese fries — or if I was feeling snappy, a three-course meal from the dinner portion of the large menu. To the fast-paced lunch shifts that hit like a wave, contorting me as I balanced stacks of plates, a coffee pitcher dangling precariously from the fingertips of my free hand.

A photo of an old menu. Courtney Burk
A photo of an old menu. Courtney Burk

The yellow mustard on a coney dog determines what time of day it is beyond the restaurant’s walls. A light squiggle often indicates the beginning of a shift or early-morning service, pre-rush. The staff is working with freshly filled bottles from the night before, and everything still feels manageable. The lunch rush and after-game crowd call for a ladled slather that runs off the bun, the most efficient way of getting food to people in as few steps as possible. By the time the fluorescent-lit late-night crowd packs in, mustard application has degraded to a visible inconsistency, but diners hardly notice, reinvigorated by group orders of a healthy number of coney dogs.

No matter the time or the squiggle, the coney dog makes a mess. Pair it with chili cheese fries and a side of mayonnaise or ranch, and enjoy the signature coney dog move — the continuous cycle of pulling thin napkins from the springy holder, wiping off the face, and taking another bite.