Lafayette Coney Island, Detroit
There isn’t even another building that separates these two warring sellers of Detroit’s signature hot dog. No, Lafayette Coney Island is literally right next door to American Coney Island and has been since the day it opened. Basically, its presence was a result of a family feud that has gone on for nearly a century, although Lafayette is apparently no longer owned by its original family.
Lafayette’s story again starts with Gus Keros, who was the founder of American Coney Island. Eventually, his brother Bill joined him in Michigan, but the brothers could not work together for some reason. So Bill decided to open up his own Coney Island restaurant next door to American, calling it Lafayette Coney Island. I’m not really sure what a brother could do that is so heinous that his brother would choose to directly compete with him on the same street, but that’s what happened. Maybe my siblings and I have better relationships than the Keros family did.
Whatever the reason, Lafayette features a different style of hot dog than American’s does. All Michigan hot dogs have to feature the same kind of meat (no mystery meat whatsoever), so the difference comes from how it’s spiced. Lafayette’s hot dog has a bit more snap and a bit less of a kick than the American dog. Further, its chili and its onions are different. Lafayette’s chili isn’t quite as hot as American’s, and it opts for a sweeter Spanish onion than the white onions that are used at American.
The onions are about the only thing that’s sweet about Lafayette, because I have to be honest here: the service here is abysmal. Unlike rival American, which has expanded over the years, Lafayette has stayed the same size since its opening. That can be a big problem, because this place gets packed. If you’re planning to sit down, you might have a lengthy wait. If you just want to grab, pay and go, that’s also a problem. Amy and I tried this, and the cashier looked upset that we even thought of doing that. Usually, with an employee-owned store (apparently, the Keros family sold the store to the Lafayette employees a quarter-century ago), you get excellent service, but not here. This time, I did not feel at all welcome in the establishment and really couldn’t wait to leave.
That was a marked difference from American, where the staff was friendlier and the atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming. So Lafayette’s first impression was a pretty poor one, and having just enjoyed American’s dog, I will have to admit that I didn’t exactly go into this taste test unbiased. After getting out of there and returning to our hotel, part of me was hoping that Lafayette’s dog wouldn’t match up to American’s. After all, one place was nice to be, one place didn’t want us there at all. But the taste is always the decider, so I had to see what Lafayette had to offer in my Coney Island.
It’s the only time I’ve ever been disappointed about liking something. After one bite, I knew that there was no comparison between the two. American might have the better atmosphere and better staff, but Lafayette’s hot dog is just better. The chili is meaty and tasty, with the spices working perfectly with the hot dog, instead of being a bit strong. The sweetness of the onions is a perfect addition to it. The kick just isn’t there, and for someone who’s admittedly not the biggest fan of spicy foods, that’s a big plus. The hot dog snaps better and it’s juicy. I didn’t want to like it, not after my experience at the register, but it wasn’t a close competition. For me, Lafayette’s Coney Island hot dog is hands-down the better of the two hot dogs.
However, that being said, is it the better experience of the two establishments? Actually, it’s not. When you factor in the ability to sit down and relax, as well as the fact that you get treated like a valuable customer at American, I would have to say that Lafayette’s superior taste doesn’t make up for its inferior customer service. There’s a lesson here, and that lesson is that no business can afford to rest on its laurels, no matter how good its product is.
Taste isn’t the only thing that makes a restaurant legendary, and Lafayette would do well to take a page from its rival’s playbook. It might produce the better hot dog of the two, but it’s not a big enough difference to warrant mistreating its customers. I might prefer Lafayette’s Coney Island hot dog, but until they learn how to handle the traffic better, the next time I’m jonesing for a Coney Island in Detroit, you’ll find me at American.
Time to go: Anytime. Like its next-door neighbor, Lafayette doesn’t close, allowing you to try both places at any time of day. Again, avoid at night unless you like risks.
Wait during my visit: Quite a bit, actually. Lafayette was packed, which led to my rather unpleasant experience with the rude cashier.
Location: Lafayette is at 118 West Lafayette Boulevard in Detroit.
Cost: Again, it’s cheap. Again, it won’t be more than $5 a person. Again, you need cash.
Parking: Again, don’t bother, because you’re not likely to find any.
Seating arrangement: Booths, and not very many. This place fills up in a hurry.
Website: None, but they do have a Facebook page.
Specialty items: Coney Island hot dogs