With 100 years in business and its certified legendary status, there is really no way to critique Fort Wayne's Famous Coney Island.
Like it or not, it has been making people happy for a century. It doesn't have a big menu and it doesn't have white tablecloths, but you will not find a better restaurant in the Summit City.
Customers keep coming back for a plethora of reasons. Some just love the greasy, runny sauce the kids working behind the counter rapidly whip over hot dogs that were grilled up in that front window to entice passers-by, as if the place really needs to entice anyone to go there. A lightning-quick squirt of mustard goes on first and a few spoonfuls of onions get spread over the top to form the famous Coney dogs.
The sauce recipe is the most heavily guarded secret in town. I have heard all sorts of theories over the years, ranging from coffee to chocolate to cinnamon to lard, the latter of which is true and is what I think makes it so good.
You may have had a sauce you liked better, and they might make them better at the dog joint in the town you grew up in, but whatever. You have to respect the recipe.
The meat is really finely broken down, it is dark – almost black – and it has a pronounced peppery kick. The red hue that greasy sauce leaves on your napkin – or, if you are like me, on your shirt most of the time – hints to paprika being heavily used, which would make perfect sense given the restaurant's Macedonian roots.
You can't buy the sauce in bulk to go because the owners fear someone will have it analyzed and steal it. You can get the chili to go and it works well atop a dog since it is pretty much a thicker version of the Coney sauce with a little less red and perhaps more spice.
It is also a must have to go with my standard order of two Coneys with cheese and one regular.
But even if you could mimic that sauce perfectly, it wouldn't matter because it is not the sauce that keeps people coming back.
So what does?
It could be the atmosphere.
Coney Island hasn't changed much in 100 years. Heck, the place just started taking credit cards this year. And the menu hasn't changed since the 1940s, when beer was eliminated. But it is still as hip as any restaurant in the Summit City.
Those round counter stools have been filled by several generations. The old cooler with the Pepsi signs on it has been there since 1928 and the photos on the walls sort of tell a story.
There is a big color one to honor the late Mike Choka behind the counter.
Another shows “Suits,” another since-passed employee who was once a tailor in Chicago. As the story goes, he witnessed a mob hit there and landed in Fort Wayne after he was “encouraged” to leave town.
There are several scenes of the restaurant from the 1920s hanging over the tables.
In the back corner sit stacks of wooden crates holding full and empty little Coca-Cola bottles, which are about as much a staple there as the hot dogs. They sell more than 100,000 of them a year.
It is dated and maybe a little dingy, but that just adds to the charm. The aroma of grilling dogs is the only thing that fills the air as there are no fryers to muck things up. So there are no french fries to be had, but a bag of chips will do just fine, thank you.
I usually bypass the chips and get a side of baked beans, which are some of the best around. They are thick, sweet, rich and just delicious. I also sometimes get a cheeseburger, and I usually get that burger dunked in Coney sauce. They are fried up on a separate griddle up front until charred and crispy around the edges and topped with a gooey American single. Pickles, mustard and ketchup are the condiment choices, but the sauce is by far the best condiment for them.
If they haven't sold out, I often end my meal with a slice of pie from Waynedale Bakery.
But it is not those burgers, the beans or the pie that bring you back, either.
Maybe it is the people there.
Jimmy Todoran, who has called Coney Island home since 1986 and who became part owner last year, is about as nice a fella as you will find at any restaurant. Night manager Rajib Jainagerker has put in the most years – 43 to be exact – and will likely still be providing spot-on service there even after he retires from his day job at BAE Systems, where he has spent 27 years as a quality control engineer.
Dennis “Tiny” Parker started there in 1978 and has since stepped back a bit since a health scare four years ago. But he still puts in a shift from time to time.
And, of course, there are the Chokas. Their family has been at the helm for 98 of the 100 years. Vasil Eshcoff became co-owner in 1916 and continued in that role until the late 1950s, when he turned it over to his son-in-law Russ Choka, who worked at the restaurant until his death in 2011. And up until his death, he ate about four dogs a day – “Usually it was the mistakes that were going to go to waste,” Todoron said. Russ ran the business with Mike, and Mike's sister Kathleen stepped in after his death in 1993. She carries on the family tradition running the place these days.
Not even the Chokas know the exact date when Coney Island moved from Calhoun Street – where Mike's Carwash is now – to Main Street in 1914. According to Todoran, they think it was Sept. 23. But for this 100-year anniversary, they just decided to celebrate all summer. It will be capped with a party Saturday in the main tent at Headwaters Park during the Three Rivers Festival. The finals of the hot dog eating contest will happen there, too.
Todoran said there may be another, smaller celebration in the store on Main Street in September, and I think that is a great idea. Because I think, more than anything else, that building, the nostalgia that surrounds Fort Wayne's Famous Coney Island and the memories made there is what keeps people coming back more than anything else.
It's those two stools; you know the ones about halfway down just past where the counter splits to create a walkthrough for servers. That is where you sat with your father and where he sat with your grandfather and that is probably where your grandfather sat with your grandmother when he was courting her.
For me, it was my great uncle, the late Johnny Himes of Findlay, Ohio. Not long after I moved to the Summit City, I sat at that counter and had lunch with him. He was in his 80s and still visited Fort Wayne on a regular basis, and always took a dozen or so dogs to go so he could share them with friends he would stop and visit as he drove home.
He smiled a lot that day and talked about all the time he spent at Coney Island, recalling how he and my Aunt Harriett frequented the place when they were dating. It was that afternoon and that time with Uncle Johnny that helped me fall in love with the place.
And it is that day, and him, that I always think about whenever I stop in.
Restaurant: Fort Wayne's Famous Coney Island
Address: 131 W. Main St.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Coneys ($1.50), hamburger ($2.25), cheeseburger ($2.50), Coke bottles ($1.50), chips (65 cents), chili ($2.65), beans ($1.75), pie ($2.15)
Rating breakdown: Food: ***(3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).