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Is Chicago Crying Out for Coneys?

The upcoming opening of Leo's has us searching the streets for other versions of Michigan's favorite dog.
Sunday Dec 06, 2009.     By Karl Klockars
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Leo's Coney Dog
photo: courtesy of Leo's Coney Island
The real-deal Leo's Coney.

Chicago is almost entirely a one-hot-dog kind of town. Sure, you have outliers like the corndog here or the mother-in-law there. But for almost all of us, the straight-up Chicago Dog is the be-all and end-all of encased meat. And yet, for hundreds or possibly thousands of Michigander transplants to the Chicago area, there's a desire for another delicacy: the Coney Dog. And so gasps of relief and anticipation were heard throughout the city when a banner went up on the old Chinalite location on Southport, proudly proclaiming that Leo's Coney Island would soon be making its home in West Lakeview.

Leo's is a Coney chain boasting over 40 locations with a history going back to the early '70s, and while not the iconic coney joint that is Lafayette Coney Island in downtown Detroit (as well as the glitzier America's Coney Island next door), it's a good example of classic Coney Island hot dogs. What is a Coney, you ask? Start with a skin-on beef/pork blend Vienna wiener, preferably a Koegel made outside of Flint, Michigan. Top it with a thick sauce made of ground beef, hearty stock, plenty of spices like cumin and turmeric, then top with mustard and chopped raw onions. It is more than the sum of its parts, and despite the abounding Michigan arguments about who's got the best coney, what makes up a coney isn't up for debate (although some nitpicking continues in the form of Detroit Coneys vs. Flint Coneys).

If you just can't wait for the opening of Leo's (February 15), we've searched this salad-dog city to see if there are any other ways to curb those Coney cravings. The results:

America's Dog
This mini-chain boasts a list of geographically specific hot dogs, and has recently filled the gaping hole in its Coney-free menu with what it's calling a "Detroit Dog." Unfortunately, it's not even a faint facsimile of what an actual Coney is. Featuring a limp dog in a poppyseed bun, slathered with one-size-fits-all watery chili, mustard and onions chopped weeks ago, the Detroit Dog is to a Coney what the 2008 Lions were to a football team. It might be called one, it might even look like one, but it just ain't.

Avenue Tavern
Avenue Tavern is, by all respects, a thoroughly average bar in the heart of an average bar neighborhood. The place does differentiate itself a bit by catering to the crowds of graduated Spartans and Wolverines who flock to Lakeview each fall in search of fortune and familiar Michigan-esque hangouts. In addition to showing Detroit sports year-round, Avenue Tavern also features a Coney dog, which, unsurprisingly, is average at best. The bar claims to have its Coney sauce shipped in from Michigan, but that's not really a selling point; there's no reason that something as simple as meat and spices can't be replicated here in town without freezing, packing and trucking the stuff 240 miles south. Shipping in Koegel's, however? Completely understandable. The pair of Coneys you get for $6.75 also feature cheese as an option, which no self-respecting Coney lover would allow. The menu claims they're "totally addictive" which is one-hundred-percent true - when they're done right. Avenue Tavern will scratch an itch for Coneys, but not much more.

The Cincinnati-style chili that tops this dog will throw anyone used to a real Coney dog for a loop. This isn't real Coney sauce, and doesn't claim to be. Rather, the Phoney Coney (get it?) is an unspectacular dog in a steamed bun, topped with greasy, cinnamon, clove and allspice-flavored chili sauce, mustard, onions and...shredded cheese? That might fly in Ohio, and might even be preferable for a Buckeye, but for a true Michigan Coney it's an absolute no-go.

That said, the Cinner's version of chili (which isn't a perfect representation of Cincinnati-style chili either, for what it's worth) isn't bad, and when served in conjunction with a plate of spaghetti with all the 5-way fixin's, certainly fills a need unfulfillable anywhere else in town, barring a daytrip to the closest Skyline (just two-and-a-half hours away in Indianapolis). But if your finely tuned Coney palate is expecting one thing, and your Cinners Coney delivers something dramatically different, don't say we didn't warn you.

Grand River Bar & Grill
Grand River is the newest destination for Michigan State grads and alums in Chicago, providing a place to cheer on the Green and White now that the Gin Mill is gone. It's also chock-full of Spartan-centric menu items, including the Izzo burger, the East Lansing wrap, and a couple different Coney selections. In addition to the standard-issue Coney dog, the bar's also got an item previously untouched by local pretenders - the loose meat Coney.

While it's called a burger on the menu, this is really just a Coney minus the dog. Steam one bun, fill with spiced ground beef, top with coney sauce until you have a nice chili-laden mess, top with mustard and onion, and do your best not to get any on your shirt. It's a solid variation on a theme, and Grand River most certainly gets points for effort in having it on the menu. However, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Without the mustard it was hard to find any real taste at all to the Coney sauce, and you don't try to pawn off chopped red onions on a Coney - never, ever, ever. Did they think they could get away with it? Although if you didn't look, you probably would never notice. The $6 price tag for one Coney plus a handful of chips is another kick in the teeth.

Hoagie Hut
This spot seems out of place in a lot of ways. For one, "Hoagie" is an East Coast sandwich term not typically used in the Midwest; for another, this tiny, greasy-spoon style outlet doesn't exactly fits its tony Lincoln Park surroundings. And then there's the Detroit Dog, a nod to Michigan that comes as a surprise - even to the people who work there.

The last time we tried to order the Detroit Dog at the Hut, we were initially greeted with a puzzled stare, and a question: "We have that?" We were eventually served a standard Vienna dog topped with a sort of chili paste that had obviously spent several days in the freezer. Coneys aren't ever supposed to be fine-dining, but you can hope for more than this. However, the price is right - just over $3 for this example is about where it should be.


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