Coney Island High

Apr 12, 2006 at 12:00 am

Leo's, located on Main Street in downtown Royal Oak, is the archetypal suburban coney island. Bright and clean and filled with a fleet of cushy booths stocked with condiments, it offers a tasty lineup of coney dog classics, Greek specialties, melt sandwiches and breakfast plates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On a recent weekend evening, steam drifts out of its open kitchen area as the cooks crank out orders with military precision. Clatter from dinnerware and brown porcelain coffee cups mixes with the amicable chatter of seven or eight teenage waitresses, who flit smiling about the restaurant with their ever-present menu pads and coffeepots. A colorful mural commemorating the 2004 Athens Olympics stretches across one wall, while, across the way, Leo's smoking section teems with kids in black hoodies with darting eyes.

A Little League dad reads the paper over soup, and a couple in the next booth chuckles at their young daughter's french fry construction site. Desserts preen from inside a rotisserie. Leo's, like all coney islands, is a greasy spoon romance in perpetual motion, a little shifting heaven of comfort food and everyday people. Big-brand fast food can't compete with the coney island's zest for both life and chili dogs.

"You know, at some coneys, the murals mix Greek mythology with coney mythology," Mark Graham says, motioning toward the painting on Leo's south wall. "Like, instead of a lightning bolt, Zeus might brandish a giant hot dog covered in chili."

By day Graham is Uncle Grambo, proprietor of the popular blog, where he regularly riffs on music, media and celebrity junk-culture high jinks. His site is part of the blogosphere revolution of 2003 and 2004, when a few visionary types began to really capitalize on Internet self-publishing's potential for grassroots snark and first-person championing and lampooning. Why wait for some movie studio or monthly rag to tell you what's cool, or worse, try to sell it to you? Guys like Grambo make their own decisions, blog about them, and get the whole Internet chatting about the results. Nowadays, his language is known — and often nicked. Grambo's loves are "so best," anything you should've figured out already is "obvs," and the truly criminal pop culture navel lint gets tagged "wurst," as in (Fred) Durst.

Whatevs clocks more than 100,000 visitors a month, and was named No. 3 Best Blog by the readers of Spin magazine in 2005. It is, as Grambo might say, "so best."

But beyond his blog, Graham is a lifelong Detroit-area resident, and an avowed coney enthusiast. (On Whatevs, each episode of Saturday Night Live receives a rating based on how many coneys it merits.) Lafayette Coney in downtown Detroit tops Graham's list for the ultimate coney experience — the landmark institution whose seamless blend of character and quality is "untainted."

"I love that Lafayette has kept it pure," he says. "No handwriting; it's all in their heads."

Graham also gives high marks to the National and Leo's chains. However, there are distinctions. "National has a good mix going with the chili-and-mustard ratio — mustard is the unsung hero of the chilidog combination — while Leo's sometimes has problems with the onions. They're not diced enough. You want flavor, not to be chewing away on a big flat onion." Like a true coney fiend, Graham is meta about his meal.

A pretty young waitress with braces and a shy grin takes our order. As we wait, the conversation turns toward "coney fluffing" — the art of preparing your coney with the tines of a fork, blending the chili, mustard and onions into a satisfying morass of yummy brown goo that smothers the bun and dog. There's also the proper coney eating position — elbows out, with mouth aligned over the small plate to catch valuable chili runoff. It's also revealed that you can't eat a coney while standing up.

A coney with a side of chili-cheese fries, washed down with ice-cold Coke in a red plastic tumbler — that's a meal. But it's much more than its famous chili zing, the mustard tang and that terrific snap as your teeth tear through the perfectly cooked dog. The coney with everything is also a cultural signifier dressed up in red, brown and yellow. It's the drunk's sustenance at 3 a.m., worlds better than a booty call because it's totally hot but never lets you down. But the coney is also a friend to shift workers, ready to provide at any time, day or night. For kids it's a first meal after their mother's nipple, for families it's a reasonable and satisfying Saturday lunch, and for the city it's a culinary treasure, a point of civic pride. The coney dog won't quit, and the coney island restaurant is forever open, serving and friendly. If the coney dog ran for governor, it would win the election in a flavorful landslide of chili and diced white onions.

"For a lot of people, probably in a lot of other cities, their comfort food is pizza," Graham says at the end of the "meal." "But for me it's the coney dog. I always feel better after eating one. There's just something so inherently soothing about it." And he's right. Coney islands have pepper-and-egg sandwiches, chicken breasts and melting monte cristos. But at the center of it all is the signature, smothered dog. It's the foundation that weighs in all of our guts like a good, if not sometimes questionable, decision made.

Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]