Thursday, December 16, 2010

Flint Coney Islands Dominate

The more things change in our quirky little town, the more they stay predictable. Take the constant ebb and flow of the restaurants for example. The combined number of restaurants that have either gone out of business or opened as a new business is staggering. If I had more time to keep track of all the movement, I’d put a counter on my blog with a running tally. Suffice it to say, the restaurant business can be a quick-moving revolving door of beginnings and endings.

When I did the Mexican Restaurant Tour last year with Stephanie, we could barely keep up with all the new places opening for business. We could have extended our tour by another six months and easily hit another dozen or so restaurants. But we also witnessed a depressing number of closings over the year. I remember looking forward to eating at Los Quatros Amigos on Linden and Corunna because everyone was raving about how good it was. By the time we got there, however, it had gone out of business and I never got a chance to try their food. They weren’t alone; at least six other Mexican restaurants went out of business while we were doing the tour.

And the Asian restaurants in Flint have an even higher turnover rate. The area is saturated with Chinese Buffets, so it’s no surprise to see them come and go. It’s the frequency with which this happens that’s so stunning. The old Big Boy on Dort Highway has changed hands at least six times in the last decade, and most of the places that came and went were Chinese Restaurants. There’s a little building in one of the Strip Malls on Miller Road, I think in the Plaza where Harbor Freight is located, that changed from three different Chinese Buffets to a Middle Eastern Buffet, all in the span of three years.

My point is this: One, it’s tough in any climate for a restaurant to succeed, but in this bad economy, it’s even worse. I expect more restaurants will go out of business in the next year or two, and just as many will open in their place. The second point, though, is that in the face of all this opening and closing, there’s one segment of the restaurant population in Flint that enjoys a more stable existence: The Flint Coney Island Diners.

Although they’re not immune from the market forces that drive others to open and close their businesses, far more Coney Islands set up shop in Flint than go out of business. And they stay in business a lot longer than many of their competitors. The Coney business is far less transient than, say, their Asian restaurant competitors. And I think there are reasons for this trend. In almost every Coney diner I’ve been to, with the exception of Rio’s on Davison Road, which has gone out of business, I’ve felt a strong sense of familiarity, even camaraderie, among the customers, and between the customers and the staff. This sense of the familiar creates a much more inviting atmosphere, and my theory is it helps bring customers back again and again.

Whatever the case, there’s little dispute that the Coney Island diner scene in Flint is thriving! In the last four months, I have scarcely written about the importance of the breakfast part of a Coney Island’s success, but you probably already know that the morning scene is the bread and butter for most diners. They can put out a good tasting plate of food with a much lower overhead cost than lunch or dinner, they can do it with relative quickness, and the best ones can serve eggs, toast, hashbrowns and meat for around three bucks. That’s why I’ve stood in line before at places like Telly’s just to get a seat. One of my favorite Saturday rituals is to linger over a breakfast special and a cup of coffee at one of the local Coney diners with Philip and Friday’s edition of the Flint Journal.

But it’s the lively, alive feel of the Coney diners that make them such a centerpiece of the local restaurant scene. Maybe it’s why places like Applebee’s took up advertising campaigns that attempoted to give them a more “neighborhood” feel. The Coney diners, as Ron Krueger pointed out in one of his recent Coney reviews, are competing directly with the Chain restaurants—and I’d say they’re doing pretty well for themselves.

Such is the case for a place I’d heard a lot of stories about but had never been to: Coty’s West Side Diner & Coney Island on North Ballenger (North of McLaren Hospital). I often thought when people mentioned Coty’s, they were referring to the West Side Diner on the corner of Miller and Ballenger. Not so. West Side diner is fine and all, but I fell instantly and madly in love with Coty’s!

Physically, Coty’s has all the charm of even the best places I’ve been to. It looks intimate from the outside, feels intimate on the inside (even though there is plenty of booth and table seating), and it’s one of the few Coney diners where the interior design and the use of natural light come together to create the kind of familiar feel you get when you sit at your own dining room table. Despite some rumors that I’d heard about how mistreated and overworked the wait staff are at Coty’s, I saw just the opposite. They were happy to see us, bent over backwards to take care of us, and even those not waiting on us came over and chatted it up when they could. If these were mistreated workers, they either enjoyed being mistreated or they put on a good fa├žade. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a wait staff this year and even if the food sucked, which it didn’t, I’d still go back just to be taken care of by them.

Not only did the food not suck, it was quite good. Stephanie and I are starting to grow bored with the homogeneity of the Coney Island menus, so to mix it up a bit we’re trying to order items that aren’t on the menu—most of the time they’re printed on bright orange construction paper and taped to the front door. Like this one at Coty’s. It’s also another way for them to compete with the ever popular two for twenty concept that Applebee’s, Chili’s, Don Pablo’s, Salvatore Scaloppini’s and other national/regional chains have all adopted. There’s a big difference, though, that gives the Coney diners a huge advantage. At Coty’s for example, their two-for special is $11.99, a far cry from $20.00.

The options looked appealing enough for both of us to agree that we’d take a chance. It was pretty cold outside the day we visited, so the Hot Meatloaf Dinner was just what Stephanie was looking for. It was a generous portion of pretty tasty meatloaf (not nearly as good as Telly’s but way better than Tom Z’s), a big mound of mashed potatoes and gravy, a pile of mixed vegetables, and either a cup of soup or a small salad. Stephanie wasted little time deciding on the hot cup of soup. The chicken dumpling was actually packed with flavor, and though the dumplings could have been bigger and more numerous, it scored high marks on the Stephanie Soup Scale.

I couldn’t resist the Broasted Chicken Special, and I was not disappointed. Two pieces of white meat, a breast and a wing, were served with a hot batch of those medium thick-cut fries that were sliced from fresh potatoes on-site, the same mixed vegetables that Stephanie had, which were more of a pretty face on the side than something of culinary value, and a side of hot gravy for the fries, though I couldn’t resist dipping pieces of my chicken in the gravy too. The broasted chicken had a great outer crunch/inner juicy thing going on, which I found quite pleasing. I think my fries and chicken were both cooked in fresh oil because they had that pale complexion to them that I’ve seen at home when I deep fry something in new grease. (That’s why every time I use a pot of grease, I strain it back into the bottle when I’m done. After a few rotations, the food looks much more attractive because once the grease gets “broken in” it browns the food with an appetizing hue).

Before all that, however, and after gobbling up our soups (mine was an ok gumbo that had good heat but not much other flavor), we had an intercourse: Flaming Greek Cheese, ignited tableside, with pita points and a twist of lemon. O. M. G. This stuff rocked the house! The intense fire created a crusty-cheesy bottom layer and a soft, molten-hot top layer that I could not get enough of. With a cup of soup or a salad, you could really make a whole meal out of this Opah-licious appetizer. Of all the Coty cuisine I gorged myself with, it was the tastiest thing I ate and it’s the first thing I’ll order on my next trip.

Satisfied as we were with our Flaming Cheese, we indulged in a second intercourse: The Coty Coney Dog. The second intercourse is rarely as good as the first, but in its defense, the Coty Coney Dog had a high bar set for it by the Flaming Cheese. Like many of its competitors, this Coney was a mixed bag that staggered down the middle of the road. The consistency of the sauce was good, just a little loose and wet, the bun was warm and fresh, and the onion was appropriately strong. The grease level was acceptable but could have been taken up a notch, but what really disappointed me was the wimpy flavor of the sauce. It was too mild, too bland, and because of that it was completely overwhelmed by the onion and the mustard (and almost by the bun and the hotdog, which wasn’t a Koegel Vienna but some sweeter, plumper version with no discernable snap to it). Aside from that, we thought it was pretty good.

All the while we were enjoying our smorgasbord of choices, both on and off the menu, we also enjoyed the festive, familiar feel of Coty’s. It’s a place where, if you go there enough, everyone will know your name. Whether they know you or not, customers or workers, they’ll take the time to stop and have a word with you. It’s that kind of small town charm that endears me to the Coney culture and keeps me coming back week after week. Which Stephanie and I will be doing, by the way, for at least 16 more weeks. We’re almost half way through the tour!


  1. You need a scoreboard. Keep a list of the top ten. Right now it's hard to tell who has the best - and who we should avoid.

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