I landed my first real job in 1978. I was fourteen and determined that by the time I passed Driver’s Ed. I was going to buy a car. Independence was of the utmost important to this young teenager, and what better way to express that independence than to drive around town in my own set of wheels. And so, after weeks of calling and pestering and pleading, I finally convinced the owner of The Anchor Inn to hire me as a dishwasher/busboy.
I mostly worked weekends because my parents didn’t see the wisdom, as I did, of letting me cut classes to earn two fifty an hour. I saw it as an experiential learning opportunity, one I could apply, say, to my business class or at the very least to my creative writing class. (As I write these words thirty two years later, I wonder who was the wiser after all. I might not have started this blog, for instance, had I not cut all those classes in exchange for the rich experience of washing someone else’s dishes.).
Most kids my age were preoccupied with stereotypical activities like football and basketball and cheerleading. I had no interest in that stuff. My fascination was food and people watching, and being a busboy at the Anchor Inn gave me a front row seat to indulge in my favorite activities.
Many of the customers I met are still vivid in my memory. Like the blue haired woman who was going through Cobalt treatments for cancer and had to eat her scrambled eggs “soft” Or the older sister of one of my friends, who was usually plastered when she came in, ordered the same meal every time—a farmer’s omelet with dry wheat toast, and who “fell asleep” in the booth until the waitress shook her awake and made her go home. My grandmother was a regular and was a sucker for the hot beef sandwich. After I was promoted to cook, I took great pride in making her the best hot beef sandwiches my budding culinary skills would allow.
Washing dishes was even better than bussing tables because my station was directly across from the cook’s station. My hands were in the dish water but my eyes were glued to Chris, the owner’s wife, as she worked on three or four tickets at a time, gracefully cooking and plating one dish after another. She made it look effortless. I was smitten. I wanted her to teach me her art, and so I begged and pleaded until finally, she agreed to be my mentor.
She taught me how to crack an egg with one hand so I could use the other to flip hash browns. She taught me how to pour eggs on the griddle and shape them into a perfect rectangular omelet. I learned how to time the cooking of everything in an order so that, even if there were six people at a table, their food would all be done at the same time and the customers would get their meals fresh and hot. She even taught me how to make the perfect Mickey Mouse pancake—getting the ears just right takes a boat-load of practice and should not be tried at home without the supervision of a trained professional.
Before I knew it, two years had passed. I had become an accomplished short-order cook at the ripe old age of sixteen and, more importantly, I had saved over three thousand dollars, enough to buy my first car, a ’77 Grand Prix. Bumble bee yellow with a black top and a black interior. It was everything I ever dreamed of, and the envy of all my basketball/football/cheerleader friends. Sadly, the joy of owning the coolest car in town was short-lived because nine days after getting it I ran off the road and hit a tree. There were several more “incidents” after that, and by the time I graduated from high school, I was forced to sell my battered baby for a fraction of what I paid for it to help cover my first semester’s tuition at college. I drove cheap “beater” cars for years after that, and none of the nice cars I’ve since driven as a “responsible” adult have ever given me the same pleasure as my prized Grand Prix.
As Stephanie and I pulled into the parking lot of the Colonial Coney Island and Restaurant last week, a quintessential throw-back to the 1970’s, I could almost picture my big yellow car sitting in one of the spaces. The Colonial has been around almost as long as the Coney Island Hot Dog, and by the looks of the place, inside and out, I imagine very little has changed. The tired exterior reminded me a lot of the Anchor Inn, except instead of a big sea anchor perched atop a giant pole alongside the building, Colonial’s giant Waitress statue welcomes her customers and passers by
The dining room of Colonial also sports a tired, retro 70;s look and feel. Oddly, it’s one of the few Coney Islands in Flint that has no booth seating. It’s all tables randomly placed, divided by a half-wall that most likely separated the smoking from the non-smoking section before the all-out ban on smoking in Michigan restaurants.
Our server was as friendly as the staff the week before at Starlite, so we were a little surprised to find out that she had only been a waitress at Colonial for less than a week. We also learned that she had waited tables around town before. It showed not only in the mechanics of her job but also in the easygoing way she engaged us in conversation.
When I told her what I was up to with the Coney Island tour, she made a quick retreat to the kitchen and returned with the news that Dave, the lunchtime cook, would be happy to talk to me and give me a tour of the kitchen. How could I say no to such a generous invitation? Again, I was taken back to the Anchor Inn, which had a similar setup, with the grill placed centrally across from the prep and heating table, the fryer off to the side, and the refrigerator/freezer off in the corner.
Dave showed me how the magic of the Coney Island assembly happens, and he even showed me the simmering pot of Coney Sauce. Theirs starts with the Abbott’s Meat base, which is personalized to the Colonial with their secret blend of spices. The dogs are Koegel viennas and the buns mass-produced from a local bread company. According Dave, Colonial pumps out about 500 Coney Dogs a day.
Back in the dining room, our soups and our server were waiting for us at the table. Stephanie’s cream of tomato soup was easily identifiable as home-made, but the flavor was still closer to Campbell’s condensed. My vegetable beef soup had a good flavorful base to it, but it tasted like a combination of home-made and store-bought. That’s not a criticism as much as a simple observation. The chunks of beef were simmered from fresh meat, but the canned corn, vegetables, and carrots were clearly not fresh. I couldn’t tell if the potatoes were canned or fresh, but all in all the soup was more than acceptable.
I’ve come to appreciate the presentation of the Coney Dog, even though most customers, I imagine, never give it a second thought. You lay a dog in the bun, spoon some sauce on it, layer it with onions and mustard, put it on a plate, and ring the bell for someone to take it to the table. Nothing special about that, right? Well, not so fast. A neatly constructed Coney Dog can add a certain visual appeal that in some restaurants accentuates the good taste of it and in some cases covers up how bad it tastes. Colonial Dave’s version fell somewhere in the middle. The presentation said, “We’re going through the motions and if you’ve seen one Coney Dog, you’ve seen ‘em all.” The taste said, “We know we’re not the best, we don’t really care if we’re the best, but this is what we have to offer.” The sauce was a little unimaginative and heavy handed with the black pepper. The dog was pretty good and the bun passable. Stephanie put it best when she said something on the order of, “It’s no Telly’s, but it’s a far cry from Gillie’s.”
I’ve decided over the last four months that if you’ve looked at one Coney Island Diner menu (with some universal exceptions—I’m not really sure what that means), you’ve seen every other one. Maybe it’s just me, but they’ve become all too predictable: Appetizers, Soups, Salads, Sandwiches, Dinners, Desserts, and Breakfasts. And with eighty to a hundred different choices. Pare it back, people! Keep it simple! In an effort to keep our Coney Island tour from becoming a homogonous, mind-numbing experience, Stephanie and I have taken an unspoken vow, to order off the “Specials” menu or to order something we wouldn’t normally have for lunch.
Stephanie was more adventurous than me and ordered the Sloppy Joe and fries special. The bun was buttered and grilled (well, the bottom bun anyway—not sure why Dave made that choice) which gave it a surprising and contrasting texture to the wet glob of flavored ground beef that overflowed onto the plate. It had a slightly sweet Bar-B-Queee taste to it, and was probably a variation on the Abbott’s meat base. The shoestring French fries were good enough, but I have a problem with French fries cut this small. They don’t hold the heat nearly as long as, say, thick-cut steak fries. By the time you get half way through, they start to taste like a combination of cold grease, mashed potatoes, and bits of intermittent crunch. Not my favorite.
I was less adventurous than Stephanie but still wanted to order something I don’t usually eat for lunch: A grilled chicken sandwich. I also wanted something a little on the healthier side, and in that department I ended up with a mixed blessing. The breast was marinated and then cooked on the hot part of the grill, which gave it an unusually juicy, tender consistency with a beautiful brown-black outside. That was the blessing. The curse is that it was the size of a damn ostrich breast. I swear it was at least an inch and a half thick, and it hung awkwardly off all sides of the bun. I ate as much as I could, but I also had a pile of frozen, mediocre onion rings to choke down, so I didn’t come close to finishing this beast of a breast.
Despite its charming culinary shortcomings, Colonial Coney Island ranks in the upper tier of Flint diners. Maybe it’s been around so long because it has changed so little over the years. The next time you’re taking a trip down memory lane and feeling hungry at the same time, I highly recommend a trip to Colonial. You can satisfy both cravings simultaneously, and depending on what you order, you can even take some home.