Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island
- Josh Tuck
- Josh Tuck
The sign above Coney Island Wiener Stand in downtown Fort Wayne reads, “Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Dogs.” While it’s arguable that “famous” is a stretch, there can be no doubt that during it’s ninety eight year history, it has certainly become part of the fabric of Fort Wayne. The narrow building on Main Street, with it’s long lunch counter has been a silent observer to generations of people enjoying a quick, satisfying lunch. Virtually everyone from Fort Wayne has been there at least once and they all have a story about their visit. For some, it’s a once yearly trip on a cold Thanksgiving night to grab a hot dog before the annual lighting of the old Wolf and Dessauer Santa Claus display. For others it’s where they were engaged, was their second home as a kid, or simply a weekly ritual. My story begins with a shaggy haired art student who moved to Fort Wayne from Virginia in 1966.
A Generation Ago
That art student was my father, and when he was, quite literally, a starving art student, Coney Island was one of the few places he could fill up without going broke. Back then, a Coney dog was twenty cents and you could buy the previous day’s the next morning for a dime each. When he and his art school buddies worked late into the night, they would send someone out before Coney Island closed to grab a bag of hot dogs for a midnight snack.
When I came along, he took it upon himself to teach me the ways of Coney Island. I remember sitting on one of those small stools at the lunch counter, feet dangling, and watching in amazement at how fluidly the staff would make hot dogs. They balanced them on tiny plates and slipped past one another in the narrow workspace to serve customers.
Like most places that have been around for so many decades, it’s a slight breach of etiquette to waste the staff’s time by saying, “Yeah, um, gimme… four hot dogs - two with onions and two without. Oh, and a Coke too, please.” So, on what must have been one of our first visits, Dad taught me the correct way to order. Insiders like him know that it’s better to pick up a little of the “Coney Code” and get right to the point. He asked me what I wanted, I told him, and then when our waiter appeared he quickly said, “Six with, and two Cokes.”
I remember thinking, “I can’t drink two Cokes and eat six of anything with, well, with what?” He leaned down and explained that the shorthand was for two Coney dogs with onions and a Coke for me, and four Coney dogs with onions and a Coke for him. I was impressed; not only by him knowing this seemingly secret language, but also by the fact that he could pack away four Coney dogs!
Carrying On The Tradition
Today I’m the one who finds room for four Coney Dogs, much to Danielle’s dismay. We don’t go there often, but every time I push open the door, everything about the place conjures memories from those past visits. As soon as you enter, you are met by an ancient pull-to-release cigarette machine, complete with old dusty stickers for Winston and Camel cigarettes. The scent of steaming buns, sizzling hot dogs, and onions fill the air. In the tiny kitchen area, the servers balance trays of Coneys as long as their arm and hastily apply layers of Coney sauce, mustard, and onions to dozens of hot dogs at a time. During a lunch rush, the carry-out line is jammed with people taking box-loads back to their jobs.
There is a row of well-worn enamel topped tables on the right, and that signature lunch counter, with it’s small swivel-top bar stools, on the left. Behind the counter is a tangle of aging coolers, signs asking you to “Please Pay When Served”, and other assorted memorabilia that has slowly accumulated over the decades. Two microscopic bathrooms, along with another small kitchen, make up the back wall. While I’m definitely a “front door” customer, one of the many charms of Coney Island is that you can enter through the kitchen from the back ally. Mind the step, the hot stove, and give the large man with the knife chopping onions a nod as you pass.
On any given day, you will spot judges and lawyers, policemen and mailmen, young and old, rich and poor, newcomers and regulars, all sitting down to lunch, elbow to elbow. While Coney dogs are not the only item on the menu these days, they are still the stars of the show. Normally, I prefer food that is more out of the ordinary, or has been crafted with intention and attentiveness. For places like Coney Island though, I make an exception. It’s impossible for me to deny the simple goodness of starchy white bread surrounding a lightly cooked hot dog, under a splash of thin Coney sauce, and a smear of mustard. A couple of times a year, four with and a Coke is exactly what you need.