(02/06/13) (04/12/13) (05/03/13)
As iconic as any restaurant in Worcester, 95 year old Coney Island is known citywide for its bold neon signs, its time warp interior, its fast moving lines and its simple-yet-satisfying hot dogs. Anyone wandering out the back of the nearby RMV in search of quick eats is awed by the sight of that stark blue and yellow sign with animated mustard dripping off a ten-foot hot dog. It can't possibly be anything created within the last half century; these images and these fonts are from a long gone era.
The paint-on-brick imagery on the building's rear wall is just as old school and even larger, drawing highway and train riders alike. Step inside the place and it feels as if you're in a black and white movie. The booths are small, oddly shaped and all made from wood that's received its fair share of erosion from smoke, grease, graffiti and constant use over the years. The lighting is dim. The bathrooms are labelled "Ladies" and "Gents." This isn't some retro attempt like Johnny Rockets and its ilk; Coney Island simply never changed.
Most customers stand in line at the counter leading up to the griddle near the front door. Any of a handful of attendants takes the order, typically comprised of two to four hot dogs. To demonstrate mastery of the Coney Island lingo, order "three up" if you want three dogs with chili and onions (my standard order is one hot dog, just mustard, and one burger, with cheese and/or onions, depending on my mood). Turnaround time is lightning fast for the dogs, which are cooked constantly to be ready any time. Burgers hit the griddle only as ordered. You pay and take your doggage to any available booth. An alternate plan is to sit in the "George's" bar area next door, entered from outside or within. Here you can enjoy a beer and order without having to wait in line.
The vessel of choice for both hot dogs and burgers is by Arnold, a bakery with Worcester ties. For the former, it's a rounded model (going against the New England grain). For the latter, it's a powdery bulkie. Both are very soft, very fresh (they move quickly and constantly), very airy and have outstanding pliability that lets the meat take center stage.
Naming aside, there are no "signature" combinations here; it's pick what you want and they put it on. Onions can be had raw or cooked. Everything's predictable, with no interesting twists or must-have items. Remember, this is the 1940s.
Both dogs and burgers cook on a flat top.
The only-minimal char on the hot dogs gives them a hybrid feel, combining the most familiar qualities of grilled and boiled. There's not a lot of snap. The flavor is mild. Overall, a decent-enough dog without being noteworthy other than for the childhood memories it can evoke upon first bite.
The burger patties are even less noteworthy: definitely frozen, smallish of size and of about the same quality as what you'd find in bulk beef patties sold at warehouse stores. There's no seasoning, not much of a crust, not much tenderness to the meat (it's closer to rubbery), no juiciness and not much beef flavor.
There's a reason—and not just that there's no burger neon—that everybody's ordering dogs, not burgers. The burger provides sustenance and not much more other than similar childhood memories. Those memories might be of the similarly cheap and rubbery burgers from my junior high school cafeteria, but hey: those were good times.
The Fries (and Such)
Fries: There are none. Instead, it's bags of Wachusett potato chips, a local product.
The word "locavore" is embedded into our consciousness, with local ingredients an increasing aspect of serious menus, but that whole deal has been a part of Coney Island for decades: you'll find Polar sodas (canned on the very same street, 2 miles away), Table Talk pies (baked around the corner, a half mile away) and Wachusett Potato Chips (from a distribution center 4 miles away). I kid, since they're all mass-produced items, but there's still something to be said about using local products to create a uniquely Woosta experience.
These are cheap eats. You can get stuffed for less than $10.
Some say Coney Island is a Worcester institution. I'll agree, but I also say that anyone making that claim based principally on food is a candidate for an institution.
The Bottom Line
A huge part of Coney Island's appeal is that ability to transport you to a simpler, bygone era—before Food TV, before celebrity chefs, before burger and hot dog blogs, before geeks started obsessing about beef blends and meat-to-bun ratios and before burgers were anything more than quick and cheap sustenance. Does it make the dogs (just-ordinary) and burgers (not quite) any better? No, but it makes the overall experience one that'll make you leave happy anyway.
Other Opinion/ Info
Yelp reviews of Coney Island
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