“We want to be the Red Wings’ home outside of Detroit,” said Mike Binder
, part-owner of Coney Dog
, a Detroit-style chili dog restaurant that opened five months ago in the shadow of iconic LA nightclubs like Whiskey A Go-Go, The Viper Room, and The Roxy.
“I want to become the place when something big happens in Detroit that this is where people come and celebrate,” Binder said. “I want this to be here for 30 years, I want this to be here forever, I want it to become part of the LA landscape.”
Coney Dog was an idea born around the time Binder left Detroit for the bright lights of Tinseltown. Not long after he stepped foot onto this iconic stretch of American road – dotted with its gritty nightclubs, lounges and tattoo parlors – he was craving a lot that he missed from back home, including the Wings, Tigers, and coney dogs.
Like a lot of Detroiters of his generation, Binder grew-up during a time when the automobile industry, the Motown Sound, and a successful sports scene were what pumped vitality through the city’s veins, while racial divides tore at its heart.
He was raised on nostalgic Motor City products, like Vernor’s, and Faygo, and Better Made chips, and Sanders hot fudge sundaes. And whenever his dad would take him to a ballgame at Tiger Stadium or a hockey game at Olympia Stadium, Binder knew the day was complete once they stopped for coney hot dogs at Lafayette Coney Island in downtown Detroit.
Unfortunately none of these things – especially the uniquely Detroit chili hot dog – existed in Los Angeles when Binder moved out here with fellow Detroiters and then-budding comedic stars Tim Allen
and Dave Coulier
. For years Binder satisfied his appetite by importing his Detroit favorites, while holding onto the dream of one day opening a Detroit-style coney restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.
Last spring, Binder’s California dream came true when he and a few famous investors, including Allen, actor Adam Sandler and former Wings center Kris Draper, held the grand opening for Coney Dog, which is in the heart of the Sunset Strip.
“I’ve just always loved Lafayette Coney Island and going there after a concert or a game, or after doing a show,” said Binder, a Hollywood director, producer and screenwriter. “I started out as a nightclub comic in downtown Detroit, and I just always liked being at Lafayette Conley Island late at night.
“I loved the energy late at night and I loved the great Detroit vibe. I thought it to be one of the only places where people hung out late at night and it wasn’t blacks and whites, it was just everybody, you know? It was just Detroiters, and I liked that.”
Binder hopes Coney Dog captures that same atmosphere. But he knows that it all has to start with the Motor City fare and, as Binder calls it, “that Detroit vibe.” For Coney Dog to succeed, Binder said, the food, the ambience, even the waiters and waitresses must be authentic to its Detroit roots, which means only serving Michigan products will do, like the hot dogs they get delivered from Winter’s Premium Deli in Eastpointe, Michigan.
“Out here, all of the hamburger and hot dog places do it different than what we do back home,” he said. “They wait in line by the counter and they order and they’re given a number and they bring up their own tray of food. That’s what they like out here.
|Mike Binder, along with employees Orlando and Allie -- all former Michiganders -- have helped give Coney Dog an authentic Detroit vibe in the heart of Tinseltown. (Photo by Bil Roose) |
“I didn’t want anybody eating off of paper plates and using plastic cups. I wanted a wait staff and I wanted customers to wave ‘One more over here!’ I like that, I like that vibe. I don’t want to get back in line if I want another hot dog.”
It was also important to Binder that Coney Dog steams the buns like they do back home.
“They don’t steam buns out here like we do,” he said. “They steam buns on top of a steam table by putting them in a pan that has holes in the bottom. But at Lafayette and all of the coneys they have a real serious bun steamer that steams from all angles. And nobody out here knew what the hell I was talking about. We went and found the guy who made the steamer for Apollo and Lafayette.
“That’s the difference. The hamburger buns, the hot dog buns, they’re like they should be.”DIGGITY DOGS
If Binder could have pursed his dream years ago and remained in Detroit he would have, he said. However, like so many – before and since – he had to relocate to the West Coast’s entertainment hotbed. But moving away didn’t mean he had to cut the cord to his hometown.
Each summer Binder would host Detroit parties for his Motown friends, like director Sam Raimi, who like him occasionally experienced coney cravings and other withdrawals.
“When I came out here and there was nothing good for a long time,” said Binder, wearing a navy blue Tigers’ baseball cap. “I grew-up with Tim Allen and Sam Raimi and we started having these parties, these big Detroit parties that turned into fundraisers to raise money for The Midnight Mission
. And we always said, ‘One day. One day we’ll do this. One day we’ll have this coney island.’ ”
That one day came closer when Binder met Nick Vlassopoulos, whose family owns Apollo Coney Island in suburban Detroit.
“I had this show, ‘The Mind of the Married Man’ on HBO and I met this kid on the set who was a Detroiter,” Binder said. “I asked him what he did in Detroit? And he said, ‘My dad and I run a coney island in Sterling Heights. I told him that we have a party every year, ‘Do you want to come and run the party at my house?’
Then last year, Binder asked Vlassopoulos to help get the restaurant off the ground.
“I told him, ‘We’ll back you. I’ll get with the other guys and all of us will put up the money and we’ll find a place and start a coney,’ ” Binder said. “But Nick said, ‘Yeah know, I really want to be an actor. But I’ll help you get it going’. And he did.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
|Whiskey A Go-Go is an iconic LA nightclub that is across the street from Coney Dog, who partly by former Red Wings center Kris Draper. (Photo by Bill Roose) |
As someone who once lived in the neighborhood and regularly performed down the street at The Comedy Store, Binder remembers when a gas station used to sit on the plot of land that’s now home to Coney Dog. He also recalls when the station was razed some years later and a bank built on the site. But the bank failed and it wasn’t long before a ‘For Lease’ sign soon hung in the front window and caught Binder’s attention.
“I found this place with the windows and I just called Tim and then Kris Draper got involved,” Binder said. “I was back for the Ilitch’s golf tournament and Kris was there, and he kept telling me that he wanted to be involved. It just kind of took a life of its own.”
Located on the northeast corner of Sunset and North Clark, Coney Dog is across the street from the world famous rock and roll club Whiskey A Go-Go, which played a critical role in many musical careers, including The Doors in the late 1960s and Guns N’ Roses in the mid-80s.
Detroit’s gritty, industrial reputation helps the restaurant blend in with the flat black facades and backroom bar smells of neighboring clubs, and it's an eclectic after-hours hangout for club-goers and music connoisseurs.
Inside the one-story building – with its spacious windows providing passersby a view of the kitchen – the walls are covered with great Detroit imagery through framed photos and jerseys of Willie Horton, Justin Verlander and Al Kaline, along with a Tigers’ World Series and Red Wings’ Stanley Cup pennants. Much of the décor was obtained in auctions at the Ilitch Charities annual celebrity golf tournament at Oakland Hills, Binder said.
In just five months, Coney Dog has quickly caught on with LA natives, but it’s the transplanted Detroiters who truly appreciate the new eatery and hot spot.
“People have told me, ‘You saved me a plane ticket. Sometimes I fly home just because I need a coney,’ ” Binder said. “ ‘You fly home just for a coney?’ Yup, I’ve had a few guys tell me that.”
But thanks to Binder and his wife, Diane, and a few close friends, who shared in his vision, Detroiters can get their fixes for the Red Wings and chili dogs on the West Coast.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s doing well,” he said. “There are so many fans out here, we’re packed whenever Detroit teams are on TV. It’s a line out the door.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose