Driving home on a recent trip, I had to stop in Galesburg, IL to get some gas. The station that I normally stop at just off the Interstate had closed down, forcing me to drive further into Galesburg toward their downtown area. As I was pumping gas into the car, I remembered a post from the Slakingfool blog site about a little hot dog place in Galesburg that I've always wanted to try. (Click here to see his entry.) I looked up the name on my smart phone - Coney Island - and got the address. Three minutes later, I was pulling up in front of Coney Island on South Cherry Street. (see map)
Brothers Paul and George Nickolopolous grew up in Greece before moving to the U.S. just after the turn of the 20th century. Upon entering the U.S. at Ellis Island, their name was changed to Nicholses. Ending up in Galesburg, IL they opened a little hot dog shop in a building that had once been a vaudeville showplace - Gaiety Hall. The floor slanted toward the stage and they had to fill in the base to level off the floor before they could open. The brothers started a tradition of selling grilled all-pork hot dogs topped with their beef coney sauce - basically a Greek-style chili. They initially sold their chili dogs for 5 cents each. (Today, a Coney Island coney dog is just over $2 bucks.)
The Nicholses eventually sold their business and there's not been many owners since them. There was a Ken who owned it when it was called Ken's Coney Island. The Dixon family owned it when it was called Dixon's Coney Island. The place had fallen into disrepair by the early 1990's and Dave and Erin Buckmaster bought the place, cleaned it up, and made some renovations. Dave Buckmaster tragically passed away and Erin sold it to Bill Forrester in 1999. Forrester opened up a second Coney Island location in north Galesburg not long after taking over. That location eventually closed in 2007.
In 2004, Jesus Valdez and his mother, Maria, bought the original Coney Island from Forrester. Maria owns the Fashion Cleaners business next to Coney Island and she still comes in during the lunch rush to help out her son.
And Maria was there when I walked into Coney Island around 1:30 that afternoon. Not much has changed since the business opened in 1921 and Maria told me that the grill they use is the same that the original owners - the Nicholses - used when they started up in business. "A daughter of one of the previous owners came in the other day," Maria told me. "And she said, 'Oh, good! You're still using that old gas grill top. If you ever quit using that it would never be the same.' " And they use the same chili recipe that the Nicholses brothers perfected over 90 years ago. In fact, the Valdez's have the original copy of the recipe on a sheet of paper that has been signed by all the owners over the years. Now, THAT has to be in a safety deposit box somewhere.
The menu is located on the wall behind the front counter. You place your order there and wait for the hot dogs to be made. In addition to hot dogs and chili dogs, Coney Island also features Chicago-style hot dogs, and a plethora of other hot dog toppings including sauerkraut, cole slaw, bacon cheese, taco meat, and something called the Mud Puppy which I was told was a cheese and chili combination. "Some people like the Mud Puppy with cole slaw," Maria told me. Coney Island also features a barbecue pork sandwich, a chicken salad sandwich, an Italian beef sandwich and something they call a "Made Wrong" - their take on the loose meat burger from Maid-Rite.
There's also a Veggie Dog on the menu. Interestingly, former owners Dave and Erin Buckmaster were vegetarians and they found a vegetarian hot dog to sell and came up with a vegetarian coney sauce that didn't feature beef. The Valdez's kept the Veggie Dog on the menu when they bought the place. And not long after they bought Coney Island, the Valdez's put in a small ice cream counter and started selling cones, root beer floats and other ice cream treats.
I ordered up a couple coney dogs with everything - that means it's topped with chili, yellow mustard and onions. Maria made them up for me and placed them on a paper plate. I made my way back to the old style counter with what looked like the original swivel stools in front of the counter.
The decor at Coney Island is a combination of history, kitsch and nostalgia. They have about a dozen old school desks that was salvaged from the then recently closed Lombard College in the early 1930's. There's dozens of old Coca-Cola signs and memorabilia on display, as well as old bottles and cans of Coke and other brands of soda pop that were actually bottled in Galesburg years ago. Many of the items on display were put there by the Buckmasters when they owned the place in the mid-to-late 1990's.
The chili dogs weren't big and three would have been fine with me on most occasions. But after a big breakfast, I probably couldn't have eaten three. The buns were steamed making them fresh and chewy. The hot dogs had a nice little "snap" to the bite - the way hot dogs should be. They had that great grilled taste - I almost enjoy a flat-grilled hot dog more than a steamed hot dog. The coney sauce was very reminiscent of a Cincinnati-style chili with a hint of all spice in the taste. The chili wasn't spicy in the least. It reminded me of a chili dog from George's in Sioux City, IA - one of my all-time favorite chili dog places. (Click here to see my entry on George's.) This was a very good chili dog. And I can't believe that I hadn't tried one up until that point.
In 2011, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Coney Island, the mayor of Galesburg - in conjunction with the Galesburg Historical Society - presented the Valdez's with a plaque that was affixed to the front of their building proclaiming Coney Island as Galesburg's oldest restaurant. It is a place where first dates took place, where students from nearby Knox College warded off hangovers, and where families have dined on coney dogs for generations.
Coney Island is a slice of Americana at its best. The nostalgic decor, the hot dogs grilled on the same flat top grill since the place opened, and using the same chili recipe for over 90 years. It took the work of Dave and Erin Buckmaster to salvage the business 20 years ago and the Valdez family is carrying on the tradition. Even if you don't like hot dogs or chili dogs, Coney Island is still a place that should be a destination when you're in Galesburg. And if you like hot dogs or chili dogs, it's going to be tough to beat the ones they serve at Coney Island.