Saturday, January 28, 2023

Dining in Flint by Mort Maizlish

The quirky world of the Coney Island was unique to Flint.  Perhaps a dozen purveyors were clustered in the downtown “hot dog district” around Saginaw between Water & Union Sts.  There were many more scattered throughout the town, especially surrounding the factories, where they did a huge trade at shift breaks. They were operated by Greek and Macedonian extended families.  They all served a singular style of hot dog with little to no variation: A frankfurter made locally by Koegel, with mustard, finely minced onion, and a delicious and unmistakeable meat sauce (now revealed as based on boiled beef heart) made by Abbott’s, something like dry chili, never greasy, and with a mysterious blend of seasonings. 

The restaurants…Flint Original Coney Island, US Coney Island #1, Tasty Coney Island, US Coney Island #2, Nick’s Coney Island…were tucked in small commercial storefronts, often 3 or 4 on a block.  They were open 24 hours every day of the year, and some I’m sure had no door locks.  Uniformly simple, clean and efficient,  well lit, and with sparkling white tile walls, each consisted of not much more than a long counter, a few tables, and a small kitchen.  Every serving came on a white oval plate that seemed designed specifically for one hot dog bun.  The counter men, with white aprons and paper hats, took orders and delivered their product with the same speed and consistency as the assembly lines at which most of their clientele toiled.  A fresh bun on the plate, a Koegel frank on the bun, then mustard, then the magic meat sauce, then the minced onions.  Less than a minute to wait.

I don’t recall their serving much else other than beverages, perhaps french fries.  There was no reason to wander.  You were there for a Coney, no other reason.  At midnight or 1:00 AM, after a date, or a late movie at the Capitol, Strand, Palace or Rialto, two Coneys and a long-neck Budweiser set everything right.  

I’ve never found the right combination anywhere else, but have come close with Nathan’s covered with chorizo and, of course, French’s mustard and finely chopped onions.  Close but never there.  Is it the sauce or the frank?  Or the comfort of the presentation of a perfect dish, so simple, so reliable and so effortless.

Flint had some excellent restaurants in the 1950s, especially around N Saginaw above the Durant Hotel. Cromer’s was the best that I remember, and only for very special occasions. The Purple Cow, in the hotel, was the place to go for breakfast and lunch.  The Turkish Village, and a prime rib buffet.  Every restaurant seemed to be focused on one particular group or class, with one great exception. Uncle Bob’s Diner, on Harrison St, was a welcoming magnet for all people at all times. The original portion, with a counter and booths, built in the 1940s, may have been a converted railway dining car, or perhaps was designed to look like one. A large dining room with table service was added later. I was there as a child with my parents for special dinners out, and in later years and late into the night with dates, or with my misfit friends from high school and junior college. The food was varied, with the only kosher-style dishes in town alongside standard American comfort foods. My Flint friends still mourn its closing as the defining moment in the death of downtown. 

Years after closing, the original diner portion of Uncle Bob’s was purchased by a dreamer with a vision of a diner-nostalgia theme park, “Dinerland”, along with a miniature golf course. He acquired a total of three defunct diners from around the country and relocated them to a large open field near Rockford, a sparsely populated rural area north of Grand Rapids. One was to be a classic diner, another a Sports Bar. As the ultimate indignity, Uncle Bob’s, once the soul of Flint and proud purveyor of spectacular corned beef and rare roast beef on kaiser rolls, matzoh ball soup and cheesecake, was relegated to serve as the ice cream parlor, with that designation smeared on the windows with a thick paint brush. 

Dinerland has gone through a few owners, but seems to have never been able to live much longer than the initial investment of each successive operator. My wife’s nephew lives near Rockford, and drove me there during our 2014 visit. Uncle Bob’s, with its unmistakeable art deco exterior of maroon stripes over ecru walls, rusts into the ground as the field grows back into meadow around it, like a small adjunct of any number of Flint factories before they were finally scraped away.