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I (Heart) Octogenarian Weiners
The chili recipe at Coney Island Restaurant is nearly as old as Carol Channing, and just as spicy. Opened in 1923, the downtown hot dog shop is more Katz’s than Nathan’s, with its sloppy chili dogs served on actual china with real silverware. The seat-yourself-at-mid-century-breakfast-tables experience is just like Houston and Ludlow, only it’s not kosher.
Photos of the downtown Fresno of yore line the walls of the modest eatery, showcasing the old courthouse (destroyed in 1966) and the trolley that ran from Belmont to Fresno St. Jim Grusis, who is fond of reminding the staff he has worked there since 1952, mans the grill while daughter and current owner Virginia Toscano handles the register. The business has been in the family since her grandfather’s days.
A regular hotdog with your choice of onions, ketchup, and mustard, will set you back $1.60. Add their popular chili for 15 cents, or cheese for 30 cents. Hotdogs are your standard Farmer John variety, and hamburgers are made on the grill right in front of you. The French fries are thin, golden, and crispy; much better than what you could find at any drive thru window.
The friendly staff attracts a very loyal lunch clientele. On any given weekday the place is spotted with police officers, office types from the IRS building, and people on jury duty. Most people have a "usual" that the cook remembers. The restaurant has expanded hours on game nights, so Grizzlies fans can have some tasty snacks at reasonable prices.
Coney Island has borne witness to the entire history of downtown development. Virginia Toscano and her father (for whom posing next to the grill seems old hat), stay out of downtown politics for the most part. She recounts an episode in 2000 when the restaurant nearly closed.
Construction on the Grizzlies stadium had eliminated their parking overnight, and six weeks later Toscano had thrown in the towel. Calls to the City about what the sudden lack of parking had done to business went unanswered- until a story ran in the Bee. There was a line down the block and the City reconsidered phasing out the parking.
Toscano says her Christian faith helps keep her above the political fray. "I just believe we should be here, and we’re going to be here as long as we can." She is apprehensive about the "Riverwalk" plan, worrying it could become a not-so-pleasant canal if a balance between the homeless and business is not found. She explains a big problem with downtown revitalization is the cost of getting old buildings up to code- a problem that might force Coney Island out of its current spot in the future.
But the downtown location, she explains, has been the key to the friendly, laid back atmosphere. She and her husband, Amador, have made good friends and raised their family here. She will probably enlist her college-aged daughter to help with the forthcoming Coney Island website, from which they plan to sell their chili. "I don’t understand- there are some mothers who won’t let their kids go south of Shaw. It’s ridiculous."