When I was in high school during the mid-'70s the Coney Island hot dog stand was the most colorful site on the drive south on Highway 285 from Denver. It beat the looming mountains by its sheer, brave oddity: A diner shaped like a giant hot dog, set on a hillside and serving up classic dogs, burgers, fries and shakes.
So I was bummed out when I drove past Conifer the other day and saw the familiar goofy sight was gone, replaced by boring strip-mall development. But when I got 15 miles farther down the road, I was delighted to see a road sign pointing left that said, "Coney Island." Sure enough, the hot dog was nestled within the pines and sat in front of a another (plain) building, within spitting distance of the South Platte River, more of a lusty creek.
I told myself I'd have to stop on my way back to check it out.
The building didn't start its life in the mountains. Coney Island Colorado, which earned its own Wikipedia entry, was built in 1966 on Colfax Avenue, the central east-west strip that defined Denver for decades. It was moved to its location near Conifer, in a spot called Aspen Park, in 1970 by new owners. Much of Hwy 285 is four-lane and all fancy-paved, but when my high school friends and I roamed the backways of the Front Range, 285 was a lonely two-lane drive. The closest town of significance was Evergreen, due northeast from Conifer. Now there are houses dotting the hillsides and new strip malls and shopettes and churches all over. And lots more traffic.
Exurban development forced the Coney island to move to Bailey in 2006 and it reopened with its current owners in 2007. During the summers it's open every day. But I got lucky and happened to drive by when it's open for its winter hours: Friday through Sunday only.
When you step into the Coney Island (which now sports the extra name "Boardwalk" above its windows), development seems to be arrested back in the '60s still. More than the nostalgic diner bric-a-brac decorating the inside, the intact architecture says it all. In the two ends of the hot dog are rounded booths with circular tables festooned with the '50s-'60s "boomerang" pattern that's familiar to most American baby-boomers. A line of red plastic-capped spinning stools looks out the window at the gravel parking lot and the South Platte.
And across the narrow walking space is the counter to order and pick up your meal, and the griddle beyond. It's this griddle top that makes the burgers there so good. Long before fast-food joints killed tasty burgers and more recent chains like "Smashburger" resurrected the idea, funky diners fried up burgers on a griddle steeped and seasoned by years of cooking burgers, onions, eggs and what-all.
I ordered a Smoked Elk Jalapeno Cheddar Dog with the works (smothered in sauerkraut) and a Classic Smash Burger with the works. The dog was incredible, and a worthy meal in itself. The burger took me right back to 1965, and the burger shack by the ballfield at Matthew C. Perry School in Iwakuni Japan, where military brats like me and my brother gathered for 10-cent hamburgers practically every day, sizzled on a diner griddle like the Coney Island's.
I know boomers wallow too much in nostalgia, but I gotta say, some things are worth being nostalgic over. A great burger and dog, and a building as cool as the Coney Island, fit that bill.
Besides, it ain't the beach, but this Coney Island has a terrific view. It's worth a stop, anytime you're traveling Hwy 285.