Now that I'm spending more time in and around downtown St. Petersburg these days, I felt it was time to revisit the Tampa Bay Times's Best Hot Dogs in the Bay Area list from earlier this year and correct what I consider to be an egregious oversight; that is, I hadn't been to Coney Island Grill yet. CIG (side note - I'm pretty confident that the locals never refer to it in this fashion) has been located on a scruffy stretch of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. (250 N., to be exact) since way back in 1926, making it one of the oldest continuously-operating restaurants in Florida. Original owner Pete Barlas followed the lead of many other Greek immigrants coming to America at that time and opted to open a Detroit-style hot dog stand, topping the sausages with a chili sauce that sports a sizable ground meat component (likely beef trimmings and other less-desirable castoffs of the cow). Over the years, the neighborhood went from prosperous to less so and now back towards gentrification, but the grill has remained pretty much unchanged both inside and out.
Upon entering, I found the similarities between CIG and Chicago's dearly-departed Ramova Grill (1929-2012) to be uncannily close, down to the sparse menu, flattop grill (no fryers) near the front window, old-school refrigerator unit, waitstaff exchanging disapproving glances at strangers taking photos, and "we-don't-really-see-the-need-to-brighten-things-up" beige decor. Clearly, the subsequent owners (Pete's son, Hank, now deceased, and his son, Pete Barlas II, the current proprietor) are selling nostalgia as much as their chili and hot dogs (to great effect, I might add).
On my first visit, I stuck with the house specialty of chili dog (served with mustard and chopped onions, ketchup is a nickel extra) with a bowl of chili on the side. While the price was right ($2 for each), I can't say I was terribly impressed by either dish, both constructed more for plain sustenance than style. I discovered after the fact that you could add shredded cheese to your hot dog, which I did on Trip #2, not really noticing much of an improvement.
The real finds, however, are the chili burger and the chocolate milkshake. The burger arrived at my barstool thin and crispy after a good charring on the flattop, with the same toppings as the chili dog. At $3, it was well worth the extra buck. The milkshake is one of the most expensive things on the menu (except for the BLT, which I'm told is also a must-try), but still a smooth, rich, happy tummy bargain at $3.45. If you want a better hot dog, you need look no further than across the street and down the block to the newly open Chi-Town Beefs and Dogs (to be featured in a future posting), but diners seeking a great chili burger with a dose of time capsule will be perfectly content with Coney Island Grill...