By Brandi Perry
In downtown Hattiesburg stands a very unassuming building that at first glance can be easily ignored. But locals and tourists alike come to the Hub City to see what all the fuss is about at Coney Island Café. What they find is a historic eatery with a storied past that nearly has a cult following.
Coney Island Café, at 400 North Main Street, is one of the most iconic restaurants in the state and the one that has been selling hot dogs longer than any other restaurant in Mississippi. The café’s hot dogs are unique because they come with chili being their main topping, followed by pickles. The combination of their tangy homemade chili and the saltiness of the pickles set this hotdog aside from any you will find in the Magnolia State. The mustard and onions accentuate the delicious uniqueness of the meal, leaving visitors feeling as if they were eating something that had been served for many years, and they could not be more correct. But the hot dogs are only the beginning of their extensive and delicious menu.
Opened originally as a fruit stand, this renowned blast from the past diner has been around since 1923. Arthur Fokakis, who came to the United States from Greece in 1919, operated the business as a fruit stand until he transitioned it to become a short-order café that served hot dogs, hamburgers and homemade curly fries for breakfast. The menu has not changed much since that first meal was served, and for the regulars, they are perfectly fine with this. Even more amazing than their longevity and delicious foods is the fact that the Fokakis family has owned it since day one.
Sadly, there was a time when the future of the café was unknown. Third-generation owner Billy Fokakis closed the restaurant when he received his diagnosis of cancer. It was the first time in 94 years that the restaurant stood in the dark. Even though locals were aware of his condition, they were still shocked and saddened to see the doors closed and locked and the future of the café hanging in the balance. Until that heartbreaking day, Billy had not missed a day of work since taking over the business from his father in 1984. That closed door represented 33 years of 6 am to 3 pm every weekday. That was not only a nod to the dedication to the family to provide a delicious and consistent product to the residents of Hattiesburg, but also the love and passion he had for the customers and employees.
Remarkably, the café did not stay dark for long before Robert St. John, a regular at the café and restaurant owner himself, asked his restaurant group, New South, to figure out a way they could help. They decided on a fundraiser to help pay Fokakis’ medical expenses. The plan was simple: the group would host three meals in one day at the restaurant and host a concert in the parking lot. No one could have been prepared for the response of locals, regulars and even out-of-towners flocking to downtown Hattiesburg to help a man they had never met.
Sadly, Billy lost his battle not long after the event, and the future of Coney Island Café was unknown. It did not take long for Billy’s children Kayla and BJ to decide what they must do. The lights came back on, the doors unlocked and the fourth generation Fokakis’ are running out of food every day no matter how many customers they prepare for.
You can’t miss the turn of the century building with the University of Southern Mississippi mural in Historic Downtown Hattiesburg. However, it’s when you enter the door, and you are instantly hit with nearly 100 years of memories, flavors and hospitality you realize the reason for their longevity. The welcome you will receive from the staff and BJ or Kayla is something you will not find in many places. The hamburgers are cooked on a well-seasoned griddle that allowed the edges of the hand-formed meat to have a nice crispy crust.
Even though it is the hotdog that everyone flocks here for, it is important to note that their burger is one of 33 that have made Visit Hattiesburg’s HattiesBurger Trail, a culinary tourism nod to some of the best hamburgers in the Hub City. The old-fashioned cheeseburger with chili will take you back to yesteryear with a simply unmatched flavor. The homemade Curly “Q” fries have stood the test of time and should be a required order from everyone that enters the restaurant. Regardless of what you order, the flavor brings back memories of your childhood and the old-time diner that may have called your hometown home. These unique and now rare locations contain all the flavors of a community, from the people to the history and beyond. The nostalgia that embraces this restaurant must be experienced. From the historic photographs to the unique menu items, this spot must be on your bucket list.
If Coney Island Café can teach us one thing, it would be that you never know what you have until it is gone. There was a very real possibility that this historic restaurant would not get to experience its 100th anniversary and even though everyone is aware that life throws some strange curveballs, it seems as though this centennial will actually come to fruition. With the fourth generation going strong to keep the café everything it is known for, there is no doubt that the love, hard work and spirit of the past generations are pushing them to many more anniversary celebrations.
Coney Island Café is located at 400 Main Street in Historic Downtown Hattiesburg. Serving breakfast and lunch, visitors can experience it every weekday from 6 am to 2 pm. If you need to get in touch with them before visiting, please call 601-582-8513. After one visit, we can guarantee you will be counting down the days until you can visit the restaurant again.