There was a time when a local eatery in downtown Houston was the place to go. James’ Coney Island served hot dogs and chili in a tiny space on Walker St. just a block or so from the main areas for shopping and commerce. Lunchtime at the place was always a happening with a cross section of Houstonians dropping in for a couple of hotdogs nested in a bun with a hearty topping of chili and finely chopped onions. Purists ordered a side of Fritos, but I was always a fan of potato chips. A cold bottle of soda water topped off the feast.
Everyone sat at old school desks where there was no telling who might be mingling with the ordinary folk. Dan Rather might drop in after chasing a news story or the mayor might rub elbows with the citizenry. Women dressed to the nines in silk stockings, high heels and full length mink coats delighted in the food as much as little kids like me who gazed over the bun filled goodness to see who was there with me on any given day.
The same guys worked the line for as long as I can remember. Since there was always a crowd waiting to get inside in a line that snaked down the sidewalk the process of ordering had to be done with great precision. My mama would warn me and my brothers not to hesitate for even a second when it came our time to tell the men what we wanted. I remember rehearsing my choices as I stood in line, reminding myself to speak with my loudest voice or suffer the consequences of being too meek. The original “soup Nazi” maintained a strict presence as the “hotdog Nazi” on that line. Even a second of confusion brought his gruffness to the forefront. I never wanted to raise his ire.
That line of workers were so quick that we kept moving all the way down to the cash register where my mother would pay. I’m not exactly sure how much each of those hotdogs cost back then but I don’t think it was more than a quarter. I particularly marveled at a regular worker who prepared the hotdogs in a finely tuned machine like motion without a hand on one of his arms. He never so much as bobbled the food. It was a remarkable sight.
Even after I had grown up and married I enjoyed those remarkable hot dogs. My husband worked the nightshift at one of the downtown banks and had the job of taking deposits to the Federal Repository at the end of his shift. If he was lucky it would not be too late to circle back to Walker St. and order some hotdogs from James Coney Island for the two of us to munch on when he got home. We spent so many wonderful nights enjoying our treats while watching old reruns of Star Trek on television.
A cousin of mine recently recalled going with her family to have dinner at James’ Coney Island before attending Friday night football games. Like most families back then eating out was an infrequent activity so it was a really big deal to be there. She remembers sitting in one of those school desks munching on her hot dog and feeling as though the whole experience was magical.
Eventually James’ Coney Island expanded to the suburbs. It remained a favorite eatery for me and my husband and for my mother as well. Our favorite location was located near Gulfgate Mall. It was often my mother’s restaurant of choice when I took her out for dinner each Friday night. My husband and I never failed to stop there on our way to visit the gravesites of relatives in Forest Park. Sometimes we went there on a whim and literally felt like kids again as we munched on our hot dogs that had only changed in size and price, becoming smaller and more expensive over time.
My grandson, Jack, fell in love with James’ Coney Island as a little boy. We often accompanied him to the location near Sugar Land. He delighted in the trademark hotdogs so much that it brought back our own memories of sitting on Walker St. in the long ago. We told him stories of our own love affair with the food and the ambiance of the Houston tradition and he listened as if we had been speaking of a major historical event.
The Gulfgate location was a victim of major construction that made getting to the place almost impossible. When the pandemic came along the dying restaurant drew its last breath. It was disappointing to learn that it was no more, so we sought out the one that our grandson had so loved. It too was boarded up and being remodeled as something new. Perhaps the modern tastes and emphasis on health and good diets had also played a role in ending much of the popularity and novelty of James’ Coney Island. The only locations that still exist are in Meyerland, Webster, and Baytown.
My husband and I have a new tradition of stopping at the James’ Coney Island in Meyerland on our way home from appointments with our doctors whose offices are near there. The downtown location on Walker St. is long gone, having closed in the early nineteen nineties. With it a big piece of Houston history has vanished but the company lives one albeit with many changes and attempts to modernize it for a new era.
This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the storied eatery. So much has changed since the days of old when the ambiance was barebones and the menu provided only select items. James’ Coney Island continues to operate but not with the panache of its storied past. The few remaining restaurants are now called JCI and offerings are much more extensive than just hot dogs. The food is still good but some of the magic is gone. James’ Coney Island was so much more than just the food. As my cousin so aptly put it, the experience of eating there was magical.