by: Melanie Warner
Part of the exhilaration of a road trip is the anticipation of discovering foods, meeting new people, sharing new stories, and making new memories. The epitome of each of these, is the Coney Island Café in the sleepy town of Pampa, Texas. No matter where you are headed, it’s on the way. Smack dab in the middle of the country, in the Texas Pandhandle, this pit stop is worth the trip. Established in 1933 by local businessman, Bill Coronis, as a concessions business in the local theater, the Coney Island Cafe has evolved to the top of the list for many road trip warriors. His nephews, Ted and John Gikas, joined Bill in 1946 to help run the business. Together, they created the archaic system of barking orders across the room in code and insisting that the waitresses remember every order, never allowing them to write anything down. Linda Austin, a long time loyal employee since 1971, brought her own family in to buy the business from the Gikas brothers in 2001. As she put it, “It’s not Pampa without the Coney Island.” The Donelsons still own it today. That makes it officially family-owned since 1933.
Warning: One bite and you won’t soon forget it. You’ll be one of the junkies, lining up outside the door, rain or shine. You can literally taste the nostalgia dripping from the tender ham and cheese, on a steamed bun, covered with warm mustard and piping hot, homemade chili. Did I mention the chili? It’s a secret recipe passed down from each generation and has never changed. Everything you order is gloriously slathered with it, and slid across the bright yellow tabletops. Only the fresh pies baked daily manage to evade the chili. My parents think I make the annual pilgrimage, brave the weather, and frenzied travelers to come home for the holidays. But I always have to sneak in a quick trip to “the Coney”, as the natives call it. I reckon my Dad has eaten there at least 3,361 times, and I’m convinced, it’s why he chose his office location downtown – for easy access. I’ve eaten there as long as I can remember. In fact, when my own kids were old enough to eat “real food”, that was the first place I took them.
Famed folk singer Woodie Guthrie dined at the Coney religiously when he lived in Pampa during the 1930’s. If hotdogs are indeed the ethos of Americana, did the perfectly cooked, juicy Coney with onions inspire him to write “This Land is Your Land”? You be the judge.
It is literally a hole-in-the-wall, and they don’t need no stinkin’ website, which pretty much guarantees it will be memorable. There is even a guest book dating back years. Great food. Great people. Great history. Great memories. Perfection incarnate as fuel for any road trip.
The Coney Island Cafe
114 West Foster Avenue, Pampa, TX 79065