On a sunny April day in 1989, hungry Springfieldians lined up to savor a hot dog from the Coney Island Restaurant at 114 N. Sixth St. The line, which wrapped around the block, included citizens from all walks of life, each of them craving a 100 percent beef frank served on a steamed white bun.
The crowds also gathered to celebrate the restaurant’s 70th anniversary – and a special anniversary price: That day only, a hot dog with grilled onions and chili sauce (plus a soft drink on the side) cost a mere 15 cents. State Journal-Register reporter Elizabeth Bettendorf wrote that a police officer was detailed to keep the hundreds of patrons in line.
Mayor Ossie Langfelder, who had declared April 19 “Coney Island Day,” personally worked behind the counter that afternoon alongside Coney Island owner Toula Gekas.
(Historically, a Coney Island hot dog is a wiener topped with meat sauce and other condiments. The Coney dog may have originated with Greek or Macedonian immigrants in the New York City area, but it was made famous by Nathan Handwerker, a Polish-Jewish immigrant who owned by a hot dog stand in Coney Island, Brooklyn.)
Springfield’s Coney Island restaurant lasted almost a century, most of that time in the 100 block of North Sixth. A visit to the old restaurant was like stepping into a real-life version of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” painting.
To the left (north) of the front door was the arm-worn counter where decades of patrons sat on small, round bar stools. The counter held onions, mustard, relish, etc. Want a Coney dog with more relish? Sure thing. A bit more mustard, no problem. But no ketchup — that was for the French fries.
Employees wore white aprons and white tee shirts and sported white hats made of thin paper.
Behind the counter, in sight of the front window, was a grill sizzling with rows of meat. Coffee urns and glass coffee pots were stacked behind the counter, and a large menu above it all listed the Coney’s offerings. (In 1989, a plate lunch set you back $3.25.)
To the right (south) of the front door was a set of wooden booths from the 1920s. Cozy and quaint, they added to the Coney Island’s overall décor. On the walls were taxidermied sailfish and two moose heads, the prize possessions of the restaurant’s founder, Hercules “Herk” Gekas (1897-1984). A handmade sign, “Ladies Welcome,” hung in the restaurant for decades.
The Coney Island operated six days a week, and patrons could order until midnight. Christmas was the only day the Gekas family would close the restaurant.
Herk Gekas emigrated to the U.S. in 1910 from Lamia, a town northwest of Athens, Greece. Before World War I, according to family legend, Gekas lived in Chicago, where he tried his hand at being a professional violinist. Federal immigration records indicate he became a naturalized citizen in Nebraska in 1919. He is thought to have migrated to Central Illinois because his father, Constantine “Gus” Gekas, was already in Sangamon County.
According to family history, Herk and his father got into the restaurant business in 1919. Newspaper advertisements indicate they first opened a lunch shop at 110 N. Sixth St. The location is also documented in city directories as “Gekas Restaurant” and also as the restaurant of “Gekas and Economu”.
Herk Gekas bought 114 N. Sixth St. at a federal auction in March 1926 and moved his restaurant, renamed “Coney Island Red Hots,” from 110 to 114 N. Sixth about 1931.
The building was constructed during the Civil War era as a two-story brick commercial space with apartments on the upper floor. The location was remodeled in 1926, and that version remained virtually unchanged until the Coney Island moved in 1999.
Real estate developer Dennis Polk bought the old Coney Island building in 1997. The restaurant remained on Sixth Street until 1999, when the building was vacated to make room for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. It was demolished in 2001.
The Coney Island first moved to 210 S. Fifth St. In 2012, the restaurant, then owned by Emilio Lomeli, moved again to the former Sonrise Donut Shop on South Ninth Street, where it was re-branded as Emilio’s New Coney Island, serving Mexican American fare.
When it closed for good in 2015, the Coney Island was Springfield’s second-oldest restaurant, behind only Maldaner’s.
Other Coney Islands
Several other restaurants and lunch counters in Springfield have used variations on the Coney Island name. Most if not all of them were run by entrepreneurs of Greek descent. They included:
- The Coney Island Sandwich Shop, 400 block of East Washington Street, owned by Steve Karrias.
- Coney Island Red Hots/Coney Island Lunch at 420 East Monroe St., operated by at least two sets of partners — Gus Condas and James Tsatsos and Tom Bartsokas and George Sirmos. Herk Gekas later took over that location.
- U&I Coney Island, 209 N. Sixth St., operated by Steve Mortos and George Karos.
Contributor: William Cellini Jr.
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