Another in a series on iconic New England eateries.
WORCESTER — Talk about a restaurant with the personal touch. A giant neon hand grasping a hot dog — complete with dripping mustard — has summoned hungry people to George’s Coney Island since owner George Tsagarelis commissioned the 60-foot-high sign in 1940. The designer modeled the hand on George’s own mitt. Generations later, family members still run the restaurant, and it remains an integral part of downtown.
The lunch room has a history almost as venerable as the famous dining cars once manufactured in the city. The spot was founded in 1918 and Tsagarelis bought the business sometime in the late 1920s. (Various sources say 1927, but the family can’t find paperwork to back up the date.) What is certain is that Tsagarelis created the current no-nonsense Art Deco decor in 1938, installing the tiled floors, the straight-back wooden booths (now scratched and carved with three-quarters of a century of initials), and the long, stool-free counter where customers line up to order, pay, and be served. The line shuffles along, giving newbies plenty of time to contemplate the limited menu. Regulars already know it by heart, and almost no one orders anything but a plate of hot dogs, usually three at a time.
In fact, it begins to sound like a refrain. “Three dogs up,” says one customer. “Three dogs up,” says the next. And so it goes until someone breaks the rhythm: “Three up but no onions.” In the lingo of George’s, “up” means “with the works”: a grilled hot dog on a spongy white bun with yellow mustard, meat sauce, and chopped white onion. In keeping with the tradition of homegrown fast-food restaurants everywhere, the meat sauce is a “secret recipe” that hasn’t been tinkered with for decades.
The standard accompaniments are Wachusett potato chips (made since 1939 in nearby Fitchburg) and a can of Polar Beverages soda, manufactured just down Southbridge Street in Worcester. Diners with hearty appetites can also get a coffee mug filled to the brim with homemade baked beans made the old-fashioned New England way with a heavy dose of molasses.
In addition to the main dining room, George’s also has a tap room served from the same kitchen. As a result, it’s a rare fast-food spot where you can also get a beer. No doubt the availability of suds played a role in George’s being recognized as one of 27 places around the country “Where Men Eat” in an April 2010 feature in Esquire magazine.
Kathryn Tsandikos, granddaughter of George Tsagarelis, helps carry on the family tradition along with her husband, Andy Kelleher. On our most recent visit, the restaurant swarmed with children and teens on break from a holiday show. On the weekends, the place is filled with families.
Kelleher laments that inflation pushed the price of a hot dog up by 10 cents in late 2013, but notes that the dogs remain a good deal. “With our prices,” he says, “anyone can come in with their kids. Sure, it gets noisy. The kids can act up, but nobody cares too much.” He smiles and adds, “Then they grow up and bring their kids, and the cycle starts all over again.”
Sure enough, as we were leaving, an extensively tattooed and pierced dad was holding the door for his toddler son.
“It’s his first time,” he grinned.
GEORGE’S CONEY ISLAND 158 Southbridge St., Worcester. 508-753-4362, www.coneyislandlunch.com. Mon, Wed, Thu 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Fri-Sat 10-9, Sun 10-7. Hot dogs $1.60, sandwiches $1.75-$4.20. Cash only.Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.