6436 Michigan Avenue, Detroit 48210
The Senate Coney Island at 6436 Michigan Avenue was founded in 1937 by Greek immigrant George Hinaris, who had come to Detroit in search of a better life for his family. Hinaris named his restaurant the Senate because of its close proximity to the Senate Theater.
The same conditions that attracted other immigrant groups to the Detroit area drew large numbers of Greek immigrants to the region. The primary appeal of the Detroit area was the burgeoning auto industry, with Henry Ford’s innovative $5-per-day program enticing a huge number of Greek immigrants in 1914. The Greek population in Detroit rose from 250 in 1909 to approximately 8,000 in that year.
The peak period of immigration for Greeks in America was between 1911 and 1917. Greeks were highly persecuted in their homeland beginning in 1912, which precipitated a large wave of emigration. By 1930, the number of Greeks in the Detroit area had catapulted to between 10,000 and 15,000.
Most Greeks in Detroit came from the peninsula of Peloponnesus in southern Greece. However, some also came from the islands of Chios, Crete, and Cyprus.
Greeks also were drawn to the railroad industry in Detroit, and some became merchants. The shop owners often lived above their places of business.
Greeks were very adept at operating restaurants, and the first Coney Island restaurant in Michigan, which was in the city of Jackson, was founded by a Greek immigrant. When European immigrants arrived in America during the early part of the twentieth century, they entered the country through Ellis Island. There they were introduced to the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, where hot dogs were very popular. The Coney dog is an evolution of that neighborhood and that experience. Subsequent waves of Greek immigrant entrepreneurs were able to continue the tradition of the Coney Island restaurant in other cities because neither the name nor the business plan were trademarked by the original Coney Island restaurant owners.
A traditional Coney Island hot dog consists of a hot dog on a steamed bun topped with chili, mustard, and diced onions. Some other traditional Coney Island menu items are French fries, hamburgers, sandwiches, breakfast items, and desserts, including rice pudding. Greek items usually include gyros, souvlaki, shish kebab, spanakopita, saganaki, and Greek salads. Menus have evolved throughout the years to include traditional diner fare.
For decades, the Senate Coney Island on Michigan Avenue was a family gathering place with a loyal customer base. Families seemed to favor either the Senate or George’s Coney Island, which was located nearby on Michigan Avenue just west of Livernois. The owners of the two restaurants were not related. The area gradually became predominantly Polish, and many Polish Americans who lived in the neighborhood have fond memories of dining at the Senate Coney Island during the 1940s and throughout the 1980s.
The Senate Coney Island had a long, red-and-white striped awning on its exterior above a large, horizontal front window, and a massive, vertical, bright yellow projecting sign hung above the awning. It covered the entire second story of the red brick building and jutted out above the sidewalk, visible to drivers traveling eastbound or westbound along Michigan Avenue. It had bold black lettering that read, SENATE CONEY ISLAND, “The PLACE.” Inside, the restaurant had rows of booths where patrons sat and ate. Part of the fun of going to the Senate Coney Island was sitting in one of the booths and enjoying the restaurant’s surroundings.
One of the most popular menu items at the Senate was the Senator’s Delight. It was akin to a hot dog-hamburger combo, consisting of a hot dog on a steamed bun topped with loose ground beef, chili, onions, and mustard. The waiters and cooks were colorful characters. If you ordered a menu item with everything on it, the waiter would shout to the cook, “Sweep the floor!”
In 1969, some of Hinaris’ extended family members immigrated to Detroit from Greece and began helping out in the restaurant. His nephew, George Dimopoulos, who had worked as a cook in the Greek army, joined him in the business.
In 1972, George Dimopoulos opened a second Senate Coney Island on Ecorse Road in Taylor. Eventually, he took over ownership and management of the entire family business, and in 1985, he added a third location on Plymouth and Stark Roads in Livonia. The family tradition continued, with George’s sons Niko and Steven playing a large part in the operation of that restaurant.
Tragically, in 1990, a fire occurred in the original Detroit restaurant on Michigan Avenue. The family did not reopen the restaurant after the fire but decided to open a new restaurant on Greenfield Road in Dearborn in 1994.
In 2005, George opened an additional location in the Haggerty Road-Six Mile area of Northville. Today, there are a total of four Senate Coney Islands in the Detroit metro area as well as a franchise location in South Lyon. George continues to have a large presence in the Northville restaurant. His wife Kathy helps with the management of the other locations.
Today, in his Northville Senate Coney Island, George Dimopoulos enjoys reliving bygone days in a new and expanded setting. By reproducing the close-knit community atmosphere that once existed in the establishments along the tiny section of Michigan Avenue between Cicotte and Gilbert Streets, he has created a unique dining experience and a restaurant that is not “just a place to get food” (1).
Groups of people migrate to the Senate in Northville, and they too enjoy its inviting ambiance. Frequenters include retirees from Northville and the surrounding suburbs, old friends, golfers from the adjacent golf course, and a group sometimes referred to as the Chadseyites, a band of all-class schoolmates from west side Detroit’s Chadsey High School who like to meet for lunch every so often to reconnect and reminisce about their high school days and the old neighborhood. The restaurant is a favorite site for luncheons, and it is not uncommon for George to host several large groups of people at the same time.
George also has a huge heart. He delights in opening up his restaurant to veterans and the homeless and has been known to provide free meals to everyone who enters the restaurant on Thanksgiving, recalling his younger years in Greece when he lived alone and was grateful for any kindness and generosity extended to him. He has served over 400 free meals on Thanksgiving to those who were lonely. The family also constantly gives back to their community and throughout the decades has made many donations to nonprofit organizations and families in need. George continues to offer specials in his restaurants to show his gratitude to his loyal customers.
A few of the famous sports figures who have eaten at the Northville restaurant include Gordie Howe, Ernie Harwell, Tomas Holmström, and Scotty Bowman. Patrons often take their out-of-town guests there for a special treat.
George Dimopoulos, who is over 70 years old, still arrives at his Northville restaurant at 4:00 a.m. some mornings to ensure that all the menu items are prepared properly and that everything is running smoothly. He has been described as “a legend” in the city of Northville (2). He hopes one day to retire and spend some time golfing and traveling, but not just yet.
In the old west side Detroit neighborhood along the Michigan Avenue strip between Cicotte and Gilbert Streets, many businesses were called Senate, including the Senate Beauty Shop, which was located directly across the street from the Senate Theater. None of the owners of those establishments were related. The name Senate sprang from the Senate Sweet Shop, founded in 1918, and then the Senate Theater, which opened in 1925. The name is a reference to ancient Greece, where the highest legislative authority was known as the Senate.
When prohibition was in effect in the U.S. between the years 1920 and 1933, the soda fountain replaced the bar as the new gathering place. Because alcohol was illegal, the soda fountain became a lawful place for socialization. The Senate Sweet Shop at 6430 Michigan Avenue, which was founded by Greek immigrant brothers Samuel and Gus Corden and which was located next door to the Senate Theater, was one such place. Throughout the Great Depression, it filled a void in the lives of the people in the community by offering respite in an extremely dark time. It sold ice cream, soda fountain drinks, and candy. A new location on Michigan Avenue in Inkster is still being operated by the founder’s third generation family member as of 2021 under the name Corden’s Candy Carousel.
In 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, George Hinaris opened his Senate Coney Island. It was situated on the same Michigan Avenue stretch as the Senate Sweet Shop, with the Senate Theater in between the two. George Hinaris had endured struggle, having grown up during a time of conflict in his native country. But he had the spirit of a great entrepreneur, and he knew how to instill hope and enthusiasm. He passed his great optimism, strong work ethic, and entrepreneurial passion on to his nephew, George Dimopoulos.
Today, the spirit of the old Michigan Avenue meeting places lives on in George’s Senate Coney Island restaurants, where George Dimopoulos has created a warm and welcoming environment along with fabulous food. And, of course, the Senator’s Delight is still a featured menu item. But the restaurant isn’t about just food. It is as much about feeding one’s soul as it is about gratifying the appetite.
- Choraszewski, Lawrence. Informal telephone discussion. (West Bloomfield, MI: June 28, 2021)
- Dimopoulos, George. Informal telephone discussion. (West Bloomfield, MI: July 12, 2021).
- Photo of the original Senate Coney Island restaurant at 6436 Michigan Avenue on Detroit’s west side, November 1982 (WSDPAHS archives, courtesy of Honorary Society Member Anthony C. “Tony” Pakula)
- Ad from the Chadsey Compass Yearbook, 1940 (WSDPAHS archives)
- Ad from the Chadsey Compass Yearbook, January – June 1947 (WSDPAHS archives)
- Ad from the Chadsey Compass Yearbook, 1949 (WSDPAHS archives)