There have been some big changes at Red Hots Coney Island in Highland Park. For years — hell, for generations — "Red's" has been one of those little hole-in-the-wall-type places where you meet what journalists call "real people." It was founded way back in 1921, when Highland Park was a growing city of 46,000, and has stubbornly clung to its block even as the city around it has only about 11,000 residents left.
Even with all that history, a little bit of new history has been made recently: a TV makeover. American Diner Revival
, hosted by chef Amanda Freitag and home improvement expert Ty Pennington, came to town and gave Red's a makeover, which means it will be featured in a new episode that airs June 12.
It was a stroke of good fortune for owner Richard Harlan, who has been in charge for 47 years, since the 1960s. (Before that, this family business was owned by an uncle and a great-uncle.) Harlan points out that the show footed the bill, installed new floor, booths, tables, and that all work was done and paid for by the show and by volunteers. Harlan tells us that the changes are really for the better, adding, "Also, this is a poor area, and our customers need a nice place to eat too."
Not everybody has been pleased by the transformation. A friend of ours complained that "The interior moved to the suburbs!"
The comment earns a laugh from Harlan: "I've heard that. I've had people come in and say, 'If I wanted to eat in the suburbs I would have stayed in the suburbs!' But this place really needed it. It was tore up pretty bad. The stools were wobbly. The booths were busted up. The last time it was remodeled was in 1968."
Even so, Harlan sounds sensitive to these qualms. He says he asked for a "retro" look from the remodelers, and also says that the old photos longtime patrons were used to are still intact, and that some will be rotated out into display in the near future. He also urges anybody who's never been there to come on in and get a taste of an original that's been given a new shine.
"It's really a beautiful thing," he says, "honest to God."