Jay Leno has always had an appetite for jokes.
Hot dogs, too. The veteran comedian and former host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” visited Schenectady landmark Mike’s Hot Dogs late Friday afternoon, shortly before his show at Proctors.
Short-order cook Rod LaFountain was at the grill and said he recognized Leno as soon as he walked in the door about 5 p.m. The silver hair was one clue; the large face was another.
“There’s only one face that looks like Jay Leno,” LaFountain said at the beginning of his shift Monday afternoon.
LaFountain and waitress Melissa Conlon gave Leno the quick rundown on available eats. Jay decided to go with First Prize, a frankfurter favorite since Mike’s opened in 1947.
“He said he wanted three ‘all the way,’ ” LaFountain said, explaining the Mike’s loaded hot dog special served with mustard, onions and meat sauce.
“I just treated him like an average Joe, like a regular customer,” LaFountain added.
Leno found the place by accident. He had flown into Richmor Aviation in Scotia and had arranged for a ride into Schenectady with Albany-based Premiere Transportation Group. Ed Daley of Troy made the pickup in a black sport utility vehicle and drove Jay into downtown via Erie Boulevard.
“He saw the [Mike’s] sign and said ‘What’s this?’ ” Daley said. “I said, ‘It’s a hot dog place that’s been around forever.’ He said, ‘Let’s stop,’ and we stopped. He asked me if I wanted anything and I said, ‘No thanks.’ ”
LaFountain said Leno paid cash — $6.97 — for the take-out order. He was only in the 42-seat restaurant a couple of minutes, and didn’t have much of an audience. Just a few people were in the place at the time.
Leno still made time for a quick photo. He posed in front of the gray Formica counter with LaFountain and Conlon as a customer snapped the shot. “It was a topic all night,” LaFountain said. “It’s not every day you get star-struck like that.”
John Mantas, who has owned Mike’s since 1980, said other celebrities have sampled foods from the grill.
“We’ve had quite a few,” Mantas said. “Tim Conway has been in, James Brown has been in. Joey Vellano from the Super Bowl New England Patriots was just here. We’ve had Tommy Lasorda and Billy Connors, who used to be the New York Yankees’ pitching coach.”
Mantas believes part of the star appeal is the atmosphere. “It’s a place where the average guy can sit down and have a hot dog,” he
said. “You could be sitting next to the governor of New York on one side and a steamfitter on the other.”
LaFountain hopes Jay found good food part of the appeal. He knows Leno has been a fan of Pink’s Hot Dogs in Hollywood for years. “I hope that our hot dogs beat theirs, know what I’m saying?” he said.