Years ago, no less than The New York Times restaurant critics named Detroit the best city in the nation in which to dine — outside of The Big Apple,
Then came the 1970s. And the ’80s. The word used to describe Detroit’s dining scene became “decline,” and “Closed” signs took the place of menus on windows.
That all began changing a few years ago. Younger owners and chefs, who saw blank canvases inviting them to create a new generation of restaurants, began looking for buildings to restore. With that came a revival of interest in both living in and dining in the city. It was a perfect storm of goodness. All one can say now is, Wow, how times have changed!
Today, publications as notable as Forbes, National Geographic, and the Times, as well as the prestigious James Beard Foundation, are again taking notice of Detroit. And they’re finding a city with diversity, newfound stability, and growth — especially among the new generation of chefs and entrepreneurs who are again giving Detroit a seat at the nation’s table of the best places to dine.
Last year alone, more than a dozen Detroit-area restaurants and their chefs were nominated for 2022 James Beard awards, the most prestigious culinary prize of all, and three were finalists: Omar Anani, of Saffron De Twah on Gratiot, for the Great Lakes region’s best chef; Warda Bouguettaya, of Warda Pâtisserie, for outstanding pastry chef; and Barda, on Grand River, for best new restaurant.
Bouguettaya, who creates art as food and food as art at Warda Pâtisserie on West Alexandrine in Detroit’s Midtown District, went on to win the title of best in the nation. Yes, the nation.
Detroit landed back on the radar of the Times when it named Freya on East Grand Boulevard, where the kitchen is headed by chef de cuisine Phoebe Zimmerman, one of the top 50 restaurants in the nation.
So, what’s behind Detroit’s restaurant renaissance? A lot, says Timothy Tharp, owner of the downtown’s Grand Trunk Pub on Woodward, named for its location in the former ticket office of the Grand Trunk Railroad, and the nearby Checker Bar on Cadillac Square, a downtown fixture since the 1950s.
Tharp is also on the board of the revived Detroit Restaurant & Lodging Association and is a past chairman. He’s been in the business a long time; he started as a janitor at two renowned but now closed area restaurants: the Golden Mushroom and The Lark.
Tharp contends the hospitality industry is one of the few left where one can rise through the ranks, and he’s proof that it’s possible. He says he’s loving what he sees now along downtown’s streets. “Detroit had so many years of decline, where I think the institutions we all grew up knowing and loving left a hole in all of our hearts,” he says. “To see Detroit decline and seeing all those eating and drinking establishments decline — I think no matter how big Royal Oak or Ferndale or Birmingham got, they just didn’t fill (the void). There’s something magical that happens when you go downtown.”
The magic of yesteryear is returning quicker than anyone could believe.
Head downtown and you feel that positive vibe, and remember what it was and feel what it’s becoming again, Tharp maintains. “You remember the synergy, the hustle and bustle. At some point, people who are into the restaurants (that were) made popular over the last 20 years by reality cooking shows,” also helped create renewed interest, he asserts.
“In Detroit, there’s a never-ending opportunity to explore a new restaurant and go someplace you probably haven’t been. To restaurant owners and operators, that blank slate is very exciting,” he says. “To be in a neighborhood that hasn’t had a new restaurant in 30 years, or a new style of cuisine — to rehab a building that’s been neglected all those years is incredibly exciting and fits well into the restaurant operator’s vision for what one can be. It’s not just about the food or beverages, it’s also about where you do it. That has so much to do with how your food is embraced.
“I think Detroit was fortunate to have all those things come together at a time where interest in the culinary arts was exploding. The other thing that has played well is because the pie here is so big, there’s no competition — it’s collaboration. It’s cooperation. You go to other towns and there’s a fierce competition for that foot traffic. In Detroit, most of us operators know each other, share recipes, share employees, share success hacks, and help each other out,” Tharp says.
Freya, one of the Times’ best 50 U.S. restaurants, is run by Sandy Levine and chef Doug Hewitt in the city’s New Center area. It features five-course, prix fixe dinners. Levine also is involved with Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, near the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the more casual Dragonfly, next door to Freya, and is owner of Ferndale’s The Oakland Art Novelty Co., an upscale neighborhood bar.
“It’s certainly nice to get the recognition that what we’re trying to execute has been received as we intended,” Levine says of making the Times’ list. “When I was coming up as a server in the ’90s, it was a little rarer to find restaurants in this category here. We’re at the north end of downtown and our neighborhood has a really rich and fascinating history, and currently (there are) a lot of super talented artists and musicians. That fits with what we wanted our clientele to be. We feel like people who appreciate art and lovers of art are those who we’ve connected to the most. It’s a perfect fit.”
Adding his touch to Detroit’s mix is Jeff Lanctot, executive chef at one of the city’s best riverfront eateries, The Rattlesnake Club. He lauds the city and its police with improving downtown’s atmosphere. And frankly, he says, that meant getting a handle on crime.
“As a longtime Detroit resident, I can say that the municipality has really done a great job. Without feeling safe down here, it’s hard to get those suburban dollars. Detroit has done a much better job making people feel safe,” Lanctot says.
“The investments by Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family, that’s also a big driver. You get an influx of college grads working downtown, and with the massive expansion of the hospitals, Quicken Loans, and getting businesses here, then you need restaurants, you need bars, you need things for people to do after work. There were things that needed to be done. It’s synergy that’s created expansion. And erasing negative safety concerns has been a big deal,” he says. “People want to come down, whereas for a long time, that wasn’t the case.”
Some say that spirit may die out eventually. Tharp doesn’t agree.
“I think we have decades of an interesting culinary future ahead of us. This isn’t the easiest place to do business sometimes. Those are things we’ve overcome and worked with the city on. Social media helps drive foot traffic, and these days people are excited to find that new little secret spot. So I think the renaissance is just beginning. It’s fundamental, as humans, to break bread, to serve, and to be served and commune,” Tharp explains.
“You can have all the Amazons and Fiat Chryslers you want. If you don’t have an interesting restaurant scene, who’s going to go downtown? It’s restaurants that create a renaissance in a city.”
Saffron De Twah
Grand Trunk Pub
By Bill Semion