By Mark Guarino January 5, 2016
Veteran Detroiters always knew their city was a meat-and-potatoes town. To find more-eclectic cuisine meant doing what most people downtown did after work: Leave.
No more. Detroit is in the midst of a culinary transformation. Rock-bottom housing stock and an emerging generation of young restaurateurs and chefs settling in to experiment have brought new restaurants, breweries, tasting rooms, cocktail bars, pop-up events and quirky lunch spots promising nutritious food — in neighborhoods where the only option to eat had previously been fast food. Keeping up with launches is now a sport in this rebounding city, which over the past decade survived a government bailout of two of its three major car companies, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history and the shuttling of a recent mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, to federal prison.
“Now people are excited,” says Dennis Archer Jr., part owner of Central Kitchen + Bar, a bustling gastropub facing Cadillac Square downtown. “Before, when people would visit, it would be for the auto show or a game. Checking out the Detroit food scene was not a priority. Now it’s on their agenda.”
The lunchtime crowd at Rose’s Fine Food on the city’s east side could be a cross-section of Detroit: Professionals, day laborers, tourists, hipsters and seniors sit at counters and tables, and a line is out the door before noon. Cousins Molly Mitchell and Lucy de Parry bought the vacant building, once a diner, nearly two years ago and, with the $20,000 they raised on Kickstarter, opened their doors with a menu offering simple but fresh sandwiches with ingredients sourced from nearby urban farms. The Pinky’s Caesar salad includes roasted chicken with a pink pickled egg, and the I Gotta Squash On You Sandwich is roasted squash with herb ricotta and a citrus tapenade. The house specialty is the Crybaby, a glazed potato doughnut displayed on the counter under glass.
Rose’s offers 10 percent discounts for customers who live within a mile of the place, and it pays workers a “living wage” of $10 an hour, splitting any tips between front- and back-of-the-house staff, says de Parry, 33. The approach resonates not just for the city, which has the highest unemployment rate of the nation’s 50 biggest cities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but also for the neighborhood, which is lined with boarded-up homes and storefronts and with other properties scorched by fires and abandoned. On Jefferson Avenue, where Rose’s is located, there is not a comparable eatery within sight: Grassy lots line both sides of the busy four-lane thoroughfare.
“We wanted to bring something different to the neighborhood that didn’t have anything like this,” de Parry says.
Many of the new restaurants feature chefs lured away from other cities to jump-start new ventures. They include Brion Wong and Jestin James Feggan, recruited from New York to create the modern French cuisine at Antietam, and John Vermiglio and Josef Giacomino, Detroit natives who created flagships in Chicago before returning home this past fall to start work on Grey Ghost Detroit in the Midtown neighborhood; it will open in the spring.
They join a rapidly growing crop of restaurants that opened in the past two years, including Selden Standard, featuring small plates and craft cocktails in Midtown; Gold Cash Gold, old-school Southern cuisine in a refurbished Corktown pawnshop; Parks and Rec Diner, a retro breakfast stop, and Wright & Company, a posh second-floor dining experience, both downtown; and Standby, a late-night spot in the Belt Alley art district featuring a menu of traditional bar foods with a twist, such as duck-fat-fried almonds, and horchata and shrimp rice cakes topped with cilantro and avocado. They all are taking part in reshaping Detroit’s reputation as a culinary destination, branching out beyond its tradition of reliable ethnic and steakhouse fare.
Filling those booths and tables are not just people flocking into the city on nights and weekends but also employees of such companies as Nike, Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Amazon, Lear, Quicken Loans and other mega-nationals that are revitalizing the downtown business core. By filling previously vacant high-rise residential buildings, they are creating a lively after-hours scene, both in the immediate area and in inner-circle neighborhoods such as Corktown, Midtown, Capital Park and the Eastern Market.
The turnaround at the city’s center reflects changes in its population. In 1950, Detroit’s population was at its height at nearly 2 million people. The automotive industry bankrolled the city, so when cheaper labor and manufacturing costs spread those jobs outside its borders, people followed. A population drain marked the past several decades in Detroit; as of 2014, about 680,250 residents remained, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Now, the population leak is slowing. The city estimates that it lost 1,000 residents per month in 2013 but 500 per month — just 1 percent of the population — in 2014. There has also been a slight shift in its racial makeup: The city’s majority black population is dropping, while its white population has slowly ticked upward, a historic reverse of the “white flight” that characterized the city for many years.
Twenty-seven restaurants took part in fall’s Dine Drink Detroit, an annual two-week event that offers discounts in the hottest establishments. That’s more than double the number that participated in the inaugural event two years ago, says co-founder Scott Rutterbush, 40. He says the scene is growing in clusters, which is helping generate energy. “Before, if you wanted to try a new place, your options were pretty limited, and you had to move around and be mobile to find those spots,” he says. “Now you’re seeing restaurants open up in the same neighborhoods or even on the same street.”
Many new establishments are breathing new life into century-old buildings. Antietam in the Eastern Market neighborhood occupies rooms in two neighboring, long-vacant buildings, formerly a toy repair shop and a confectionary. Owner Gregory Holm, 44, bought both for just $30,000 and said he originally wanted the space to reflect “an art project that happened to be selling food.” Inside, art deco furnishings salvaged from throughout the country are arranged to reflect a specific year: 1932, when the buildings were built and during a time when Detroit was considered the Paris of the Midwest.
Dining at Antietam feels like participating in a secret club. At night, the restaurant is the only business open on its block, and Holm refuses to hang a sign outside his doors, convinced that curious diners will find him. Once inside, they can choose to eat in one of two rooms connected by a slim entryway between the two buildings, and at tables that are purposely small to create the sense that “you are part of a larger city, and everyone is sharing the same experience here,” says Holm. Dimmed lighting from deco sconces reflected off a silver tin ceiling complete the lush ambiance; a wooden bar in the former confectionary is not particularly opulent but seems just right for making the half-dozen or so people saddled there feel they are melding into the hushed environment.
In just a year, the business has cleared its debt, and Holm will soon open a second floor for private parties, which will add 30 seats to the 80 downstairs. “We don’t have to spend any more money or any more overhead to continue to keep our business open,” he says. “We just have to continue not compromising our products.”
Local spirits are also part of the resurgence, as distilleries and craft cocktail bars pop up within walking distance of the restaurants. Two James Spirits operates a tasting room in a former doughnut factory under the shadow of the dilapidated Michigan Central Station rail depot, one of the city’s landmark sites. Billing itself as Detroit’s first licensed distillery since Prohibition, Two James makes several products, including Rye Dog, distilled from 100 percent Michigan rye and set to be released early this year.
Partner Andy Mohr, 37, says that access to great water and the abundance of local agriculture on nearby farms makes it easy to source ingredients locally. According to Keep Growing Detroit, a local advocacy organization that helps farmers become food entrepreneurs, some 1,375 gardens and farms across the city grew more than 550,000 pounds of fresh produce last year alone. Unusually good soil and an abundance of open land have provided entrepreneurs the space, and a city program allowing the online sale of vacant lots has created the growing incentive. Detroit has about 75,000 vacant lots for sale, available to prospective farmers for as little as $100. Overall, vacant property spans an estimated 25,000 acres.
A circular tasting room at Two James is just a short walk from a bank of new restaurants, and on a recent Tuesday night, it is packed with the after-hours holiday crowd. Two James has 400 barrels of whiskey aging on its shelves. Mohr, who grew up in the area, says his new generation of restaurants and distillers is creating a buzz because the focus is on “unique styles and ingredients and quality.”
“Maybe back in the day a new restaurant would open up, and it was good but was lacking creativity,” he says. “We’re all just really focusing on changing that up to make sure everything we do is authentic and taking advantage of the resources here, which is the agriculture and the people.”
Downtown will also soon be home to a wine shop run by Angela Rutherford and Yi Ping Ho, who moved to Detroit last year after quitting their corporate jobs in Manhattan to create a new life. For them, opportunity is in what the city is lacking: niche pleasures, like a place to pick up a bottle of a good red.
“It feels like you can create something new here compared to an overly saturated New York. And you can make a great difference,” says Ho, 38. “The entry point is lower, but it has a good narrative going for it. People here believe in the city.”