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The View From Inside Detroit's Sudden, Fevered Restaurant Boom

The rush of dining options marks an official renaissance

Selden Standard, named for one of the streets that flanks its scruffy block, opened in Midtown Detroit last November on a site that previously housed a dry cleaning business. Its building had been boarded up and splattered with graffiti over time; owners Andy Hollyday and Evan Hansen slowly renovated the interior and exterior over two painstaking years. Their efforts yielded triumph. In the last ten months their first venture has become the most lauded restaurant among Detroit’s sudden, feverish spate of new dining options. The design reflects all the key elements of the modern American watering hole: panoramas of white subway tile and knotty wood beams, a sprawling cedar bar, and two fire-breathing beauties in the guise of a wood burning oven and a hearth fitted with crank wheels that lower grills into crackling flames.

I knew the deal with Selden Standard, but I was still surprised when the host told us the wait for a table at 6:30 on a summery Monday evening would be at least 45 minutes. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was taken aback. The crowd that evening was … restless. I watched one man lunge in front of another for a seat at the bar, planting his glass of beer as the flag to mark his territory. The small waiting area filled until it was uncomfortable to move, and diners along the counter instinctively ducked their heads toward their plates; they could feel the hungry wolves breathing on their necks. Bartenders remained calm but clearly backlogged. Another in their ranks might have helped disperse the tension that thickened the air.

Our table finally came available over an hour later, and our sweet-natured server was obviously practiced at settling down ravenous customers: She rushed over crusty house-made bread and freshly churned butter. Small plates dominate the menu; she made sure the first few arrived fast before setting a calm pace for the rest of dinner. Hollyday, the executive chef, checks offs the ubiquitous nationwide trends (kale Caesar, crudo, charred octopus, grilled whole trout) but also slyly slips in flavors that reflect some of the Detroit area’s longstanding immigrant communities.

Halloumi and melon salad at Selden Standard

Seared halloumi cheese nodded to Greek cooking, its umami richness extra savory against compressed melon, slivered snap peas, and a dressing bright with lime and ginger. Tahini and dukkah, a nut and spice mix made here with pistachios, enlivened roasted vegetables and harkened to the Lebanese wonders that define much of the dining scene in nearby Dearborn. Fried shallots and fish sauce on duck sausage evoked the Vietnamese flavors easily found in Madison Heights 12 miles north.

My favorite dish had no real province but likely took its cues from the Nordic influences favored by chefs everywhere: Gently smoked new potatoes stood up to the thrum of crème fraîche sharp with ramps, pungent raclette, and a generous scattering of dill. I could have skipped a ho-hum plate of rigatoni with lamb ragu and olives and ordered another round of spuds.

The friend with me surveyed the diverse, multi-generational crowd seated in the dining room. "These people have driven in from the suburbs to dine here," she told me. She was observing, not condemning. She herself had motored in from Ferndale, a 20-minute drive up I-75.

Every media outlet in town has recently marveled over newcomers in every tier of the dining scene. It’s safe to call the rush of openings an official renaissance.

But the comment certainly spoke to the momentum of — and local fervor over — Detroit’s restaurant boom over the last year. And I do believe it’s safe to call the rush of openings an official renaissance. Detroiters tend to prickle when outsiders swoop in to pronounce comebacks and redeemers in their city, but every media outlet in town has recently marveled over newcomers in every tier of the dining scene. Places like ramen-slinging Johnny Noodle King and Ale Mary’s Beer Hall fall right in step with coast-to-coast predilections. Top of the Pontch, the upscale resurrection of a long-shuttered space on the twenty-fifth floor of the previous Hotel Pontchartrain (now a Crown Plaza property), brings a welcome jolt to downtown dining. Its ambitious chef, Justin Vaiciunas, serves okonomiyaki (a Japanese seafood pancake drenched, as is traditional, with mayo sauce) alongside soothing braised short ribs. Nine blocks away, in a restored building that dates back to 1891, the bartenders at gastropub Wright & Company stir a smart, bittersweet variation on a Manhattan with Cardamaro, Aperol, and grapefruit bitters.

Of course Detroit is still a complicated backdrop. Barren lots and rundown complexes surround Selden Standard. One might pass an empty skyscraper on the way to downtown’s burgeoning hot spots. Rewardingly, the dining surge is happening citywide, drawing locals and visitors to disparate sections of the metro area. In other U.S. urban centers the appearance of restaurants in dilapidated zones might signal the beginnings of gentrification. In Motor City, who knows? Nonetheless, as I darted around stuffing my face, the energy at these places felt hopeful. "Ruin porn" exists everywhere, sure. But pockets of sterling architecture, clusters of pristine homes, and certainly the dining scene’s newfound vigor reminded me that Detroit can’t be — shouldn’t be — uniformly branded.


Even more so than when I visited last year, crisscrossing through town and delving into the new crop of restaurants gave me appreciation of the five grand avenues — Jefferson, Gratiot, Woodward, Grand River, and Michigan — that extend through the city in every direction. They were part of the "Governor and Judges’ Plan" proposed by Michigan Territory Chief Justice Augustus Woodward after the 1805 fire that leveled most of Detroit. Their unusual width, viewed as extreme for urban settings at the time, uncannily prefaced Detroit’s twentieth century future as the automobile capital. The boulevards stretch straight to the suburbs; I found them worlds more satisfying to drive than the highways. Looking back, downtown’s skyline was always rising like Oz in the distance, fractured and mythic.

In planning this trip, I had expected to drive up Woodward Avenue toward Ferndale and return to Torino, the modernist tasting menu restaurant that I included on Eater’s inaugural National 38 in January. Sadly, Torino closed in June after the Health Department determined the restaurant’s tiny kitchen was ill-equipped to handle chef Garrett Lipar’s feats of cooking. Lipar announced this week that he would be staying in Michigan to take over the kitchen of fine dining Marais in Grosse Point northeast of the city.

The interior and Recovery park salad at Chartreuse; Pickle brine fried chicken and cornbread and the exterior of Gold Cash Gold.

I instead drove a much shorter distance on a swath of Woodward under heavy construction to Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, housed on a stately corner of Midtown in the Park Shelton building where Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera once lived. In keeping with the name, Chartreuse saturates the senses with every permutation of green: with walls the color of Jolly Rancher’s apple hard candies, with tufted couches in various verdant shades, floral murals, and art installations made from dried flowers, and with a kitchen that prides itself on immaculately fresh local produce. The standout dish was purple — warm red cabbage straddling the divide between soft and crisp, scented with sherry to add musky sweetness, and tangled with fried duck skin, grapes, and smoked candied pecans. Weird and delicious. A salad composed of the daily harvests from urban farming project Recovery Park included wee strawberries with more feral intensity than most of the wild berries I’ve relished in Europe.

Stockton’s fried chicken fascinated me. He soaks the bird in pickle brine, and the initial sensation was akin to biting into a dirty martini.

Michigan Avenue leads to Corktown, Detroit’s oldest surviving neighborhood and also the setting for some casual culinary pioneers over the last decade. The 125-year-old building at Michigan and Wabash lodges Slow’s Bar BQ, which began drawing crowds way back in 2005, and Astro Coffee, one of the city’s most progressive third-wave java joints. Gold Cash Gold joined them in December, cheekily named for the glaring signage of the previous pawnshop tenant that chef-owner Josh Stockton kept intact. The menu interlaces Italian and Southern influences; panzanella and pasta meet scallops over succotash. As a fried chicken hound, Stockton’s version fascinated me. He soaks the bird in pickle brine, and the initial sensation was akin to biting into a dirty martini made solid. But the collision of crunch and tang grew on me, and the sweetness of the cornbread alongside helped reset the palate.

Zipping up Gratiot Avenue less than a mile from downtown brought me to Antietam, near Detroit’s wonderful, meandering Eastern Market. The glazed tiles covering Antietam’s façade in geometric patterns only hints at the Art Deco splendor inside. Detroit native Gregory Holm, a photographer and filmmaker, spent months restoring and detailing the restaurant’s two dining rooms. A kaleidoscopic mural peeks from behind rich wood paneling; light poring through picture windows bounces off the pressed-tin ceiling. Glittery chandeliers, pastel-colored chairs, mysterious objets d’art: It’s worth making early reservations to inspect Holm’s handiwork in the daylight.

Interiors of Antietam and Sister Pie; Cherry-bourbon pie at Sister Pie

If the space was primed for adoration last July, the staffing proved a little more elusive. Holm shut down Antietam weeks after opening when he cycled through two chefs in quick succession. He reopened in November on Black Friday with a kitchen crew he recruited from New York. The brouhaha seemed distant history during my meal: Overall, it was the most deftly executed cooking I ate in Detroit. A sort of au courant Continental-modern American aesthetic guided the menu. Sunny, smooth corn soup and a Caprese salad variation of honestly ripe tomatoes and burrata preceded roasted Michigan whitefish with tomato jam and olives and a handsome rack of lamb with yesteryear adornments of pomme soufflé and Dijon jus.

I was least impressed all around with the desserts at these recent arrivals. Some ignored the glory of the growing season; others masked gorgeous fruit in too much fussiness. The antidote: A jaunt to Sister Pie, a charmer that baker Lisa Ludwinski launched in April in the leafy, residential West Village neighborhood. Savory hand pies and oversize slices of sweet signatures like salted maple tempt along the counter. I lucked out by passing through Detroit at the tail end of Michigan sour cherry season. Ludwinski and her team spiked the cherries with bourbon before piling them into a crust that came out golden and toothy. Holy happiness. (Note that these pies are available online.)

A popup dinner unfolds in a more controlled environment, but Rigato showed spunk and imagination

My final meal in Detroit presaged more goodness to come. Revolver, in the close-by town of Hamtramck, functions as a permanent popup space that hosts guest chefs most every weekend. James Rigato, an alum of Top Chef’s twelfth season who co-owns The Root Restaurant & Bar in White Lake (about 40 miles northwest of Detroit) was the cook-in-residence on my night at Revolver. Rigato was previewing his second restaurantcalled Mabel Gray, under construction in suburban Hazel Park, just east of Ferndale, and scheduled to open this fall. Obviously a popup dinner unfolds in a way more controlled environment than a restaurant kitchen, but Rigato showed spunk and imagination with dishes like lamb tartare brightened with curry and yogurt and served with naan, and a droll riff on Hawaiian fried rice with cured pork tenderloin, pineapple, and peas. If I had to make an early call, I’d bet the impatient throngs crowding Selden Standard will soon have a hit a little closer to home.

ESSENTIALS:

Selden Standard: 3921 2nd Avenue, Detroit, (313) 438-5055, seldenstandard.com

Johnny Noodle King: 2601 West Fort Street, Detroit, (313) 309-7946, johnnynoodleking.com

Ale Mary's Craft Beer Hall: 316 South Main Street, Royal Oak, (248) 268-1939, alemarysbeer.com

Top of the Pontch: 2 Washington Boulevard, Detroit, (313) 782-4313, topofthepontch-hub.com

Wright & Company: 1500 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, (313) 962-7711, wrightdetroit.com

Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails: 15 E Kirby Street, Suite D, Detroit, (313) 818-3915, chartreusekc.com

Gold Cash Gold: 2100 Michigan Avenue, Detroit, (313) 242-0770, goldcashgolddetroit.com

Antietam: 1428 Gratiot Ave, Detroit, (313) 782-4378, antietamdetroit.com

Sister Pie: 8066 Kercheval Avenue, Detroit, (313) 447-5550, sisterpie.com

Revolver: 9737 Joseph Campau Avenue, Hamtramck, (313) 757-3093, revolverhamtramck.com

Antietam

1428 Gratiot Avenue, , MI 48207 (313) 782-4378 Visit Website

(revolver)

9737 Joseph Campau Avenue, , MI 48212 (313) 757-3093 Visit Website

Gold Cash Gold

2100 Michigan Avenue, , MI 48216 (313) 242-0770 Visit Website

Sister Pie

8066 Kercheval Avenue, , MI 48214 (313) 447-5550 Visit Website

Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails

15 E Kirby St, Detroit, MI 48202 (313) 818-3915

Selden Standard

3921 2nd Avenue, , MI 48201 (313) 438-5055 Visit Website
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