Spotlight on Detroit Dining + 7 Must-Try Motor City Restaurants

The Motor City is still in the early days of economic recovery, but the emergent Detroit dining scene shows imagination and plenty of potential.

Like the city itself, Detroit’s food culture is in transition. But this also makes it one of the most fascinating lenses through which to track the city’s economic recovery following decades of population drain, blight, and mounting debt and unemployment that culminated in its 2013 bankruptcy filing.

From the revival of fine dining and the explosion of pop-ups to the embrace of Michigan’s rich regional and ethnic cuisine and a fresh generation of multi-location restaurants, the Motor City’s dining scene is gaining notoriety on a national scale.

To dig a bit deeper, OpenTable caught up with one of its brightest young culinary stars, James Rigato. He is a native of Howell, Michigan, and the chef/owner of Hazel Park newcomer Mabel Gray Kitchen, chef/partner of award-winning The Root Restaurant & Bar in White Lake, and a season 12 competitor on Bravo TV’s Top Chef.

Detroit dining

“It’s a very opportunistic time to be a chef in Detroit,” Rigato says. “We have a captive and supportive audience. There’s definitely competition and camaraderie — all the good and correct ingredients for a food scene to emerge.”

At the same time, he says, the city’s culinary infancy and limited talent pool of 700,000 residents (down from its 1950 peak of 1.86 million) also place it at a pivotal point.

“Detroit has this intense industrial history and rich ethnic background tied to the automotive industry, plus the state of Michigan with four seasons, a huge quantity of fresh water and relationships to farming and hunting — it’s a unique blend that sets us apart from New York City, Los Angeles, or New Orleans,” he says. “We have all the criteria, but there hasn’t been a coordinated effort to communicate that out to the rest of the nation.”

His effort to draw attention to the state’s individuality and jumpstart the localization of its food economy is evident in his 43-seat restaurant in historic Hazel Park named for a folkloric Lake Michigan ghost. Mabel Gray’s daily-changing menu of Michigan-centric fare ranges from whitetail venison with winter spices and house rye stovetop stuffing to octopus a la plancha with herbaceous green coconut curry and beef-heart Reubens.

Mabel Gray

Of the oft-disparate seeming menu items, he says, “The street the restaurant is on (John. R Rd.) is known for Vietnamese and Korean food, but I’m also a four-hour drive from the middle of the woods where deer hunting is huge. That’s Michigan. I want to take the traditional flavors, local products, and the global influences Detroit has had and currently has and develop that as a regional cuisine.”

Where it all began

Many locals trace the start of Detroit’s restaurant resurgence to around 2005 when the Cooley family opened Slows Bar B-Q on a then-deserted stretch of historic Corktown. For Rigato, it began in earnest when celebrity chef Michael Symon opened the steakhouse Roast.

“That was the first restaurant that really popped downtown,” he says. “It was early as far as having a serious cocktail program. Plus, they were showcasing a national chef, and it really became an incubator for culinary talent.”

Roast’s kitchen produced Andy Hollyday (now chef/partner of seasonal small plates restaurant Selden Standard and 2015 James Beard semi-finalist) and mixology guru Travis Fourmont (now a corporate mixologist at Michigan’s largest liquor distributor, Great Lakes Wine and Spirits).

In addition to Selden Standard and Mabel Gray, the past year has seen some of Detroit’s buzziest openings — breakfast hot spot Parks and Rec Diner, Doug Hewitt’s hyper-seasonal Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, cocktail bar Standby, and the recently relocated Rock City Eatery — which all indicate a newfound “national relevance” for Detroit dining, Rigato says.

Strong roots

Still, some common gastronomic threads run throughout Detroit’s food scene. Aside from the contributions of the city’s multicultural population (Greater Detroit is home to the largest Arab-American population in the country and boasts some of the nation’s best Middle Eastern cuisine), it has seen the creation of a few signature dishes along the way that foster fierce loyalty (and sometimes fiercer debate), from square-cut, thick-crust Detroit-style pizza to Coney dogs, hot dogs on a steamed bun with meaty chili, mustard, and diced onions.

One of the key fine-dining fixtures through the decades for Rigato has been chef Luciano Del Signore who runs 13-year-old Bacco Ristorante in Southfield. He got his start working at his parents’ restaurant, Fonte d’Amore, which the Del Signores opened in 1968 in Livonia after emigrating from Eastern Italy. (Fonte d’Amore closed its doors in 2006.)

“Luc to me is kind of the Godfather,” Rigato says. “He’s still the guy at the stove, running great restaurants where you can get as good a plate today as 25 years ago.”

In some ways, Del Signore laid the foundation for what Rigato hopes is a bright future for Detroit’s food scene.

“I think your obligation if you’re going to cook, run restaurants, be a bartender or even a food writer here is you have to understand the sensitivity and infancy that Detroit’s food scene is in,” he says. “It’s important to hyper-focus every plate and give guests that experience that sets us apart. Great food and drink is a daily commitment.”

If you need further convincing that now’s the time to dig into Detroit, check out these seven new and old spots below.

The Root Restaurant & Bar
Tucked in a strip mall in a suburb of Detroit, The Root has garnered national acclaim for its hyper-seasonal, farm-to-table menu, and rising star chef James Rigato. A favorite for carnivores and vegetarians alike, The Root offers such locally inspired dishes as smoked meatloaf, vegan farro, and fennel with squash puree, and brunch favorites like chicken and waffles with Michigan maple syrup and housemade granola. Make a reservation at The Root Restaurant & Bar.

Detroit Dining

Bacco Ristorante
Chef Luciano Del Signore is something of a pillar of Detroit’s Italian dining scene. His 13-year-old upscale suburban Italian restaurant Bacco remains a date-night favorite, with handmade pastas like gnocchetti with wild mushroom ragu and squid ink pasta with langostino, classic entrées like branzino and veal chops, and a generous wine selection from Italy’s 20 wine regions. Make a reservation at Bacco Ristorante.

Detroit Dining

One of the early entrants to Detroit’s restaurant rebirth, Roast is a trendy steakhouse in the Westin Hotel where top-notch proteins — from aged steaks to meet creative sides like Brussels sprouts with walnuts and spinach and feta au gratin. Make a night of it with a thoughtful cocktail (each has its own backstory) or one of an oft-changing selection of wines and beers. Make a reservation at Roast.

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Spring Restaurant Weeks Are Springing Up!

mlrw2014After a brutal winter, I think it is safe to say, well into April, that spring has sprung. And with this season of renewal comes a season of savings in cities around the nation. Book a table to dine for less at restaurants in your area.

* Long Beach Restaurant Week in California is happening now. Reserve for special set menus for $26 or $38 thru April 5.

* Jersey Shore Restaurant Week starts tomorrow. Begin booking $20.14 and $30.14 dinners, April 4-13.

* Rhode Island heats up with Newport and Bristol Restaurant Week. Book a table for $16 lunches and $35 dinners, April 4-13.

*  Seattle Restaurant Week begins this weekend.Reserve early and often for three-course meals for $28, April 6-10 and 13-17.

* Detroit Restaurant Week kicks into gear next week. Enjoy special three-course, prix-fixe dinners, April 11-20.

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On Our Plate: Foodspotting for iOS 7; Santa Cruz Restaurant Week; NYC Michelin Bib Gourmands; No Kid Hungry Month; Taste of Atlanta Discount

DRWHappenings on and around OpenTable…

* Foodspotting is cooler than ever, thanks to a fancy new update of its amazing app. Find out what’s new and download it today.

* The 2014 Michelin NYC Bib Gourmand honorees have been announced. Did your fave affordable eatery make the list?

* Save on tickets to Taste of Atlanta, October 25-27. OpenTable diners enjoy an exclusive savings on tickets, now through October 7th.

* Trending on recent OpenTable restaurant reviews? Squash blossoms!

* No Kid Hungry Month continues through September 30. Make a reservation at a participating restaurant in September to help end childhood hunger.

* Santa Cruz Restaurant Week reservations are open. Reserve now for $25 three-course dinners, October 2-9.

* Detroit Restaurant Week motors on! Snap up $30 gourmet dinners through September 29.

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On Our Plate: Best Restaurants for Foodies; OpenTable for iOS 7; Restaurant Weeks in Detroit + Philadelphia; No Kid Hungry Month + More

AppHappenings on and around OpenTable…

* We’re celebrating the release of OpenTable for iOS 7. Find out what’s new (Hint: A lot!) and download it today!

* Wondering which restaurants received 2013 Diners’ Choice Awards for Top 100 Fit for Foodies Restaurants in the U.S. Wonder no more.

* No Kid Hungry Month continues. Make a reservation at a participating restaurant in September to help end childhood hunger.

* Omaha Restaurant Week heads toward its final weekend Three-course dinners for $20, $30, or $40 through the 22nd.

* Detroit Restaurant Week pulled into Motor City today! Snap up $30 gourmet dinners through September 29.

* There’s another delicious week of Center City District Restaurant Week coming your way. $20 lunches and $35 dinners, September 15-20 and 22-27.

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