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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not many restaurants can say they specialize in both Italian and Mexican cuisine, but this upscale yet charming locals’ favorite does so with surprising balance (and fusion-free). Opt for zippy chiles rellenos or chicken enveloped in a complex mole on the Mexican menu. On the Italian side, bis de pasta (a mix of strozzapreti alla norcina and cavatelli alla boscaiola) and succulent veal with sweet marsala wine and mushrooms offer a taste of classical Italian. Start with a margarita, and end with tiramisu — all in one place. Make a reservation at El Barzon.
Executive chef/owner Paul Grosz left his hometown to work and study in France but came back to open Cuisine, sensing the city needed a modern French-American restaurant, he says. The menu is full of simple, elegant dishes that let the ingredients speak for themselves, like soy- and honey-braised short ribs with garlic mashed potatoes and Dover sole with grapefruit, capers, tomato, and lemon. Make a reservation at Cuisine.
Slows Bar B-Q
Often credited with starting a restaurant renaissance on Corktown’s Michigan Ave., this 10-year-old barbecue joint keeps spreading the ‘cue love with three locations plus a food truck and Ford Field concession stand. The chain serves up the best of slow-cooked meats and sauces for slathering, from St. Louis spareribs and glazed chicken to sandwiches like The American Dream, with hickory-smoked beef brisket with applewood bacon, sharp cheddar, and Texas-style BBQ sauce. Hearty sides, like mac and cheese, sweet potato mash, and pit-smoked pork and beans plus a formidable list of rotating craft beers round out the meaty menu. Make a reservation at Slow Bar B-Q.
The second of what is expected to be a chain of burger-and-bourbon joints, Townhouse in downtown Detroit is big, loud, and a lot of fun. Anchored by a massive atrium dining room, the space boasts an inviting patio in warmer months. The menu is an eclectic crowd pleaser, featuring everything from merguez sausage scotch olives and cornflake-crusted walleye with grits to what many call Detroit’s best burger made with 28-day aged ground steak, bourbon-glazed onions, and aged white cheddar on brioche. Finding a drink in the 35-page, leather-bound “libation library” is overwhelming in a good way, just like Townhouse. Make a reservation at Townhouse.
Photo credits: Joe Vaughn (James Rigato, Mabel Gray); Lemonlight Media (Cuisine);