A few years back, I accepted a freelance assignment to interview the three kings of the Detroit restaurant scene. Two of them ran trendy fine-dining establishments, the third a chain of mid- to upper-middle Italian places.
Five or six years later, no one talks about them at all anymore. One went broke, the other reorganized, and the chain is still chugging along. The last time I ate at one I swore I would never spend another penny there, because life is too damn short, and their dedication to serving mediocre food just pisses me off these days.
I think I’ve mentioned before that my biggest disappointment after moving here was the surprisingly lousy restaurant scene. Whenever I mentioned this, people would say, oh you need to try this place out in West Exurbia. It was named restaurant of the year by six magazines and three newspapers! We ate there last month and it was surprisingly reasonable — we got out for under $300.
I don’t want to eat at those places, at least not more often than annually. I want decent, moderately priced places you can drop in on, that won’t cost a fortune. I want a burger place, a pasta place, a Mexican place, a Middle Eastern place, a steak place, a fish place, a few surprises. (I don’t care if I never eat another coney for the rest of my goddamn life, by the way. That’s one burden I’ve been spared, not being a native.) And it’s taken me a while, but little by little, I’ve filled most of these slots. And I’ve found most of them in recently opened places in Detroit.
Last night Alan and I met for dinner at Green Dot Stables, typical of the new sort of place popping up around here. It’s a former Teamsters hangout, and doesn’t seem to have been redecorated under the new regime. No reservations required, just show up. They serve sliders, fries, simple sides and salads — all in tapas-size portions, all served in cardboard trays. The waitress circulates frequently and the menus stay on the table, so if you find yourself still hungry after your initial order, you can throw another $3 slider on the tab, no problem. Drinks come in what looks to be the old Teamsters glassware, only the last time I ordered a summer soda, made with cucumber- and lemon-infused syrup, the chef’s own concoction, something I doubt the union boys were into. It was delicious.
We got out — three sliders, soup for Alan, salad for me, an order of truffle fries later, couple of local craft beers — for $30 on the nose.
The transformation of the local food scene in the last few years has been remarkable. The explosion of urban farms, and the sorts of people who tend them, has led to a new kind of restaurateur, not interested in fine dining so much as good food. There’s a little imitation French bistro we discovered last year, after I sampled the chef’s ratatouille at a cooking demo at the Eastern Market. We pulled up in front and Alan said, “This can’t be right. This place looks like a methadone clinic.” Around back, a little kitchen garden had been scratched out of the ground, and inside they were serving crepes, quiche and the aforementioned ratatouille. You can carry in your own wine, with no corkage fee. Now when I want to go there, Alan says, “Oh, I had lunch there twice last week.” Well, it is near his office.
That’s Le Petit Zinc, if you’re taking notes. Have I mentioned Supino pizzeria, the best thin-crust pie I’ve had in my whole damn life? And even the Park Bar, a place I started patronizing on Kate’s music nights last year, has a Romanian family handling the food, in the Bucharest Grill off in the corner. Try the schwarma. I like the falafel too, but the best in town is the Harmonie Grill, near Wayne State. Ground chickpeas are very cheap; you can almost always feed yourself to bursting for under $10.
I think about those restaurant guys I wrote about, and they seem almost silly now, with their river views and white tablecloths and oh did I mention? Stevie Wonder dropped in last weekend. All I want out of the world these days is something good to eat. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to find it.
I try not to overlink to the NYTimes; I know some of you don’t have subscriptions. But this is a blog post from yesterday, remembering the Chase Manhattan bank robbery that became the basis for “Dog Day Afternoon.” Many fascinating details on many levels; do not miss the slide show. Attica! Attica! Attica!
I found this cringeworthy: Dax Shepherd plays the Michigan game. When newspapers try to be fun and playful, it almost always ends up this way. But maybe you’ll like it.