French Élan

The charming Le Petit Zinc café is a welcome slice of Paris in the heart of Detroit


While it’s good to see the spurt of splashy new restaurants in downtown Detroit, it’s even better to stumble upon a surprising little oasis where crêpes, cappuccino, and a charming French proprietor are the specialites de la maison.

The offbeat Le Petit Zinc is such a place. Tucked into one small room in a squat building at the corner of Trumbull and Howard that also houses the Michigan Citizen community newspaper, it seats just 30 for savory and sweet crêpes, sandwiches on baguettes, and niçoise salads — with a few tables on the pebbled patio to handle the overflow.

A door painted with a red rooster leads to a room with a zinc-topped counter bordering the open kitchen where proprietor Jean Charles Sorel and his staff of four prepare the fare with just an espresso machine and a couple of electric crêpe-makers.

Sorel, whose accent reflects his international background, was born on the island of Martinique. The family almost immediately moved to Paris, where he grew up. He arrived in Detroit — the hometown of his wife, Karima — by way of Brazil and Brooklyn, N.Y.  The couple met at Sorel’s Chez Oskar restaurant in Brooklyn. But living here allows them to bring up their three children near their grandmother.

Le Petit Zinc’s colorful murals are Karima’s work, and it was she who did all the basic painting and decorating as well. She’s the daughter of the late founder of the Michigan Citizen, Charles D. Kelly, whose widow, the children’s grandmother, Teresa, is now editor.

A spare room was cleared out to give Le Petit Zinc its 30-seat space adjoining the paper’s offices.

Just before Sorel opened his café on Feb. 2, he put an ad on Craigslist. When he got 200 responses, and began reading through them, he decided, instead, to simply cull his staff locally. The four employees all began as customers, and he relishes the fact that none are professional restaurant people.

Sorel shops at the Eastern Market and at the nearby Honey Bee Market in Mexicantown for his ingredients, most of which are organic. The baguettes are from Midtown’s Avalon Bakery. This summer, he hopes to get fresh produce from some of the small urban farms in Detroit.

The menu is brief, offering such dishes as toasted baguettes, croissants, granola, and fresh fruit early in the day, and savory and sweet crêpes, sandwiches, and fresh salads later. There are also what Sorel describes as “the classics:” ratatouille, plates of cheese and fresh fruit, and charcuterie (cold cuts), pâté, and pickles, all in a gentle price structure.

Le Petit Zinc is the kind of place where patrons feel free to sit at a table and play cards while sipping espresso. In classic French café fashion, no one is in a rush here.

Sorel hopes to add wine and beer to his offerings. He’s already bringing some much needed joie de vivre, as one of Karima’s murals proclaims, to the heart of the city.

Le Petit Zinc, 1055 Trumbull, at Howard, Detroit; 313-963-2805. 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.

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