Restaurateur Jim Lark
The man behind Detroit’s most exclusive dining spot
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Contrary to rumor, Jim Lark — aka James David Lark, J.D., Maître Sommelier Vins de France, Chevalier du Tastevin, Commandeur Honoraire du Bontemps de Medoc et de Graves, Commandeur L’Académie Brillat-Savarin, Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera — does indeed sometimes dine in other local restaurants.
Other, that is, than the one he and his wife, Mary, founded in 1981, which they named, naturally, The Lark, and which they like to describe as an “upscale, Southern European Country Inn.”
Granted, you could make a good case for never eating anywhere else, at least if you had riches beyond counting, and also owned the place. Indeed, the Zagat survey rated it the “walk-away” choice as Michigan’s best restaurant. It’s the only place ever chosen twice as Hour Detroit’s Restaurant of the Year.
Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s subscriber poll even rates The Lark as the best restaurant in the United States — period.
Nevertheless, you’ve got to check out the competition. Once, he and Mary were “dining at a metro-area fine-dining restaurant of a somewhat celebrity chef,” Lark recalls. A couple walked in and no one was there to greet or seat them. Lark sized up the situation and sprang into action.
“I approached the couple, greeted them, and asked them to choose a table. They did so, and I seated them and said their waiter would be right with them.”
That accomplished, he charged into the kitchen, interrupted a knot of chatty wait staff, told them that he had seated a couple and that someone needed to get out there, greet them, and get them a drink.
“I’d react in the same way today,” he says.
“I’m not shy, have a take-charge attitude, and solved the problem for the benefit of all with no harm to anyone.”
Everyone who knows about dining in this part of the world knows The Lark, which is set back from Farmington Road just north of Maple in West Bloomfield Township. It’s not easy to find, not easy for average people to afford, and, with only a dozen tables, it’s not always easy to get reservations. Yet it’s so, so worth it.
But who’s the man behind it all?
Dr. Myra Weiss is his favorite and most loyal customer. She and her husband have eaten at The Lark, by his count, more than 200 times since they came here from New York a couple of decades ago. They love chatting with him, as do nearly all the diners. But the man remains somewhat of an enigma.
“I only really know him through his wonderful restaurant,” Weiss says. “It’s clear he’s traveled extensively, knows world cuisine.” But she doesn’t really feel she knows him. Few do.
Geoffrey Fieger took over the whole restaurant one night last August, for a surprise 60th birthday party for his wife, Keenie. “It’s really our place to go for special occasions — we go every year on our anniversary,” Keenie said afterward.
“He always gives us these little crystal doves … and we have like a whole drawer full of them.”
But she doesn’t really feel she knows him.
Patrons of the restaurant know that Lark’s beloved wife, Mary, does the flowers and the décor. But who, really, is James David Lark?
The story begins with a black-and-white snapshot of two brothers. The photo, taken in Detroit in early 1935, shows the older boy wearing a girl’s coat, handed down from a cousin. The younger child, who was 4, wears a more outlandish garment. “My coat was made from automobile upholstery by my mother,” Lark says. “My father was not too successful,” he adds. “He was a construction superintendent for the City of Detroit.” A few years earlier, during Prohibition, times had been occasionally a little better, since his mother’s folks, the descendants of French settlers who had been in Michigan since the 1760s, were into rum-running. “That meant going over some nights and rowing a board out to meet a speedboat from Wyandotte. My mother said the women would go to bed after chatting, and, when they got up in the morning, the kitchen table would be this deep in money!”
That was the world into which Lark was born on Dec. 27, 1930, in Detroit, where bad times were getting worse by the day. His mother’s folks may have been French (her maiden name was Gignac), but his father was an authentic second-generation Prussian. “My grandfather, the one who came over in 1872, was named Lerche — Albert J. Lerche.”
“But obviously in America he was called Mr. Lurch, which he didn’t like, so he felt justified in Anglicizing it to Lark, which is what Lerche means.
“So I have a perfect pedigree for owning a restaurant: Prussian for efficiency, French for cuisine.”
Back in the days of car-seat apparel, however, dining wasn’t something the Larks thought about. Eating was. He remembers his oldest brother coming home from work, and his mother saying there was nothing to eat for dinner.
“Frank went up on Vernor Avenue and pestered storekeepers to let him wash their windows,” Lark says. “Eventually, he made a quarter and bought a pound of chopped beef, which was dinner.” That led the younger boy to take a vow of (non) poverty.
“I decided that I would get a degree in accounting, and then a degree in law,” Lark says. He also vowed not to marry until he was 30.