Restaurateur Jim Lark

The man behind Detroit’s most exclusive dining spot
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Photographs by David Lewinski

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.

 

He got the accounting degree at the University of Detroit. Then, he took his life savings of $707 and, through a family friend, got into Georgetown Law School in 1952. John Dingell got him a job as an elevator operator in the Capitol.

Dingell Sr., that is, father of the present congressman. That job soon disappeared when Republicans regained Congress. Lark — 6-feet tall, imposing, and handsome — had mastered a calm self-confidence.

He talked himself into a job managing the headquarters office of the Blinded Veterans Association, after a stint as treasurer for one of Adlai Stevenson’s campaigns. “I had all kinds of political influence,” he says. Modesty is not a hugely developed family trait, by the way, nor is suffering fools gladly. His Grandpa Albert once hired a mechanic and fired him after six days “because basically, he was an ass.”

The fellow’s name was Henry Ford, who noticed that Albert, who built railroad boxcars, was using a moving assembly line. The rest, as they say, may or may not be history. Following law school, Lark did a less-than-two-year hitch in the Navy, managing, as he tells it, to write his own discharge papers early.

He came back to Detroit, where he became a tax attorney and then treasurer for Kaufman and Broad. Soon afterward, he got married. There are those who find Lark occasionally pompous and overbearing. Everybody, however, seems to adore Mary — especially her husband.

“I told you I decided I wasn’t going to get married till I was 30, so there were a lot of disappointed young ladies,” Lark says. “Mary is the first one my mother approved of.”

Mary even got him to expedite his timetable. They were married on Oct. 15, 1960 — 10 weeks before his self-imposed deadline. “Missed it by a hair!” he says, happy for once to have been beaten.

“Oh, he comes across as a tough person, but he’s not really tough,” Mary says. “He comes across as firm in his opinions, but he’s really a sensitive person.” But can he change his mind? She hesitates. “Not very often,” she says. “He does have a very distinctive personality. The couple brought up four sons: Jarratt, Eric, Kurt, and James II, and a daughter, Adrian, who now manages the restaurant. Naturally, Lark had his own ideas about education.

“I did a great thing when they were in high school,” he says. I told all five of ’em, ‘You can go to any university you want, pick the best one that will let you in, and I’ll pay for everything, on one condition: Choose a bull—- major, and I won’t give you a penny’.” (Mary was an art major, but we won’t go there.) “Fortunately, the result was that I have two physicians, an attorney who is a senior partner, and a son who founded his own computer-design firm. And my daughter, Adrian, manages The Lark.”

These days, Mary and Jim, who collaborated on the book The Ultimate Lark: In Search of Epicurean Adventure, live a stone’s throw from the restaurant. At home, they relax by doting on Sweetie, their 8-year old shepherd-lab mix.

For years, they lived in Detroit’s Palmer Woods neighborhood. She taught art. He worked for Kaufman and Broad. But when Eli Broad decided to move his operations to Los Angeles, Lark decided he belonged here.

And opportunity knocked. “Eli’s best friend was a guy named Burt Binder. Burt said, ‘I couldn’t steal my best friend’s treasurer, but now that you’re separating from Kaufman and Broad, would you like to go into business with me, building?’ I said, sure.”

This was in the early 1960s, the era of booming suburbs. Each man scraped up or borrowed $10,000 and founded Binder and Lark Company, a production homebuilding firm. These were great times; they built more than 1,000 houses.

But, as Lark sees it, a peanut farmer from Georgia did them in. “What did President Carter bring with him to Washington? Twenty-two percent interest rates,” he says.

Economists may blame other factors, but Lark blames Carter, and that’s that. Regardless, it did in the development business. Lark was 50. He had five young kids. So, what the hell?

“Being French and all that, I always wanted to open a restaurant, so I said I might as well do it,” Lark says. He bought the land in 1979; constructed the building, sank $500,000 in.

“I didn’t really participate in the very beginning, till I was sure it was really going to happen,” Mary says. Then, she got into it, and has taken care of the flowers, favors, and gardens ever since.

“I opened on June 2, 1981,” Jim says. On the second day came Molly [Abraham] then the Detroit Free Press’ famous restaurant reviewer. “She really ripped us apart. Gave us a terrible review. I don’t know what set her off,” he snorts, adding that she “obviously doesn’t know anything about what a fine country inn should be.”

Abraham remembers, all too well. “Oh, he’s such a pain in the ass,” she says. “I gave him a fairly balanced review … He’s one of those people … you have to say it’s the most wonderful place in the world or he thinks you’re out to get him.”

That said, Abraham adds, “I do think it’s a beautiful place. I’m glad we have a place like that in our metropolitan area,” though she adds she isn’t an expert on The Lark today. “The days of the big expense account are over; I can’t afford to go to The Lark.”

The Detroit News didn’t much like The Lark at first, either. (“Their review was more justified. They had a terrible waitress. I fired her,” Lark says.) Despite those early assessments, The Lark gradually won popularity through word of mouth and regional and national reviews. It outlived the demise of The London Chop House, Restaurant Duglass, Tribute — all competitors. Why? “To a lot of people, opening a restaurant, the approach is: What would ‘those’ people like? Mary’s and my approach was: What would we like? So we treated it as a restaurant we’d like to go to, and our favorite style is an upscale Southern European country inn.

“We think of it as relaxed elegance. It’s not stuffy, but it is still upscale.” The place hasn’t changed much over the years, he says, except that the wine list is much improved. “I thought I knew a lot about wine. Of course, I did know more than most people. But I’d be embarrassed by the [early] wine list today.”

To a large extent, the restaurant seems to be an extension of the man it’s named for. Retirement doesn’t seem to enter his mind. But if he ever ascends to the angels, it gives him great satisfaction that his only daughter is managing the place.

“He always expected the best of us,” says daughter Adrian, who came to The Lark a dozen years ago after graduating from Cornell and working stints at Sebastian’s, Morels, The Townsend Hotel, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

She recalls her father experimenting with food at their home in Palmer Woods, and being fascinated by a cow’s tongue on the counter.

“Whatever she has to do, Adrian does it,” Lark says. “She’s fully capable of running The Lark.”

Not that he plans to go anywhere soon — anywhere, that is, than on his occasional hunting, dining, and driving trips through Europe, which they take “as often as they can.”

But he always looks forward to coming back.

“I meet more great people in a week than most people meet in years,” he says, recalling one night when Jack Nicholson dined there and spontaneously got up and talked to everyone at every table. “The fact of the matter is that I am having a lot of fun.”

Take that, Jimmy Carter.

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