From restaurants-turned-bodegas to parking lot seating, dining in metro Detroit these last two years has been an adventure for diners and a series of experiments for owners. But even as some restaurants return to full service, others continue to embrace the more creative models on the scene. One such spot is East Eats, an entirely outdoor restaurant experience and, rarer yet, a glimpse into the potential future of Detroit dining.
Howard University grads Lloyd Talley and Kwaku Osei-Bonsu opened East Eats in October 2020, a time when many Detroit-area restaurants were struggling to survive. But unlike for most, four walls and a lease weren’t a necessity. Instead, East Eats was built entirely of geodesic domes — structures that look like half a soccer ball — organized on a side lot Osei-Bonsu purchased from the city for $100. “For me, it was much more of a land-use conversation than a pandemic [conversation],” says Osei-Bonsu, a resident of Jefferson Chalmers, the neighborhood East Eats currently calls home. “This could open up the conversation of how we utilize land in Detroit,” he adds.
East Eats was an immediate success, attracting diners from all over metro Detroit to this canal-side community for vegan-friendly bao buns, tacos, and Asian-inspired wrap sandwiches. But the secret sauce was arguably its intentionality. From its BYOB policy to its budget-friendly menu, East Eats has kept the community in mind. “I will never forget the day somebody walked up to our gate and asked for a menu,” Osei-Bonsu says. The neighbor, who lived down the street, looked at the price for the three-course tasting menu and exclaimed “$45?” That is when Osei-Bonsu realized he had created a place that his own neighbors couldn’t afford. East Eats immediately changed the menu from prix fixe to a la carte for $10 an entree. “You start to really bring value [to a community] because now you’re making decisions based on needs,” he explains.
After closing in October 2021 to transform East Eats into something more like a social club, Osei-Bonsu says at press time that he and his new business partners — marketing strategist Carlton Peeples and his wife, Verena Peeples — are working to reopen this summer (Talley left the business in January). Osei-Bonsu says the social-club aspect, where curating culturally appropriate food and event content is more important than ever, will continue.
“They become spaces that are primarily for the communities they exist within, and outsiders are invited,” he says. As for the future, Osei-Bonsu points back to experiences as the key to drawing people in. “After the pandemic, people are looking for experiences that they can connect to, where they don’t feel like an afterthought. That’s really what the future of these types of spaces is — where we put the guests first.”