A Cut Above the Rest

Competition keeps the metropolitan Detroit dining scene strong

As if restaurants didn’t face enough competition from fellow brick-and-mortar establishments, now they’re contending with pop-ups and food trucks, as well. But rather than being seen as a negative, savvy restaurateurs know competition is one of the factors that makes the dining scene strong.

A restaurateur can’t take anything for granted, of course. With scores of established places vying to attract diners and new ones opening on a regular basis, it takes dedication and hard work to stand out from the crowd. Those who establish a personality, find a distinctive niche, or come up with signature dishes, have the best chance of succeeding in a tough industry.

One of the best ways to do it is to develop a menu with out-of-the-ordinary appeal, coupled with a compatible atmosphere. Sometimes the setting itself dictates the menu. At Cliff Bell’s, the Art Deco gem in downtown Detroit, the curvy and romantic 30s setting inspired vintage dishes such as frog legs, sweetbreads, and shrimp and grits, plus more contemporary fare. Live music is very much a factor, too, as it is at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms, where a delicate balance between music and food is one of the hallmarks.

In the “niche” category, The Masters Restaurant in Madison Heights, takes inspiration from the clubhouse at Augusta National, the home of The Masters Tournament. A wealth of golf memorabilia is displayed in its balconied space that includes a gigantic mural of golfers in plus-fours.

Gaucho Brazilian Steakhouse also has something unusual to offer, with its touch of Rio’s glamour and its rodizio-style broiled meats that arrive on long swords carried by gaucho-clad waiters, who only stop when diners call them off.

When it comes to great settings, Iridescence at the MotorCity Casino Hotel’s glass-walled rooftop dining room offers a memorable visual experience and underscores it with an outstanding French/Asian seasonal menu. No surprise that it was recognized as Hour Detroit’s 2011 Restaurant of the Year.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of service. It can make or break a dining experience. Café Cortina, another Restaurant of the Year winner, has emphasized it for decades. Patrons know they can not only count on meticulously prepared, authentic Italian fare but also the correct and caring service for which mother-son proprietors Rina and Adrian Tonon are known.

The service factor is also true of another long-standing restaurant, The Lark in West Bloomfield, the only two-time Restaurant of the Year winner, where husband-and-wife team Jim and Mary Lark serve table d’hote dinners to a clientele that is virtually a club of regulars, who return again and again.

The quality of the service also figures prominently into the success of The Hill in Grosse Pointe Farms, where it is an integral part of the traditional ambiance and classic steak/seafood menu. And it is notable too at Tre Monti in Troy, where the effect is of dining luxuriously in a European castle.

Wine lists are another important element in standing up to the competition. Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse in Birmingham and Livonia emphasize well-stocked cellars and offer a variety of choices, from various-sized portions by the glass, in flights, and by the bottle from a wide selection — especially steak-worthy reds.

A successful track record like that of restaurateur Bill Roberts goes a long way in fending off the competition. He followed his success at the Beverly Hills Grill (est. 1988) by adding Streetside Seafood in Birmingham, Town Tavern in Royal Oak, and Roadside Bar & Grill in Bloomfield.

Not convinced that competition is a positive? Consider this. The proprietors of Fiamma Grille in Plymouth added two restaurants to their stable, Compari’s on the Park and the Sardine Room, right next door, essentially going into competition with themselves.