Over the past two years, many of us have been touched by some form of loss. The local restaurant industry certainly was not spared. In fact, metro Detroit lost some of its most respected chefs and restaurateurs in 2020 and 2021. Here, we look back on a few of the food magnates who made their mark on metro Detroit’s dining scene, paving the way for a new generation of culinary leaders.
In 2008, Greg Mudge founded one of Detroit’s most notable restaurants, Mudgie’s Deli and Wine Shop. The eatery quickly earned acclaim for its hearty sandwiches, one of which — the Leggo — was named one of the “Best Sandwiches in America” by the Food Network. In addition to running an award-winning restaurant, Mudge was a photographer and an electronic music DJ, and was known to give generously to local charities.
The 46-year-old restaurateur succumbed to heart disease in September, shocking the community. Mudge was so beloved that his unexpected death prompted not only a memorial, but also a subsequent march in celebration of his life. Hundreds turned out for
the parade, which was led through the streets of Corktown by the Detroit Party Marching Band.
Jim Lark was the owner of a successful building company when he became inspired by his many travels to open a quaint, European country inn-style restaurant. He founded The Lark in 1981, as a hobby, but would run the West Bloomfield fine-dining establishment, alongside his family, for 35 years. In that time, The Lark earned numerous local and national honors, including the title of “America’s Top Restaurant,” bestowed by Conde Nast Traveler in 1996.
Apart from its classic, French-inspired food — including the signature Rack of Lamb Genghis Khan — the restaurant was renowned for its extensive wine list. Lark, an avid wine enthusiast, was known to offer patrons personal recommendations from among the restaurant’s more than 1,000 varietals. The Lark closed in 2015, when its operation became too great a task for the 84-year-old proprietor.
Lark died of natural causes at age 90, in January.
After starting his restaurant career in his teens, Matt Prentice jumped into the role of owner at just 20 years old, when he purchased Oak Park’s struggling Deli Unique. He not only managed to save the business, but also eventually expanded it to multiple locations. Prentice had been a prominent figure in the metro Detroit food scene ever since, running more than a dozen local restaurants, including Coach Insignia, Novi Chophouse, Morels, Northern Lakes Seafood, and — most recently — Three Cats.
Though not so well chronicled as his commercial endeavors, Prentice’s charitable work was equally abundant. Most notable are his longtime involvement with Cass Community Social Services — which provides housing, health services, and job training — and his leadership of Cass Kitchen, where more than 700,000 meals are served each year.
In April, the 62-year-old Prentice died of a non-COVID illness. His Three Cats business partner Mary Liz Curtin says he’ll remain “a legend in Detroit.” “Matt was happiest in the kitchen,” she says. “He simply loved to feed people and never said no to a charity or a starving partner at the end of a long day.”
Last April, COVID-19 claimed Otis Knapp Lee, who founded and ran the popular Midtown deli Mr. Fofo’s for 34 years. In that time, Lee became a fixture in the community, beloved by those within Detroit’s food scene and beyond. And if there’s one thing they all knew about Lee, it’s that he did things big.
Size was certainly Mr. Fofo’s claim to fame, from its signature oversize corned-beef sandwiches to its massive multilayer cakes. The latter even attracted attention from Washington, D.C. — the deli was commissioned for both of President Bill Clinton’s inaugural cakes.
The generosity of Lee’s portions was outmatched only by his spirit. In his best-known instance of altruism, Lee would dole out free turkeys to the thousands who would queue up outside his eatery every Thanksgiving.
This story is featured in the December 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.