It seems fitting that an interview with Jim and Mary Lark is on a nippy fall morning, for autumn is a season of parting and farewell. The Larks, proprietors of The Lark restaurant in West Bloomfield Township since 1981, will close the acclaimed spot on Dec. 23.
Ruefulness is in the air. As we make our way into the restaurant, Mary pauses to gaze at the adjoining garden she’s so lovingly tended for nearly 35 years, growing flowers and herbs. “Well, there are still a few things blooming,” she says with a tinge of melancholy.
But there are no regrets about the decision to sell the restaurant, which has won more local, national, and international awards than there is room to list here. It was time, and the Larks know that. He’ll turn 85 soon and she’s 77. They’re well past the average retirement age and, after serving scores of diners, they deserve their own place at the table.
As we sit together over coffee, the question of why they decided to close shop arises. Jim, normally a voluble fellow, doesn’t answer; he simply holds up his cane. There are laughs all around and the mood has lightened.
“I’ll be 85 in December, and it’s almost silly for someone that age to run a restaurant,” Jim says, while being reminded of an anecdote about aging restaurateurs.
“Remember Les Gruber, who ran the London Chop House? Well, Les got a little strange when he got older,” he recounts.
“One evening he went into the men’s room and there was a chap in a tuxedo, but he was a patron, not a waiter. Les said to him, ‘And you’re fired, too!’ ”
After a chuckle Mary acknowledges, “Yes, we’re getting too old to do this.”
“I think the restaurant has kept her young and made me old,” maître d’ Jim says. “She’s so active. She never stops between her garden and everything else she does.”
Says daughter Adrian, The Lark’s general manager: “My mom and dad really need a rest, so this is for the best.”
When asked what they’ll miss the most after the last plate has been cleared, Jim and Mary answer almost in unison: “The patrons.”
Some patrons come to The Lark for special occasions such as birthdays or anniversaries, while others would be eligible for frequent diner miles.
One couple, Jim estimates, has dined there almost 300 times.
And there has been no shortage of celebrity patrons. While shooting Hoffa in the early ’90s, Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito dropped in, and Nicholson turned on the charm.
“He was a jewel,” Jim says.
“He went up to every table and talked with everyone,” Mary says. “When he left, he wrote things in the snow on the cars in the parking lot. Jack came back, too; he loved this place.”
Then there was the time former British Prime Minister John Major stopped in. He was in town in 2004 for the Ryder Cup, held at the Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township. Being a seasoned politician, he had no qualms about pressing the flesh.
“He went around to tables, talked with people, and posed for photos with them,” Jim says.
Michigan writer Jim Harrison has been a frequent guest, as has celebrity attorney Geoffrey Fieger. Mary says auto execs also like to chow down at The Lark.
As much as they’ll miss their patrons, the Larks are quick to add that their employees, including Chef de Cuisine John Somerville, are also going to be hard to say goodbye to. Mary calls them “good souls,” while Jim adds, “They’re friends, not just employees.”
What diners will miss, aside from the congeniality of the proprietors, is the food, in particular Rack of Lamb Genghis Khan and Curried Duck Salad, which, Jim says, are the restaurant’s most popular dishes. Both were created by The Lark’s first chef, Heinz Menguser.
Rack of Lamb Genghis Khan, a fusion of Asian and European ingredients, has been on the menu from the beginning, and when a diner orders it, the waitstaff hands out a card with a number indicating how many times the dish has been ordered.
The count is now north of 75,000, which is phenomenal considering The Lark seats only 50. Jim copied the card idea from a restaurant in France that did the same thing when its signature meal was ordered.
“The exact number is going to be low,” Jim says. “Our waitstaff is only human, so from time to time, they’ll forget to give a patron a card.”
Jim and Mary are both native Detroiters. He was brought up on the city’s southwest side. “Holy Redeemer,” he adds. Catholics brought up in Detroit are accustomed to naming their parish, almost as if it’s part of their identity. The family then moved to the city’s University District.
Mary grew up around Six Mile Road and Puritan (“Precious Blood,” she says, identifying her parish). She attained a degree in art (her specialty was ceramics) from Detroit’s Marygrove College, and she also took art classes at the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (now the College for Creative Studies) and Wayne State University.
Jim earned an accounting degree from the University of Detroit, then got his law degree from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
While Jim was working as a treasurer at the home-building firm of Kaufman & Broad, “We hired a Marygrove College student as a receptionist, and that’s how we met.” They were married on Oct. 15, 1960. Their 55-year union produced four sons and one daughter.
After Kaufman & Broad relocated to California, Jim and the company’s purchasing agent, Burt Binder, became partners in their own home-building firm. They erected about 1,000 houses during the suburban sprawl years of the 1960s.
After living in northwest Detroit in an apartment building designed by Alfred Tobocman, the Larks moved to Livonia, in a home Jim’s company built. Then, in the mid ’60s they got wind of a sprawling home in Detroit’s posh Palmer Woods.
“Jim’s partner Burt saw this wonderful old home in Palmer Woods that had not been lived in for 10 years,” Mary remembers. “He said, ‘You should look at this house.’ We fell in love with its beauty.”
But maintaining its elegance was pricey.
“It was a mess,” Jim says.” I bought it for $40,000 and spent $20,000 shaping it up.”
In the ’70s the Larks moved to West Bloomfield Township, not far from where they would build their namesake restaurant.
The two were exposed to fine food preparation via a wedding gift from Jim’s sister, Betty, who presented them with a gourmet cookbook. “I learned how to cook from that book,” Mary says.
But their real exposure to fine dining came from their wide travels around the globe, which were chronicled in the Larks’ 1997 book, The Ultimate Lark. They enjoyed dining in large cities, but fell in love with the country inns of Europe.
Although they had no experience running a restaurant, the Larks believed their extensive travels dining abroad taught them plenty.
“After traveling and dining at so many fine restaurants around the world, we came to the conclusion that we could start a restaurant,” Jim says. “We observed what they were doing right and what they were doing wrong and what could be improved.”
They patterned The Lark after a fine European country inn, using French cooking techniques. The décor is Iberian, with colorful Portuguese tiles and pottery. Metro Detroit hadn’t seen — or tasted — anything quite like it before.
“We brought the first world-class restaurant to Michigan,” Jim says proudly. “There are fine restaurants in Michigan, but there isn’t another I could describe as world-class.”
The odds aren’t good for an independent restaurant’s survival; Jim says the average lifespan is 18 months. Part of the reason for The Lark’s long existence is that there’s always a Lark on the premises, either Jim, Mary, or Adrian.
But it’s also their philosophy that has kept the place afloat for so many years.
“A restaurant is three things: ambience, service, and cuisine, and I consider wine to be part of the cuisine,” Jim says. “If you excel in those three areas it can be an experience, and that’s what we aim to do: to create an experience.”
Soon after opening, the restaurant offered special monthly themed dinners. The Lark also published its own monthly newsletter. “To the best of my knowledge, we were the first restaurant to have a newsletter,” Jim says. “I love writing.”
The restaurateurs have seen many trends come and go over the past 35 years, and there’s one in particular Jim deplored: Nouvelle Cuisine.
“Basically, what it did was emphasize appearance over taste,” he says. “And it almost ruined the fine-dining scene, but we didn’t fall for it.”
Anyone who has dined at The Lark has noticed several paintings hanging in the dining room. Although the Larks don’t yet know if they’ll divest of most of them, two are definitely going with them. One is a reclining nude painted by the Hungarian-born artist Francis de Erdely, who spent several years in Detroit in the 1940s. That painting carries special significance because the model is Jim’s sister, Betty — the one who gave them the gourmet cookbook.
The other painting they’ll take is a scene of Eastern Market by Detroit artist Stephen Chizmarik that once hung in the old Joe Muer’s on Gratiot Avenue. “I got that from Joe himself,” Jim says.
Although The Lark has no strict dress code, jackets and ties are preferred for men. Mary says women don’t usually have to be reminded to don nice threads. “One thing about this restaurant being a little more formal,” she says, “is that I’ve had so many women come up to me and say, ‘You’re the only restaurant around anymore that
I can dress up and feel special.’ ”
Despite the hosts’ preference for more formal dress, no one has been turned away because of casual duds — except once, when Jim gave the bum’s rush to a couple of insolent fellows.
“Two guys came in one night and sat at a booth,” he recalls. “One was a famous local restaurateur, and they both came in shorts. They were obviously doing that on purpose, to test me or aggravate me, so I just threw them out!”
Well, that’s two who did not get the Rack of Lamb Genghis Kahn card.
At press time, the restaurant had not been sold, although Jim says he’s gotten some “interesting offers.” Mary says there have also been those who are interested only in acquiring The Lark’s vast wine cellar.
Ideally, Jim would like to see another restaurant come into the building, but with a proviso: He wants to take his good name with him. “I would like to see it continue as a restaurant, but not as The Lark,” he says. “Because I know it will not be as good, and frankly it would ruin the name.”