Long before he went to the other side, George Carlin once said that when you die, your soul goes to a garage in Buffalo.
What the late comedian didn’t know is that when you live in metro Detroit, your earthly pastime may just be eating in a reincarnated gas station.
There is something about the recent trend of converting old garages and filling stations into hip bistros that has great appeal. Perhaps it tugs at heartstrings unique to the auto-centered soul of the Detroiter.
In 2012, it was Vinsetta Garage on Woodward Avenue in Berkley, a 1910s structure now a restaurant complete with a lot of old auto memorabilia. Some years ago, a terrific Vietnamese restaurant opened in a former Ypsilanti gas station, next to Eastern Michigan University (it closed in the late 1990s). And there are others, not just in southeast Michigan.
In California, I was taken to a breakfast restaurant in an ex-gas station run by a once highly acclaimed San Francisco chef who had downsized his stress levels. He was closed by noon every day.
Now we have Red Crown in Grosse Pointe Park, in an old cream-colored brick Standard Oil service station with a red-tiled roof. “Red Crown Regular” was a grade of gasoline in the 1940s-60s marketed by its parent company Standard Oil, founded by the original John D. Rockefeller.
Red Crown is certainly one of the most posh conversions around, with good food and a unique menu — and a great wine list. It’s a welcome addition to the Grosse Pointes, which traditionally have been a little bit of a dry hole for restaurants. Change started to arrive with the opening of City Kitchen and the Dirty Dog Jazz Café — a great addition for eating and one of the best music venues in the Detroit area.
With 65 seats inside and 40 more outside in summer, Red Crown has been an instant success since it opened several months ago. Red Crown was originally owned and run by Mindy Lopus, who made her name with Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro and Bella Piatti in Birmingham. In October, she sold the business to the building’s landlords, the Cottons of Meridian Health Plan of Michigan Inc., the company founded by CEO David Cotton. The Cotton family is in the midst of developing an entertaining/dining district along Kercheval Avenue.
For ambience, Red Crown provides nostalgia and amusement in the interior. It hits the mark. An old Red Crown gas pump sits in the dining room. A new “old” neon Red Crown sign beacons its location on Kercheval.
The glass garage bay doors, a popular architectural staple with restaurant designers nowadays, lift to bring the outdoors to the indoors for dining in warm weather. Elie’s in Birmingham and Real Seafood Co. in Ann Arbor, to name just a couple, have done the same.
The gas station’s original layout adds to the atmosphere. As you enter Red Crown, to the left is a bar where the gas station office used to be. Across a narrow hallway, you step down into old repair bays and onto what is now the main dining room.
A large, comfortable outdoor seating area outside skirts the building with umbrella tables on the sidewalks and to the side, set off by waist-high wrought-iron fencing.
Red Crown has a novel feature that I have never seen in a restaurant: On the outside of the building, there’s a gated and fenced-in playground, where fidgety children can burn off some energy. It was very much in use on each of our two visits — and appreciated by adult diners.
Red Crown’s menu has many innovative items. Think of it as American comfort food with a southern influence.
Take the menu’s “snacks,” as they call the first courses: smoked pecans with maple spice salt, pimento cheddar with soft pretzels, fried green goddess pickles, and lobster hush puppies. Each of the selections are pretty common menu items, but with an innovative twist.
Among the choices of soups and salads, for example, there is a cornbread panzanella with peaches, green beans, country ham, red onions, frisee greens, and balsamic vinegar.
Smoked meat products are from Edwards, a purveyor of smoked pork products in Surry, Va., one of which appears on the menu as “jowlciale” or smoked and peppered hog jowl. It is used in their burger in place of bacon, named the Chow-Chow Challenger, and dressed with pimento cheese and green tomato.
Chow-chow is a southern brine-pickled relish made most commonly of assorted red and green tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, and cabbage, as an add-on to sandwiches and other foods. At Red Crown, it is also dolloped on the smoked pulled-pork sandwich.
The main course options include lake perch, salmon, and wood-grilled chicken rubbed in barbecued spices accompanied by pickled peppers and rice. The standouts were, first, a rib-sticking grilled shrimp with creamy and quite flavorful and substantial grits, with Edward’s bacon and topped with a fried egg — sinfully heart-stupid. Second, an inch-thick Berkshire pork chop just slightly pink and juicy when sliced. It was served with braised greens, butter beans, and a house barbecue sauce.
Also not to be overlooked is the beef stroganoff with wild mushrooms, or the wood-grilled skirt steak with grilled corn and marinated tomatoes. There are daily specials, and the new management has added a variety of seasonally changing items and an expanded dessert list to the menu.
Everything in Red Crown’s dishes has distinction, but also pulls together in flavor and texture delightfully, as a skilled kitchen does.
The wine list at Red Crown is also innovative. Instead of being organized by wine color, vintage, or place of origin, it is arranged by three price points: $29, $49, and $69. That’s it.
Red Crown is a terrific addition to the Pointes, with its abundance of tall trees and swanky waterfront homes, where the quiet life is only occasionally interrupted by scandal.
Eateries like City Kitchen, Dirty Dog, and now Red Crown are certainly introducing a more vibrant element to the dining life to the area, one that is clearly less formal and very attractive. Can it be that the Pointes are finally becoming known as a restaurant destination?
15301 Kercheval Ave., Grosse Pointe Park; 313-822-3700. L & D Tue.-Sat.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org