Joining the Table

A newcomer’s edible introduction to Detroit reveals an idiosyncratic and unpretentious restaurant scene
Illustration by Adam Nickel

I’m new here, a state of being I felt most acutely last August, just after my fiancé and I had relocated to Midtown Detroit from Brooklyn, where we’d lived for the last eight years. After a day of painting and unpacking, we stopped to order dinner around 10 p.m.: a common practice in New York, with its “I want it NOW,” 24-hour convenience.

Here, we had two delivery options — actually, one, excluding the restaurant whose employee refused to take my order because she didn’t think I should be giving credit-card information over the phone.

I was “hangry,” in a box-strewn apartment in an unfamiliar city with two different colors of paint in my hair, so — I’m really sorry, Detroit — but I got a little pissed at you. If it’s any consolation, when one finds oneself frustrated at a pizza, it’s generally not about the pizza.

Indeed, stories about food are never just about food. Some changes are so huge that only the most quotidian things can bring them into focus; that was true that night, and it’s continued to be as I navigate my new home. Moving here means absorbing a lot of subtext that, as an outsider, I don’t understand. I may never really, but the more I eat, the more I learn.

I’ve watched young families enjoy an everyday dinner at Taqueria Nuestra Familia, where I had weep-worthy al pastor; bought beet-pickled eggs like my grandmother’s at Srodek’s, surrounded by Polish-speaking old-timers; and driven by the graffitied shells of old BBQ shacks, wondering what Detroit was like in a past life. I’ve also eaten copious sliders at Green Dot Stables, felt the singular joy of a perfect slice at Supino, and undertaken the requisite coney-off (Lafayette). For the past year, buzzy pop-ups, old markets, and locals’ haunts have been my civics lessons.

One thing they’ve taught me is why — as I’d heard time and again upon moving — it’s such an exciting time to be here. Some of my favorite meals have been at newer places, from the garlicky gambas al ajillo at La Feria to the boisterous dinner-party courses at Revolver. I’ve ordered so many plates at Rock City Eatery that the waitress said, “I wondered if you’d finish all that,” (we did), and I’ve swooned through so many courses at Guns + Butter that they feel now like some sort of opiate hallucination. Yet what’s most exciting to me is the thing that these places lack: bulls***.

That Rock City meal? The only time I’ve had bone marrow with a canned beer (at a Formica table, natch). With Guns + Butter, Craig Lieckfelt has nailed the kind of rocker, elbows-on-the-table fine-dining that can so easily feel hyper-curated and disingenuous. And Revolver, a fixed location with rotating chefs, would be a PR circus somewhere else, instead of the low-key, irreverent romp that it is. These folks take their cooking seriously — but not themselves.

It strikes me as a manifestation of Detroit’s maker identity, these chefs and restaurateurs who wanted to do something and simply … did it. Even pop-ups — which, yes, are a bit tired if you’re in the unfortunate business of talking about trends — here represent a creative solution to a unique problem, a lower-risk way to test out a rebuilding market.

Between events like St. CeCe’s Takeover Tuesdays (Dr. Sushi!) and unique establishments like Trinosophes (the only gallery/performance space/coffee bar/weekend-brunch spot I’ve ever been to), Detroit is building something few cities can claim: an idiosyncratic dining scene. (No small feat in these days of the subway-tiled, Edison-bulb-lit Generic Hipster Aesthetic.)

Having just arrived from a place where many restaurants enforce fashionably antagonistic policies against reservations and credit cards, I appreciate the lack of pretense. And I hope, when the city’s restaurants get more attention — which, when Gold Cash Gold, Selden Standard, and Antietam join the stable, they will — that this attitude sticks around.

The question, then, is what other stories Detroit’s food scene will start to tell next year, and the year after, and the year after that. I hope it continues to diversify — there are still banh mi- and ramen-sized holes in my heart, though I’m excited to try Katoi, the new Thai concept from Brad Greenhill, and Tunde Wey’s Lagos. And I really would love restaurants to embrace delivery as neighborhoods like Midtown become more population dense.

Then again, it’s the population that’s made my edible introduction to Detroit so satisfying. Places like Trinosophes on a weekday afternoon or Craft Work on a Friday night, when the city’s creative energy is palpable at tables of people talking and eating, reinforce the idea that we are all here together — that we can cross-pollinate and have a meal, a beer, and a discussion and then maybe an idea. That’s what food does; it makes you feel like everyone’s tuned to the same radio signal, even if you’ve just found the frequency.

Courtney Balestier covers food and culture and has written for Gastronomica, Oxford American, and Saveur.

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