Assume for a minute that the producers of the AMC television series Mad Men decided to shoot in Detroit.
They would do well to pick the London Chop House’s 1960s bar as a set in which we would find the Sterling-Cooper gang — Don, Roger, Joan, Peggy, and Pete — who work at a mythical big-city advertising agency of the same era, tossing back gimlets, Gibsons, and screwdrivers with their clients.
Back then, a hummer was a drink made of Kahlua, rum, and cream, not a road-ready city war machine, and the London Chop House was the king of Detroit restaurants.
By the time it closed its doors in 1991, it had become a faded icon of a time when ashtrays were part of table settings, restaurants offered a “smoke break” between courses, highballs went with the food, cigarette smoke was so thick you could cut it with a knife, and subterranean restaurants with live jazz bands were considered very cool. Last February, 21 years after it closed, the London Chop House reopened, totally restored and with a menu that blends some of the old with a lot of new.
The London Chop House is the second extinct Detroit dining icon in a year to come back to life. Joe Muer Seafood reopened last year in the Renaissance Center, and both have been attracting large crowds. This new Chop House is owned by Nico Gatzaros, of the Greektown restaurant family.
If you like that ’60s look and feel, this is for you; it’s something like dining in a museum. For anyone who ate there back in the day, it will feel as if the London Chop House was shrink-wrapped when it closed and recently unwrapped and the grime cleaned off.
There still is the paparazzi–magnet Booth One, where visiting celebrities, A-list socialites, and automobile icons were seated on view to all. Diners included the likes of Bunkie Knudsen, Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell, John DeLorean, Pete Estes, and Lee Iacocca, each part of the development and design of auto legends.
Booth One had such a reputation that, even if a complete unknown was seated there, everybody thought he must be important.
The restaurant today seems fresher than it ever was. The classic mirrored bar has been restored, there’s a bright new patterned carpet, lighting is still low, and even the old Michigan Bell Telephone coin-operated phone booths with folding glass doors and reddish interior lighting are working again. But no coins, please: outgoing local-landline calls only.
And then, there was the food.
The London Chop House was always more about power, money, and being seen than it was about food. Oh, the food was good for its day, but never anywhere near the sort of high-end dining we have today. And, at about $50 a person for dinner, it was very expensive.
The Detroit Free Press reported years later that carrots were baked with fake maple syrup, onion powder was added to the mashed potatoes, and chicken-bouillon granules — not real stock — went into the watercress soup. After the restaurant closed, its vaunted boeuf Bourgignon’s secret ingredient was revealed elsewhere to have been the cheapest red wine that original owners Lester and Sam Gruber could find: Gallo Hearty Burgundy.
But the winner for nostalgia had to be the Roqueburger, a hamburger made of Roquefort cheese, butter, and cognac, a heart surgeon’s dream.
Other than the “mess of perch,” the Dover sole, the veal Oscar, and the steak tartare, each of which now has a more modern touch from the hand of Executive Chef Robert Scherer, the new menu only lightly echoes the old. Dry-aged prime steaks and assorted seafood dishes and new-style cuisine dominate today’s menu.
What would the original owners make of lump crab cake with micro watercress, macadamia-nut and apple vinaigrette? Or seared Maine sea scallops topped with caviar and tomato confit in a pool of puréed parsnips? And what about horseradish-braised short ribs with celery-root purée, and roasted root vegetables finished in a merlot sauce?
The cooking and the menu are adequate, yet the kitchen doesn’t yet soar. Maybe it will with time.
A lot has happened to restaurant cooking in America in the 21 years since the original restaurant closed after 53 years of consecutive operation. Tastes have shifted radically. We’ve become more refined. We cherish delicacy and nuance over big portions and heavy sauces. We no longer think only France makes all the good wine, and more of us drink it with meals. We are, overall, more worldly eaters.
Lester and Sam Gruber opened the restaurant in 1938, and by the 1950s, it had become so popular they opened The Caucus Club across the street on Congress to handle the overflow. It, too, had entertainment, for which the Grubers hired an unknown young singer from New York, giving her one of her first big breaks at their then nationally known nightspot.
Her name was Barbra Streisand.
Among the “classy” long-gone touches at the old Chop House were the matchbooks. The Grubers kept a small hand press in the back, and when guests were seated they would find reserved signs with their names printed on them, and an ashtray with a London Chop House matchbook with the name of the person who made the reservation printed on it.
In the 1980s, as it began to struggle, the restaurant hired two of the most important figures in today’s Detroit restaurant scene.
The first was a brilliant baby-faced chef, barely out of his teens, who had studied cooking in the south of France and then in Boston with Madeleine Kamman. Jimmy Schmidt astounded the city with his skill, freshness, and variety. But his style and flair were the frontline of a new school, a place where the London Chop House was not destined to go.
Schmidt concentrated on fresh ingredients, freshly made stocks, and lighter dishes. He and the London Chop House were an odd match, but the aging restaurant needed his youthful approach, and Schmidt needed its glory and the exposure for what came next: The Rattlesnake Club restaurants here and in Denver, and national fame.
Lester Gruber loved French wine, and the Chop House had what was considered one of the best lists in the country.
The second key figure was sommelier Madeline Triffon, the first woman in the United States to pass the international Court of Master Sommelier exam. She broke an all-male barrier and also brought a vast new range of wines to the restaurant and its well-heeled clientele.
Triffon took an extensive but somewhat dusty wine list, heavy on Bordeaux, Burgundy, and German rieslings, and opened it up to New World wines of California, Australia, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere. Today, it all seems normal, but it wasn’t then. Triffon went on to Matt Prentice’s Unique Restaurants for 20 years, and is now wine buyer for Plum Market.
The London Chop House has been lovingly put back together, but it begins this new life operating in the long shadow of the reputation it had when it closed back in 1991. That’s a difficult legacy to follow. And the restaurant certainly isn’t back on top yet. But let’s be kind. It has been given a new life, and it will be interesting to see if it catches up with time lost.
Meanwhile, it’s a wonderful piece of our history and worth a visit.