When new owners step into an existing restaurant and decide to change it, the result can sometimes be rocky. It’s not an easy transition to make — for regular customers and staff.
Fortunately, that hasn’t happened with the ownership at Birmingham’s 220 Merrill. After a face-lift in the bar and dining room and a tummy tuck to the menu, this longtime local favorite seems re-energized.
The new ownership — a partnership of Denise Ilitch and Zaid Elia — has made 220 Merrill a fresher restaurant. They have given the place a more modern look with a few new details, such as the unusual champagne bar right inside the front door, in addition to the big bar in the main hall, and expanded outdoor seating in warmer weather, which is deeper and now wraps around the corner.
The new owners have managed to do it all without too much of an assault on any affection customers may have had for what was there previously.
“We decided to take the old 220 Merrill and reinterpret it for 2014,” says Ilitch. “But we wanted to be careful how we did that. … So many people have memories of this place. People come up to me saying, ‘We got engaged here,’ or ‘This was where we went on our first date.’ ”
I, too, was a fan of the traditional feel of the old 220 Merrill, but I also very much like this new one — particularly the new menu and the food.
The food used to be a blend of Italian and torqued-up American country club fare. Gone are the oysters Rockefeller — which were among the best around the Detroit area, by the way — and gone is the breaded sole filet in a creamy lemon sauce with capers and artichoke hearts.
The new menu is modern American fare that includes appetizers such as milk-braised lamb crostini with fresh mint and lemon, and seared ahi tuna with eggplant and pine nut relish.
There is a selection of wood-fired flatbreads, including one with grilled pears, Brussels sprouts, Taleggio, and pancetta. Another combination includes caramelized onion, Gruyere, and truffle. In meat se-lections, there’s a Colorado lamb with cider-braised apples, candied cashews, and smoked apple puree; pan-fried veal with creamy polenta, whole grain mustard, and arugula; and braised beef short ribs with whipped potatoes and glazed cipollini onions.
The new chef is Scott Garthwaite, who used to run the kitchen at Sage Restaurant in Las Vegas’ Aria Resort and Casino and was a contestant on the television program Iron Chef.
Garthwaite’s new menu is seasonal and farm-to-table cuisine — today’s euphemism for “it’s fresh and healthy.” And it is truly quite good.
Take for example Garthwaite’s version of summer gazpacho. It was made with the standard ingredients of tomato, cucumber, and a touch of zesty vinegar, but he added fresh fennel bulbs to the blend, giving it an anise licorice flavor — and moving it from something pretty routine to unique and distinct.
“We will be constantly tweaking the menu,” says Ilitch. “Scott wants to take advantage of what’s in season and have the menu always reflecting the best of what’s available.”
For those who might miss the pastas at the old 220 Merrill, not all is lost. Garthwaite has some similar items, such as a spicy penne with Italian sausage, smoked tomato, and basil, and angel hair pasta with seasonal vegetables.
This is only the second change of ownership of 220 Merrill since it began as a German restaurant in the 1970s owned by a couple who sold it to Judi Roberts and her family in the early 1990s.
That incarnation had the feel of an old urban pub-chophouse from 1950s Detroit, a suburban sister to the Pontchartrain Wine Cellars or the Caucus Club, for those whose memories go back that far.
In this new décor, there is clear attempt by Chicago restaurant designer Mark Knauer, working with Birmingham architect Christopher Longe, to mimic the personality of the older 220 Merrill, while propelling it forward in time and style.
The building itself starts with the advantage of being old, tall, light, and airy. Its original use in the 1930s was as a branch office of Detroit Edison, where customers could pay their bills, exchange burned-out light bulbs for new ones, or get small electrical appliances repaired.
The new renovation included totally replacing the mechanical functions, air conditioning, plumbing, and electrical systems. They realigned several interior walls, adding a fireplace to give the restaurant a more spacious and less cut-up feel. In the kitchen, a wood-burning oven, a requisite of any new self-respecting restaurant today, was added.
The old woody interior has been brightened and made more cheerful, with large angular light fixtures. The bar area in the main hall is visibly changed, but still has something of a railroad station waiting room feel, but with more style.
The main dining room is where the serious makeover has been done. The ceilings are now mirrored and trimmed with a vibrant reddish-tinted stained oak. Tables are set off by plush high-backed and elegant white leatherette chairs, and small window-paned white interior doors mounted on sliding rails allow for a separate smaller private dining area.
Chocolate carpeting with a white linked-chain pattern adds a fresh richness to the dining room.
In a salute to modernity, throughout the bar and at each booth there are discreet charging stations, so that guests can recharge their cellphones or laptops. Dave Barton, 220’s general manager, adds that since the reopening, they’ve also added state-of-the-art noise reduction treatments.
The overall feeling is of sumptuousness without stuffy seriousness, an uptick from the latter-day Rotarian feel of what was there.
Not all rebirths succeed, but this one does, thanks to the care and attention the new owners have given what was there previously.
“What we were striving for was how to strike that balance between old and new, and also how it was going to be accepted in the community,” Ilitch says.
220 E. Merrill St., Birmingham; 248-646-2220. L & D Mon.-Sat., Br. Sun.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic.