If it hadn’t been for a chance bicycle ride one day in 2005, downtown’s Art Deco gem, Cliff Bell’s, might never have been reborn. Named for the former speakeasy operator John Clifford Bell, who opened the spot after Prohibition was repealed, it flourished from 1935 to 1956.
Nearly five decades later, Paul Howard was pedaling past the vintage downtown watering hole on Park Avenue one day when he noticed the door was open. Previously, he and his partners (his sister Carolyn Howard and her husband, Scott Lowell) had mulled over the possibility of doing something with the storied site, which had been shuttered for more than 20 years. But they decided it was “such a disaster that it was beyond any kind of salvage,” as Howard put it.
On that day, however, when he parked his bike and ventured inside, he was surprised to see that the building’s owners, Jerry and Lee Belanger, had done enough of a cleanup to reveal the bones of a special place.
“At that point, I had a vision of what it could be,” Howard says. “At the same time, the Super Bowl was approaching. We’d been laughing about [other people] putting absurd effort into one weekend, when we realized that we could have Cliff Bell’s open by Super Bowl. We became those people.
“It was a miracle; we did the initial rehab in five months. The Friday before the final inspection, we were frantically screwing tables together and wiping down dusty surfaces.” The frenzied schedule paid off. They passed the inspection and opened the place “on a shoestring.”
On Super Bowl weekend, Cliff Bell’s began its new life as a bar and jazz club. But it was never meant as a one-shot deal set up only for Detroit’s big weekend.
From the day the lease was signed, the partners intended it to be a true supper club. It wasn’t until two years later, however, that it came into full flower, when the original kitchen in the cavernous basement was brought up-to-date and an executive chef was hired.
Matthew Baldridge was the chef, and he still is. Also remaining are two of the three cooks who started at Cliff Bell’s with him: Jonathan Peterson and Christopher Fustin-Cheeks, both of whom had worked with Baldridge in a stint at the Rattlesnake Club. The trio now collaborate on a menu that’s as one-of-a-kind as the room itself. Baldridge says he believes it’s important for the food to be “congruous” with the space in which it’s served — and it truly is.
In writing the menu, which is printed in vintage style on cream-colored paper with the original typefaces and drawing of a dancing couple on the dance floor, Baldridge and Howard looked at original Cliff Bell’s menus and tried to meld old and new.
Baldridge calls his culinary style “French-influenced, but a bit more modern.” He believes in using local products as much as possible. The Black Angus beef comes from a Michigan farm near Grand Rapids; herbs, greens, and squash blossoms from Brother Nature farm in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood; and fish are mostly Great Lakes varieties, such as perch in the classic sautéed version served over root-vegetable ragout. The wine list also reflects Michigan vineyards.
The à la carte dinner list, which fits on a single page, is an idiosyncratic blend of down-to-earth dishes (chicken and dumplings, and miniature ground beef- and rutabaga-filled pasties from his grandfather’s recipe) and more innovative preparations (roasted poblano peppers stuffed with red rice and quinoa and sparked with chèvre mousse).
The price list is idiosyncratic, as well, with $5 and $6 items such as baked beans and mac & cheese made with brie, Gruyère, and extra-sharp cheddar topped with cracker crumbs and butter from Baldridge’s grandmother’s recipe. An elaborate salad of bibb lettuce, watercress, and pulled-duck confit with roasted pecans in maple-balsamic vinaigrette is $14. At the top of the scale sits a $28 filet mignon. The 8-ounce cut is served with roasted shallots, red wine, foie-gras butter, and horseradish-whipped potatoes, and though it’s choice beef rather than prime, it’s notable.
The menu doesn’t follow the usual configuration of appetizers and entrees. While not quite a tasting menu, it offers a number of “sharable” dishes, from an interesting carrot-and-parsnip salad with toasted almonds and orange-ginger vinaigrette, to flash-fried shrimp and calamari with aioli that’s spiced with a cayenne mix, and sautéed Brussels sprouts in a balsamic reduction with bacon and goat cheese.
Pass-around dishes also include a charcuterie board of cured and smoked meats, cheese, olives, and roasted nuts; and “pork and beans” (actually pork bellies braised in hometown Faygo root beer and teamed with baked northern beans, apples, and jalapeños). “Liver and onions” turns out to be foie gras on a potato pancake with onion marmalade, crispy shallots, and a sprinkling of bacon.
Shrimp and grits enlivened with pickled chili peppers, steak and eggs perched on a potato pancake, and an omelet du jour all appear on the dinner and brunch menus. A recent brunch omelet was teamed with cherry tomatoes and goat cheese (which seems to be a recurring theme in Baldridge’s kitchen) and topped with a sprinkling of micro-greens and served with a small, meticulous salad of watercress and bibb lettuces — wonderful at any time of day.
The chef adds specials such as osso buco and ahi tuna to lend a bit of variety to the concise menu. Because the kitchen is down a flight of stairs from the dining room, Baldridge calls the food runners “Olympic sprinters.”
Cliff Bell’s has the kind of atmosphere that can’t, and shouldn’t, be separated from its fare. The room gleams with vintage appeal, from its coved ceiling that’s finished to look like burnished mahogany, to the mahogany bar fitted with side seats that allow twosomes to face each other instead of the bartender. Lighting is mellow and indirect, courtesy of large lamps suspended from gold chains.
The original parquet dance floor now serves as the stage, which has a backdrop of a sunburst painted on canvas in silver and gold done by another Howard sibling, Jane Howard, a New Orleans artist who returned to Detroit for a time after Katrina. The music is mostly jazz.
There’s also an occasional twist when a troupe is booked to put on a burlesque show in vintage style.
Tables sit close together, not spaced as they might be in a typical upscale restaurant. It’s elbow-to-elbow cozy, as it would have been in the days when Cliff Bell was prowling the room in his trademark bow tie. Two outsized semi-circular booths, each seating six, flank the stage three steps up from the main room.
A single flower in a bud vase adorns each table, but no salt-and-pepper shakers. Service by a mostly female staff dressed in slim, black dresses (some wearing a flower tucked behind the ear á la Billie Holiday) helps make up in charm what the restaurant lacks in split-second attention.
There’ll be a celebration in February, when Cliff Bell’s marks its fifth anniversary. The proprietors won’t rest on their laurels, however. As Howard says, “The renovation continues daily.”
Abraham writes regularly about food for Hour Detroit. E-mail: email@example.com.
D Tue.-Sun., Br Sun. 2030 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-961-2543.