Staying Timeless

Far more than a pickup bar, 220 Merrill continues to thrive by being consistent in food and service
Staying Timeless
American Kobe steak salad with arugula, Gorgonzola, chopped egg, and asparagus. Photographs by Joe Vaughn

By any measure, what makes a restaurant successful is, first, the food. And then there is service and ambience. But success is very often also due to another ingredient: timelessness.

The importance of timelessness was strikingly apparent on recent visits to two restaurants on consecutive nights.

The first, a hip place designed by a trendy architectural firm, had splashed onto the scene in the mid-1990s, dazzlingly decked out in dramatic swirls of purple and hard-angled furnish-ings and accessories, glass dividers, and funky chandeliers that resemble upside down Dairy Queen swirls. It was cool, edgy, and housed a star chef who eventually moved onto fame in another field.

Its bar, popular with both young and graying businessmen chasing sleek women with shiny, bronzed legs, developed a lot of “cred” with the BMW and equity-trading set.

Today, the edge is gone, the food isn’t even erratic; it’s barely mediocre. The service is bad. And the 1990s design invites the kind of reaction people have to a car that they thought was really cool when it first hit the street, but is as dated as an avocado-green refrigerator. Spend five minutes in this restaurant and it just feels as if it’s struggling. Timeless it is not.

The second restaurant is 220 Merrill in Birmingham, which has been around longer than the other one. It feels like an old urban pub-chophouse from the 1950s glory days of Detroit, perhaps. It could easily be a sister to the long-gone Pontchartrain Wine Cellar or the Caucus Club.

Since the mid-1990s, when its current owners, Judi Roberts, Frank Tillman, and Herb Abrash, took over, 220 Merrill hasn’t changed much, except perhaps for the menu, which has slowly evolved into eclectic Italian. But the basic style and balance of the restaurant remains the same. Today, it’s 220 Merrill that’s hopping as the other languishes.

Part of its appeal is its location, in a former Detroit Edison branch office, one of those places where until the 1970s you could go to exchange your burned-out light bulbs free or get the toaster repaired. Edison built such lovely, big, handsome brick structures around the metro area, partly as a tool to sell electricity. Eventually, the branch closed and the ground-floor space became a bar and restaurant serving German-American food. When it came up for sale in 1994, Roberts and her then-husband, Bill, who already owned Beverly Hills Grill and Streetside Seafood around the corner, jumped at the chance to buy it and got it.

Most people know 220 Merrill as either a hot meeting spot or as a pickup bar. And while that reputation brought in a certain kind of business, a more serious side has been overlooked. The food is extremely good, the service is as good as it gets anywhere, and the wine list handled by Judi Roberts’ partner, general manager Frank Tillman, is very smartly done and well-priced. All of which make the reputation somewhat frustrating to Roberts.

“Well, I have come to accept that there isn’t much that we can do about it,” she says. “We don’t fight it, but neither do we encourage it. I think the only way to deal with it is to just keep doing what you know works.”

Diners take advantage of the outdoors on a temperate summer day.

Overall, there has been a slow, steady, and noticeable improvement in food and service at 220 Merrill. Its clientele is actually remarkably diverse. Yes, there is the large bar crowd. But seated in the main dining room, we noticed around us a woman in her 50s patiently leading an elderly woman with a walker to their table; two chatty women in their 30s basically ignoring a young child, who was perfectly happy to ignore them in return in favor of a plate of pasta. Then there were two buffed and sculpted young couples in shorts sharing a bottle of expensive red wine, each with Ray-Bans planted on their heads. And, in one of the main booths, a young blonde woman — who tossed her hair back every couple of minutes — engaged the attention of a man of a certain age who was totally engrossed in his new friend; it was the kind of moment that my late mother in her more sarcastic, mock-approving voice used to describe as “Look at that nice uncle taking his niece out to dinner tonight. What a kind man!” (We, her four children, would howl with laughter, knowing exactly what she was saying.)

To put 220 Merrill in an appropriate context, it isn’t white-linen dining. But it certainly tops the level of comfortable casual dining with good ambience. It’s somewhat akin to solid brasserie dining in Europe.

The kitchen is run by Chef Luis Reyes, 41, who came to Michigan from Puerto Rico chasing a college education to become a social worker. He has no formal training as a chef; yet today he oversees a kitchen staff of 13, which cranks out about 350 dinners on weeknights and 450 on weekends.

The food is on a par with that at the best country clubs, thankfully without having to pay a $10,000 initiation. The menu includes several pasta dishes, the best of which I found to be an utterly simple angel-hair pasta with oven-roasted tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil, vibrant and punctuated with bursts of sweet tomato flavor.
Other recommended first courses include a fried calamari, with a slightly different twist. Reyes says the squid is Peruvian and the coating is a blend he makes from cornmeal and flour that gives it a consistency somewhat like that of courser panko bread crumbs. Another, his fried risotto balls, come out cheesy inside and are served with rich marinara sauce.

The best of the starters is the oysters Rockefeller, admittedly a very passé dish. But, when done correctly, it’s delightful, as it is here. Where most efforts at this dish end up with a wet, uncooked oyster in the middle of a wet spinach bed and bread crumbs floating around, Reyes’ version is fairly dry, with cheese binding the spinach with the bacon and the oyster, so that the flavors and texture combine in the shell.

Main courses include several standard fish items, each slightly Italianized. For example, a very pleasant sautéed perch is accompanied by a simple asiago cheese risotto. A sole sautéed in bread crumbs is dressed up with a sauce of lemon, capers, parsley, and artichoke.

Meat dishes tend to be fairly standard cuts, but with refreshing twists. A roasted chicken plate was plentiful, plump, and moist, with an even, rich, dark exterior that comes with convection cooking.

But the hands-down standout main course is a Colorado lamb chop in a pinot noir sauce, which I opted to have with shoestring potatoes. The inside of the lamb was perfectly pink-to-rare, but the exterior had a slight crispness as if it had been coated with something. The sauce was deep red, with the look and richness of demi-glace, but the flavors were more cherry and stone fruit. The potatoes were lightly soft inside but still had a little snap when bent.

“This is now a sophisticated clientele. They travel and they’re not afraid to be adventurous,” Reyes says. “Once, I had to watch the size of the portion because people wanted volume. But now they like to eat much less and they want quality. So, I feel I can concentrate more on the ingredients and less on the volume.”
Across 10 years and at least two dozen visits to 220 Merrill, service has always stood out. I find it to be some of the most uniform and professional of any restaurant in the area, something that’s easily overlooked with all the distractions in the constant flow of stylish and not-so-stylish people.

Amid all of this, the menu at 220 Merrill is about to go upscale once more. Reyes is introducing several more rustic Italian items, including grilled Tuscan bread, a new large French cut of rib-eye, and ravioli made with three cheeses. Contemporary table settings are also planned.

Getting to where it is today has been a slow evolution for 220 Merrill. In the process, it has achieved timelessness.

220 Merrill, Birmingham; 248-645-2150. L & D Mon.-Sat.