I wouldn’t necessarily say I went to Detroit for the food, though I did end up eating way more one human should (the biggest downside of traveling alone is the inability to share dishes) and was practically drunk for two days straight (had to check out those new-breed distilleries). I went for the same reason I’ve gone anywhere this year (hmm…just Hudson, NY and Los Angeles–gotta step it up in 2016), primarily to get out of New York City and visit a place I don’t really know.
Detroit’s in-progress renaissance, the emergence of bars and restaurant included, has garnered a good deal of coverage. (I’m kind of partial to this balanced take.) And if the hype over the city’s more Brooklyn-esque aspects (it’s no Paris) make you feel avoidant, don’t worry because Detroit is coming to you like it or not, one semi-artisanal coney dog and pan pizza at a time.
Gold Cash Gold My first stop. Late-ish Friday, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” playing. That thing where as soon as I’m settled, everyone at the large bar finishes up and I’m sitting smack next to the only couple and inadvertently hear everything they have to say. He wanted Benedictine but didn’t know “the liqueur with the white cap” was called that, and she didn’t want to get married at the Detroit Institute of Arts because it was cliche. (She was right–there were two wedding parties there on my visit.) My first impression: Brooklyn food, even though that’s not fair. I can get on board with the self-referential name, the restaurant occupying a building formerly not serving food . The menu reads well and the prices are refreshing; $12 is a solid plate of food, not a snack, but everything I tried could use a little something more, maybe just salt. The chicken skin salad was all there, pickled peaches, peppery greens, and yet completely under-seasoned so the dish’s calling card made little impression beyond texture. The duck merguez with heirloom apples and potatoes was a little rough around the edges like the results of a weekend cooking project. The fermented pistou (fermentation is this place’s thing) was interesting and barely hinted at basil, though the meat and potatoes were both oddly grainy.
Sugar House/Bill Murray I may be the only person alive who’s indifferent to Bill Murray. One of Detroit’s first craft cocktail bars, they are still doing the speakeasy, suspenders and mustaches thing while charging New York prices. Oh, and apparently changed its name indefinitely to Bill Murray with a Bill Murray themed cocktail list. There was a lot of flourish to the $14 Au Revoir, Gopher (Vida mezcal, Amontillado sherry, masala, Angostura bitters), literal smoke, mirrors not so much. I wanted the less precious Ectoplasm Cooler because blue curacao but Midori is a step too far for me, not because I’m classy but because I find melon foul. This wasn’t a particularly friendly crowd (one thing I’ll say for Detroit is that people are not too cool to be chatty) that was composed of bald men in leather jackets, a lot of baseball caps on men of all races, older dudes in glasses and barn jackets with a faculty-like quality mingling with younger muse-y women. Beach Fossils’ “The Horse,” from an album I love enough that I paid for it on iTunes this summer as driving music but couldn’t figure out how to make my phone play over a rental car’s speakers, did not fit the vibe one bit.
Bobcat Bonnie’s No one needs a $3 tumbler of well vodka, even if it’s the foundation of diy bloody mary bar, complete with every mixer and hot sauce imaginable, plus bacon, salami, and cheese for garnishes, but if one wakes up their first morning in the city and finds a bloody mary bar a mere block away, just across Michigan Avenue, one of those multi-lane thoroughfares that would be a boulevard of death in NYC but so lightly clumped with cars leisurely crossing (or do wild u-turns or drunk drive in a rainstorm–not that I would know anything about that) is no problem…well. Because I wasn’t alert yet, I ordered the SOS, mostly because I liked the idea of lamb gravy, thinking oh, like biscuits and gravy but with Texas toast instead of biscuits. But no, it’s like shit on a shingle but with lamb instead of chipped beef. And it was tasty. I brunched alone, which is somehow even more fearsome and evil than brunching in group, and survived. The bartender who called me a “Detroit stalker” to my delight because I’d researched the hell out of dining options, was a pleasant mix of cynicism and chill, much needed but not always found in Detroit. My suspicions about my previous night’s dinner and cocktail being no more than ok were confirmed. I was recommended Selden Standard, a known heavy-hitter, then against it by the two middle-aged couples, also sitting at the bar, in the city for the weekend from the suburbs–a sometimes criticized demographic that seems to sustain much of these newer restaurants–for a beer festival. They knew they their stuff, and I didn’t listen and I regretted it.
Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails Just some snacks and a requisite Last Word since that’s the city’s cocktail claim to fame and almost anything with gin and Maraschino is great. Made with Chartreuse, it’s the color scheme and a featured spirit in multiple styles. Neither the grilled octopus with chorizo nor steak poke were particularly regional, though that was my own doing. Lake Superior whitefish and Michigan shrimp were available. I was keeping it light because I was aiming for a second dinner (and ultimately ended up with a third, if I’m to admit the 1am White Castle fast-walk from my apartment).
Selden Standard Strong, I want to say. Despite only trying the steak tartare (yes, the second raw, chopped beef dish in two hours) this felt polished. And yet, too New York-y, too many people bunched up at the bar (yes, it was a Saturday) and getting ma’amed by staff and hoverers coveting my seat, killing the buzz and good spirits I’d amassed at DIA and Chartreuse.
Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy I didn’t really enjoy this place until I got too drunk. In retrospect, maybe that’s how it works. I know it’s a favorite but there was something slightly off. I guess that could be said for the whole city in many ways.
Batch Brewing Company. I thought I’d hit Mudgie’s for a brunch sandwich, but it was closed for no reason on a Sunday, so nearby Batch sufficed with a pork belly bolillo and an imperial milk stout brewed with Great Lakes Costa Rican Microlot Coffee. Really set the tone for the day.
Two James Spirits If I had to choose a single standout Detroit interaction (thanks for asking) it would be the aw shucks, farmboy-ish kid from somewhere near St. Louis who had been in town two months for work and was sitting a stool away from me at a distillery’s tasting room and freaked the fuck out over the blue corn tortilla chips garnishing his chicken hominy stew. “I’ve never seen a black chip,” he said, clearly upset, no longer wanting to finish the dish he had ordered only because everyone else at the bar had been raving about it. (He wasn’t familiar with cumin and didn’t like it either.) He asked me what my green drink was. Absinthe, which I explained tasted kind of like licorice, trying to find some common ground and not sensory overload him any further.“Regular licorice or black licorice?”
Detroit City Distillery I didn’t make it to Eastern Market Saturday or to the crazy bloody mary place or another fancy place, Antietam, named bizarrely after the bloodiest battle in US history, a fact unknown but shared with me after admitting I had no idea how the pronounce the word or had any knowledge of what it was (to further boast my ignorance, I didn’t even know Detroit was across a river from Canada, the only major US city north of Canada I also learned). This is the Double Dad (Elvethea gin, ginger beer, basil syrup) a nice respite from the tailgating wildness occurring outside. Is it too Northwesty of me to admit that I’ve never encountered tailgating in person in my life? History and geography aside, my dumbness was confirmed when I bought a bottle of gin and white rye at Two James without thinking about how I’d flown Spirit with a $40 checked bag surcharge.
Buddy’s Too much fancy was occurring, so it’s not surprising that this was possibly my favorite meal and not just as an antidote to new-school Detroit. With hard-baked corners, substantial mozzarella, and a degree of doughy heft, this square style bridges the New York thin crust, which yes, is the best, and Chicago deep dish, which I don’t hate but is barely pizza-like (we all know it may as well be lasagna). This is fun pizza only enhanced by the atmosphere. You have to get into the crispy edges, cheese heft, eaten with a fork and knife. This was the Detroiter, a combo featuring curled and crisp pepperoni slices, a specific subgenre of pepperoni prep I didn’t even know whas a thing. This was the only time I would’ve preferred a table and company (so what if I put an innocent plea on Tinder looking for a pizza date, which didn’t totally come to fruition despite interest and botched plans) rather than being relegated to the bar, in this case not by choice. There weren’t any open two-seaters in the half-filled upstairs dining room.
American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island. I don’t love hotdogs or chili or the combination of the two but regional specialties are more important than my petty wants and needs. It had to be done. American is clearly the Geno’s, flashy, self-congratulatory, to Lafayette’s bare-bones no nonsense a la Pat’s. (I’m talking Philly cheesesteaks, if that needs saying, and if it does, ugh, who are you?) What I learned about myself? That I do like chili cheese fries (not pictured). Fried starch and melted cheese is never a disappointment.
Little Caesars is based in Detroit, and the original 1959 location still survives in a strip mall in Garden City. I very much drove out of my way for this. Proud.
Culvers. In some ways Culver’s was the impetus for this impulse-trip. Or sort of. For a scary peek into how my decisions are often made, here is how it went: I matched on Tinder with someone maybe a little too young (but the guys who claim to be 40-ish look 50-ish and I can’t deal–dudes, just say you’re 52 and own it) who was visiting his parents in Pittsburgh. I was bored after a few texts but decided I needed to visit the Rust Belt, so posed a Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, or Cleveland question on Facebook. Somehow Culver’s emerged as one compelling reason to visit this region, posited by an age-appropriate but geographically inconvenient person I met on Tinder over four months ago and who was partially the reason for choosing LA over the summer instead of my original two ideas, Seattle or Santa Fe. When it’s all laid out like that, it’s a little disturbing that a dating app would play any role at all in my travel plans, let alone such a large one in 2015. Still single, and I can’t imagine why.
So, a Butterburger, cheese curds, and Vernor’s rootbeer were the last things I ate before returning my rental car. I regret not having time or fortitude for a Custard and being unable to eat more than a few fried nuggets of cheese. The weekend had caught up with me and I was feeling it. Without the Culver’s stop, though, I would’ve considered the entire Detroit mission a failure. It was important.