How Detroit is Redefining Itself Through Food

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Courtesy Rubbed

The phrase Detroit Renaissance can be traced back to a nonprofit group of the same name, founded in 1970 to help the city recover from the riot of 1967. Initially they lobbied for construction of the Renaissance Center, which the group, along with Henry Ford II, the skyscraper’s chief mastermind, had planned as the world's largest private development. The concept of a renaissance — along with a variety of synonymous words, including but not limited to transformation, revival, rejuvenation, and (especially) rebirth — had defined the narrative surrounding the city before there was a skyscraper hammering the point home. But as the RenCen still seemed poised to make the city's downtown riverfront into a popular attraction, "Renaissance City" was nearly adopted as Detroit's nickname — which led to the dissemination of the Detroit Renaissance in mainstream media. When Phase I construction of the complex was complete, Ford famously declared at the RenCen’s dedication, "Detroit has reached the bottom and is on its way back up," thus solidifying the building’s metaphorical weight, proving that its construction was both arrogantly hopeful and that in Detroit, history repeats itself.

There was a supposed renaissance pegged to the Republican National Convention that took place in Detroit in 1980. In the mid-90s, the rumors of a renaissance spurred on by S.U.V.'s were greatly exaggerated, as was the renaissance that occurred when the Red Wings made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1995, and the one that happened when Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 2006. As Detroit came out of Chapter 9 bankruptcy after about 17 months at the end of 2014, an otherwise excellent article in the Detroit Free Press had the headline "How Detroit Was Reborn." This sustained marketing campaign is well-intentioned, if only a little condescending. Buried under the lofty rhetoric is the fact that a new industry has actually managed to spring out of the tornado of development that has swept through Detroit in the last year, and it's centered on real estate and food. Renaissances aside, what is it like to open a small business in a city that still has massive logistical problems (including a public school system that remains billions of dollars in debt), a city that is trying to move on from what was likely the most symbolically loaded bankruptcy filing ever?

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"I think people look at you and think, 'What you're doing is so astounding,' but I just opened a business," said Abbey Markell, who runs a charcuterie and sandwich store called Rubbed in the Corktown neighborhood. The restaurant has been open for almost a year (the inspiration for it was the legendary La Sandwicherie in Miami Beach). "But someone who opens a business in Lansing," she said, referring to the Michigan capital, about 90 minutes away by car, "they have all the struggles I have and get half the credit. It may have honestly been easier to open here. Just the fact that you’re in Detroit and doing something means people want to give you money. And Detroit, we're a hard-working, self-made kind of city. I've been living in Detroit for 11 years now, and for half the time I lived in Detroit nothing happened except decline. And now I’m thinking, 'Who the hell are all these people?'"

Chief among the people putting money back into the city is Dan Gilbert, the billionaire developer and owner of the mortgage lender Quicken Loans, which is headquartered downtown and employs 13,000 people in Detroit. Gilbert’s real estate arm, Bedrock Real Estate Services, now owns 78 properties and 12.5 million square feet of space in the city, according to Dan Mullen, Bedrock's executive vice president. Gilbert inspires a lot of different reactions from people, but many of the chefs and restaurateurs I spoke to still referred to him with some combination of reverence and fear as "Mr. Gilbert." He is either the spiritual resurrection of Henry Ford, building a commercial empire out of nothing and once more turning Detroit into a city of opportunities, or a Robert Moses–esque opportunist, a very wealthy man buying up all the buildings in a city where the median income is $25,193 (the nationwide average is $50,502) and creating a monument to himself.

"Sometimes when things happen, I cringe," said Courtney Henriette, who runs a popular Thai food truck called Katoi, which she is turning into a brick-and-mortar restaurant set to open in the fall. She mentioned Gilbert's recent hosting of Los Angeles street artist Shepard Fairey, whom Bedrock commissioned to paint a mural downtown in June on a building co-owned by Bedrock. "My reaction was, 'Why not use someone here?'" Henriette continued. (For her part, Henriette posted billboard advertisements for Katoi in New York, hoping to attract an experienced kitchen staff, though she ended up finding locals to do the job instead.) "I think, personally, he has a king complex," she said of Gilbert. "He wants to make a city and be the king of the city." But, she said, "I think if you have enough people showing him the way, maybe he’ll change." 

Phillip Cooley, owner of Slows Barbecue, one of the oldest of the new Detroit restaurants, which opened in 2005 and carries with it perhaps the heaviest metaphorical baggage of any barbecue restaurant in America (according to the New York Times it is "a beacon," and has "renewal on the menu"), doesn't share the skepticism about Gilbert. "We've had a lot of wealthy people in the city of Detroit exploit our neighborhoods," Cooley told me. "Buy up our buildings, tear them down, take our history, and erase it. Yeah he's buying a lot of buildings, and that scares people, but he’s rehabbing abandoned structures. If we’re going to throw around that he’s a bad person just because he’s white and wealthy, that’s a problem. He's not perfect, but he's creating jobs and paying taxes." 

For better or worse, Gilbert's presence has set off a mini real estate boom. Mullen, from Bedrock, proudly referenced Selden Standard, generally considered the finest new restaurant in Detroit. Mullen said there were two new restaurants set to open soon in Bedrock buildings this summer, one of them, Central Kitchen & Bar, featuring the son of former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer as a partner. He also mentioned that residential rental rates downtown have gone up. "The demand is definitely exceeding the supply."

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Growing up just outside of downtown Detroit, I was raised on five regional food groups. There was: the Coney Island, a countertop diner serving all-beef hot dogs covered in beanless chili, mustard, and raw onions, as well as Greek specialties like Gyros (pronounced the correct way: yeer-oh), souvlaki, and saganaki; square pizza — not quite Sicilian or deep dish, it’s more of a pizza soufflé, with the emphasis being on bread and crust, though those components provide merely an airy delivery system for the cheese, which has been baked to the point of incineration and only mildly quelled by the minimal red sauce, added in the final stages of cooking; corned beef, to which I don't have anything to add; soul food, especially that which displays high-levels of respect for the pig, cooking every usable part of the animal and serving it in gratuitous portions, resulting in the ubiquity of high-quality slow-baked ham, ham hock, pork neck bones, pork chop sandwiches, chitterlings (served by the pound), and pork brain, as well as, in an important subcategory, fried perch; and Lebanese, encompassing all the standard fare one might find in any metropolitan city with a large population of Middle Eastern immigrants—shawarmas, kaftas, shish kebabs—though as served in this part of the world, the distinct addendum to the Middle Eastern flavors, which are as present in the Detroit area as bagels are in New York, are impossibly stubborn to pinpoint in terms of sheer richness, though I suspect it has something to do with hot dog grease. Fine dining for special occasions took place in one of the many casinos, or at Pegasus in Greektown, conveniently open until 4 a.m. on weekends, and where the cover of the menu features a hilarious and perfect painting of a nude woman riding a winged horse through the sky.

"People were calling Detroit a food desert," Andy Hollyday, Selden Standard's executive chef, told me. "I never bought into that. There are a lot of good things, you just really have to find them. They're spread out." Hollyday moved downtown in 2008 to work for Roast, an early addition to the city's new destination restaurants, opened by the celebrity chef Michael Symon. While working for Symon, Hollyday said, "Every year I would see a little bit of progress. And every year I'd say, 'Wow, things are just about to happen.' And I would say that for the next three or four years. And I just kept saying, 'Ah it feels like it's about to explode,' and now I feel like we’re finally in it."

As I spoke to Hollyday on the phone, he was simultaneously instructing a member of his kitchen staff in making a cucumber soup. Other popular menu items are squid ink chittara and duck congee, and the prices aren’t exorbitant, but they aren’t exactly cheap either. This was Hollyday's gamble in taking over a former Laundromat in what he referred to as “the seedy side of Midtown” — that people would seek out good food that wasn’t necessarily characteristic of the more traditional Detroit cuisine, go out of their way for it, and happily pay for it, too. (He recalled showing the building to his mother right when he bought it: "My mom just gasped and said, 'Oh. That’s…nice,' in the nicest way my mom could say it.") Since then, his restaurant was a regional semifinalist for a James Beard Award, and the Free Press named Selden Standard the 2015 restaurant of the year. Also, like most new restaurants that open in Detroit, Selden Standard has had seemingly the fate of the entire city hung on its shoulders merely for existing in the first place. An article in the magazine Hour Detroit about Selden Standard begins, “It is not often that a restaurant and social change belong in the same sentence…" Not unless one is writing about Detroit! Of these great expectations, Hollyday told me, "It's not going to save the city, one restaurant. But it can make a little change. We brought a little life back to this corner."

The problem with such a sudden influx of development is that, by design, rapid gentrification swallows up that which existed before and then gets written down as the progress of man. But there are plenty of people simply not willing to admit that Detroit has been reborn on the wings of the flagship John Varvatos store on Woodward Avenue, which opened in April. Or, as Henriette put it to me on the eve of getting her Thai restaurant off the ground, "By the time we open I might not be able to afford to live here." Dave Kwiatkowski, something like the Keith McNally of Detroit — a co-owner of the craft cocktail bar Sugar House, as well as the restaurant Wright & Co., the refurbished dive Honest John’s, and Cafe 78, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit — told me that rising rents are less a concern than the Detroit restaurant scene becoming more cutthroat as it reaches a critical mass. “When I opened Sugar House,” he said, “I was lucky enough to buy the building. There wasn’t even a telephone line, and AT&T still insists our address doesn’t exist. Now I know of, like, 20 restaurants opening in the next year. There’s gonna be some fall out. There’s gonna be some places that close.” 

Larry Mongo, the owner of Cafe D'Mongo Speakeasy in Capitol Park, has experienced the opposite poles of Detroit's recent changes all at once. At Cafe D'Mongo, business is better than it ever was, Mongo said. The bar is open two days a week inside a building that Mongo bought in the neighborhood back in the mid-80s. "A lot of people thought I was crazy," he said of the purchase, "and for a long time I thought I was." He ran a jazz club for a few years, then shut down daily operations in the early '90s due to a combination of crime, a declining clientele, and plain old exhaustion, remaining open only for private events, before finally reopening to the public in 2007. Mongo said by the time he was up and running again, some of the future owners of the new restaurants in town used to come by his bar, just to "observe."

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"The people who own Wright & Co, and the people who own Sugar House, they used to come here on a Friday and they used to just say, 'Wow,'" he told me. "Around that time, this was a very dark area. No street lights or nothing. There was nothing at that time but darkness and dope fiends. But they also saw that I had $300 bottles of scotch on the bar. And that people were buying it." He added that his new neighbors are "bringing in volumes of people that would cost thousands of dollars to try to reach through advertising. The more the merrier."

But at the same time, Mongo is in court with his landlords over a long-term lease in the Himelhoch building downtown, where Mongo had for years helped run a number of retail shops on the ground floor. He had about two years left on a 30-year lease, and was planning two new restaurants in the building, when he was served with an eviction notice last winter after he put a stop payment order on a rent check because his checkbook had been stolen while on vacation, Mongo's lawyer told the Detroit News at the time. Nobody could have predicted it even five years ago, but The Himelhoch is now highly coveted real estate.

"Let's put it like this," Mongo said of the dispute. "When something is really in demand, sometimes a comma can be misinterpreted. So we're fighting over some commas. That’s business."

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