Detroit’s Restaurant Bucket List
Detroit's dining scene has exploded recently, and this is news to no one reading this. And as much as we love to extol the virtues of the newest, hottest, hippest, trendiest (and, in most cases, already among the best) restaurants in Detroit, two years of buzz does not a time-tested institution make. So, with all due respect to Selden Standard, Chartreuse, Standby, Wright & Co, Rock City Eatery, Republic, and those newer still, for this "bucket list" we're focused on the classics, the institutions, the quintessential Detroit experiences, the places EVERY Detroiter MUST experience in their lives.
It's cool to act like we're all so "over" Slows now, but the fact is, this place, more than anywhere else, is what truly kick-started Detroit's culinary renaissance, and also was the catalyst for the development of the Corktown you know today. Theirs is still one of the most famous mac & cheeses in the country thanks to loads of national press proclaiming it the best (rightfully so), and it's also one of the best beer bars in the city.
When Dave Mancini opened Supino in 2008, there was no guarantee it would be successful, much less appear on the Food Network and in the pages of GQ and Esquire with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Christina Hendricks. Flash forward to today, when Mancini just recently opened the much-anticipated La Rondinella in the space next to Supino (where the Italian-minded cocktails are as outstanding as the food, and all the prices are stupid-cheap), and Supino is still regarded among the best pizzas in the country.
True, it might not currently have a young hotshot chef you know by name, or benefit from national buzz, or boast bars and tables made from reclaimed wood sourced from deconstructed Detroit homes built in the 1800s, but The Whitney was once the premiere restaurant in Detroit -- basically for all those years between the shuttering of the London Chop House and the emergence of Detroit 2.0 -- and it is literally from the 1800s. This 1894 mansion is truly an icon of Detroit, and there is no space more dramatic or impressive than it. Whether you're there for a special occasion dinner, a Death in the Afternoon brunch, drinks at the Ghostbar, live music in the gardens, a wedding, whatever: the Whitney is an experience like none other.
This is Detroit, and we’re talking about food. Go. Eat. Be happy.
Come for the pizza. Stay for the bocce. The first location of Detroit's original signature square deep dish pizza is still open and innovating new twists on a very old favorite. This is the birthplace of Detroit-style deep dish, which is superior in every conceivable way to Chicago's.
Why party like a rock star when you could party like the Purple Gang? The Roma is Detroit's oldest restaurant and was once a favored haunt of the infamous Purple Gang. Need proof? There are photos of them hanging out in the dining room... in the very same dining room. The food is very old world Italian-American with massive portions served by tuxedoed waiters who provide just the right amount of fuss to round out Roma’s singular experience.
Back in The Day, Detroit had a ton of steakhouses. Then they all closed. Time passed. The Book Cadillac building underwent a massive renovation, kickstarting Detroit's skyscraper renovation fever. And, finally, Michael Symon's Roast opened on the ground floor of the newly-christened Westin Book Cadillac in 2008 and was known almost immediately as the place to see and be seen, with the most popular happy hour in town. If Slows shepherded in the Corktown renaissance, Roast laid the groundwork for Downtown, and is still one of the best restaurants in town.
And speaking of Detroit's old steakhouses, the London Chop House is the most famous. The Downtown stalwart was known as one of the top restaurants in the country from the time it opened in 1938 until it closed in 1991; in 2012 it reopened, meticulously restored to its former glory. It’s high-end, fussy, and expensive, and serves a menu that is the closest many of us will ever get to experiencing this part of Detroit's elegant history.
No Detroit bucket list would be complete without a Polish restaurant, and our favorite is Polish Village, located in the basement of what was once a hotel for Polish immigrant workers when the city swelled with them. Hamtramck is much more ethnically diverse today, but this is a delicious longtime mainstay from earlier years.
Much as we can't NOT have a Polish place in Hamtramck, we can't NOT have a Greek place in Greektown. While the "Greek" in Greektown isn't as prominent as it once was, there are still those old institutions that have held out. The exemplar of the stalwarts is New Parthenon, the interior of which is reminiscent of a '90s Vegas casino done in the theme of "Ancient Greece" and/or a strip club. Opa, bitches.
There are many fine Mexican restaurants in Detroit, but it would be a stretch to pick one that "defines" Detroit -- except El Barzon. For years El Barzon has drawn customers from all over metro Detroit to its unassuming corner of Michigan and Junction for its half-Italian, half-Mexican fine dining menu. And THAT is certainly something you won't find in other cities.
With the simple pairing of cheap, fancy sliders, and cheap craft beer, Green Dot got national press from pretty much the start and quickly catapulted to the top of Detroit's must-eat restaurants, and started something of a restaurant empire for the Driscolls, who now also own Johnny Noodle King, the Huron Room, and a second Green Dot location in Malaysia. Yeah, THAT Malaysia.
Telway is a classic diner, a tiny dive with counter service that's open 24-hours and has been serving Detroiters their early morning stomachaches since 1944. The move here are the down-home greasy gut-bomb sliders, the kind of burgers for which this style of bite-sized burger earned the name "slider" in the first place.
Sitting on the 16th floor of Motor City Casino, the two-story restaurant features 40ft windows running along the full length of the dining room, offering a panoramic view of Detroit's skyline, including the Ambassador Bridge. Appropriately, the interior is just as eye-catching, looking more like a flashy Vegas casino than a Detroit restaurant. The traditional seafood and steakhouse fare comes with a tinge of Asian-fusion inspiration, and the spot also features a special seven-course "American kaiseki" tasting menu.
The popular Corktown deli just gets better and better every year, having added a liquor license with an impressive selection of beers and wines, a lovely patio, a retail wine shop, cozy bar, and a special dinner menu in recent years. Any sandwich made with their house-roasted Sy Ginsberg corned beef is still a classic and also part of your obligatory Detroit diet, but Mudgie's has now moved from simply being a sandwich shop and has become a anchor institution for this corner of Corktown, which now also includes Batch Brewing and Brew Detroit.
Open since 1933, Baker's Keyboard Lounge is billed as "world's oldest jazz club," and has seen many of the world's greatest jazz musicians -- Louis, Miles, Ella, Aretha, Nat, and Cab, to name a few -- come through its doors and play on its stage over the years. The wraparound keyboard bar is a decorative highlight, and obviously so is the live music (still a steal for a scant $5 cover on most nights), but, for the full experience, do also order up some classic soul food while you're there.
There are Mexican places and Italian places and Greek places and Polish places and Middle Eastern places and German places all over Detroit. But there is also a Belgian place, which maybe doesn't get the attention it deserves. Cadieux Café, tucked on the far east of the city in what is practically Grosse Pointe, serves Belgian specialties like mussels and frites with lots of Belgian beers AND you can play the Belgian sport of feather bowling, now to be confused with fowling.
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Nicole Rupersburg fully expects there to be butt-hurt over the absence of places like Selden Standard and does not care. She is currently losing a war of attrition with social media, but you can still follow her IG at @eatsdrinksandleaves for when she finally admits defeat.