The Best Meals in Motor City: A Newcomer’s Guide to Detroit
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Where to Dine in Detroit
Motown and the automotive industry may have put Detroit on the map, but the food scene is making it a must-visit. From tried-and-true iconic dishes like the Coney dog and Detroit-style pizza to a new crop of up-and-coming chefs dishing out inventive cuisine, the Motor City is a worthy destination for dinner and beyond.
Townhouse adds a breath of fresh air to the Downtown scene, both literally — with its airy, year-round enclosed patio — and figuratively, thanks to its awesome burger. The 10-ounce patty is made with a proprietary blend of 28-day dry-aged prime brisket and rib eye (among other cuts) from a local butcher. The mix is sandwiched in a Plugra butter brioche bun and topped with bourbon-glazed onions and gooey white cheddar.
Greek: Pegasus Taverna
A trip to Detroit must include a stop in the city’s famed Greektown, a neighborhood named for the many Greek immigrants who made Detroit their home in the 20th century, and full of the flavors they brought with them. The sound of “Opa!” rings through the walls of this tavern as flaming saganaki (cheese) and loukaneko (sausage) appetizers make their way tableside. Entrees include trays of lamb chops with rice and potatoes and Greek specialties like pastitsio, spanakotiropeta and moussaka. With staff slinging its dishes well into the wee hours, Pegasus is an ideal late-night stop.
Dinner with Friends: Selden Standard
Chef Andy Hollyday made a name for himself at Michael Symon’s Roast before venturing off to open this always-packed, critically acclaimed Midtown neighborhood restaurant. The focus here is on small plates, which include options for vegetarians, like a beautifully plated vegetable carpaccio, and for omnivores, like grilled squab with brandied cherries, grilled onions and farro. Just about everything is made in-house, including squid-ink chittara, and local purveyors are listed on the website. The modern and minimalistic space is ideal for gathering with a group of friends over dinner or the solid brunch selection.
Tasting Menu: Marais
Not one, but two highly acclaimed chefs unite to make Marais so special. Owner David Gilbert brought on good friend Garrett Lipar, chef of the now-shuttered Torino, to serve as executive chef and help create an experience Gilbert describes as “fine dining showcasing Michigan’s bounty.” To do so, a lot of emphasis is put on foraging, canning and preserving, which give the chefs year-round access to the best ingredients. Diners can choose to feast a la carte or by tasting menu ($135), though the latter really highlights what the duo strives to achieve. Each dish may be described only by a singular word, like pawpaw, which is whipped into a Pavlova, or be something as simple and delicious as fresh-caught rainbow trout with leeks and chives.
Pizza: Buddy’s Pizza
New York and Chicago get a lot of attention for their pizzas, but Detroit’s spin on the pie should not be overlooked. The square Sicilian-style pizza — which is about to celebrate its 70th anniversary — was introduced at Buddy’s, a neighborhood tavern at Six Mile and Conant in the heart of the city. To create the style, deep-dish dough is double-stretched daily, resulting in a thick-yet-airy square, and is topped with Wisconsin brick cheese, with sauce (and optional pepperoni or peppers) tucked underneath the cheese to keep the flavor without the charring.
Cocktail Bar: The Sugar House
If you’re not sure where to start at this dimly lit exposed-brick Corktown cocktail bar, opt for something featuring the impressive whiskey selection. The dictionary-thick drink menu balances classics like a Manhattan with seasonal options that could give a nod to, say, Bill Murray, with the Big “Ern” McCracken (from Kingpin) made with bourbon, grapefruit, hibiscus honey, maraschino liqueur and rose water. Punches — best for a group — are particularly creative (including the Motel Key, made with rum, bourbon, elderflower liqueur, lime, ginger beer and bitters), showing this spot finds the right balance between potency and humor.
Vegetarian Restaurant: Seva
A spinoff of Ann Arbor’s long-popular vegetarian destination, Seva Detroit puts a vegetarian twist on classic dishes. In the crisp General Tso’s Cauliflower, the vegetable is lightly battered before being coated in chile sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds and green onions. The Detroit location also makes a vegan take on the Coney dog.
Date Spot: Chartreuse Kitchen and Bar
Named for the green liqueur that bears the same name, this quaint restaurant near the Detroit Institute of Art pays homage to all things green with the seven-foot garden installations and the abundance of fresh, local ingredients that grace the menu, from a bright, springy pea-ricotta toast to winter’s warming squash soup. Chef Doug Hewitt takes full advantage of produce coming out of local urban gardens and efforts from Recovery Park, which is also the name of a rotating dish of vegetables from their farms. Pair the meal with the well-curated wines and cocktails for the ideal date night.
Ice Cream: Treat Dreams
This ice cream shop is anything but vanilla, with flavors like Tennessee Breakfast (cornflakes and bourbon) and Michigan Salad (blue cheese ice cream with candied pecans and brandy-soaked cherries) shaking up the normal options. Founder Scott Moloney was a banker before turning to homemade small-batch scoops, often with a seasonal spin. Now he makes more than 1,000 selections that rotate weekly and always include options for the vegan and dairy-free.
Breakfast: Parks & Rec Diner
Once a meeting place for Civil War veterans and headquarters for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department (thus the name), this historic space is now a 28-seat diner serving breakfast favorites, old and new, such as a fluffy Dutch baby with apple butter, and a high-end hash with 20 different mix-ins, including various vegetables and house-cured lamb bacon. Open only until early afternoon, Parks & Rec maintains the quirkiness of a diner with ceramic mugs, mismatched patterned tables and funky green slatted chairs.
Iconic Dish: The Coney Dog
Trying a Coney dog for the first time is like a rite of passage in Detroit, with the two best purveyors set right next to each other in friendly competition. The famed rivalry between these no-frills spots, American Coney Island and Lafayette, dates back to the early 1900s and remains fueled to this day. The order may be the same — Coney dog slathered with chili, drizzled with mustard and sprinkled with onions — but the nuances are in the ingredients, particularly the chili. So go ahead and try both spots (and throw in some chili fries), but be prepared to come away with an allegiance after wiping the chili from your lips.