Meals in Motor City: The Best Restaurants in Detroit

Find out where to dine in Detroit, from tried-and-true classics to inventive new Motor City must-tries.

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.

Vegetarian: Detroit Vegan Soul

Vegan soul food can sometimes sound like an oxymoron, but it’s completely believable and downright delicious at Detroit Vegan Soul. Dishes still feel indulgent, including the Soul Platter with mac and cheese, smoked collards with shiitakes, maple-glazed yams, hoppin’ johns and cornbread, but they are all plant-based, and dairy- egg- and lactose-free. Smoked coconut bacon, cornmeal-battered tofu and seitan pepper steak take the place of the typical proteins, but feel just as hearty with a touch of Southern flair.

Steak: Prime and Proper

While many of the new Detroit restaurants have erred towards more casual concepts, Prime and Proper exudes full-on meaty luxury. The dining room is a marvel, with a restored marble staircase from the original building, brass fixtures and plush velvet banquettes. Steaks are dry-aged and butchered in house with the modern dry-aging room visible to the dining room through full-length glass windows. Steaks, which include A-5 wagyu cuts, can be served with a torched foie gras with strawberry jam, pistachio, sea salt and Thai basil, and are better with a side of bruleed roasted sweet corn.

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.

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.

Pie: Sister Pie

It’s not just the super tart cranberry crumble pie that draws people to this corner bakery filled with natural light and colorful tchotchkes, it’s also their dedication to their employees and the community as a triple-bottom-line business. When owner Lisa Ludwinski returned to her native state after time in New York City, she knew she wanted to be woven into the Detroit community. Patrons can “pie it forward” with their favorite slice or keep the indulgence for themselves with peanut butter and paprika cookies, black peppercorn tarragon shortbread or a slice of bright, magenta beet pie.

Dinner and a Drink: Grey Ghost

The food and cocktails at this Midtown spot take creative liberty with classic favorites. Start with mixologist Will Lee’s take on a gin martini, dubbed the Heroic Intention, adding caper-infused Dolin dry, sesame oil and black pepper to add a bit of pop to the classic cocktail. Oysters are served Chicago-style — with the accoutrements of a classic Chicago hot dog – to pay homage to chefs John Vermiglio and Joe Giacomino’s former stomping grounds. Work your way through the playful menu digging into a smoked whitefish dip topped with everything seasoning and follow up with the loaded baked potato pierogis oozing with aged gouda, topped with green onion and sour cream.

In the Know: Flowers of Vietnam

What may appear to be a run-down Coney Island from the outside is actually home to the most beautifully plated Vietnamese food Motor City has to offer. Chef George Azar refined his cooking chops at places like Alinea in Chicago and Noma in Copenhagen before returning to his hometown of Detroit. He missed all of the great Vietnamese food he’d enjoyed while living elsewhere, so decided to put his own twist on the cuisine at weekly pop up dinners. Word spread and he made Flowers a full-time restaurant, expanding the Coney Island into space from the building next door. People flock to Flowers for buttery caramel chicken wings and stay for dishes like Bo Kho, a spicy Vietnamese braised-beef stew Azar serves with a banh mi.

Taste of Michigan: Mabel Gray

James Rigato’s tiny Hazel Park restaurant has garnered some serious local and national attention. The best way to experience the intimate spot is through its tasting menu, letting Rigato cook at his whim (you won’t see a menu for this one), turning local Michigan ingredients into passionate and flavorful stories about the people of the state. You may get empanadas stuffed with red chile and beer-braised Michigan venison, sweet potato, pecorino and chive or octopus a la plancha with mangos, avocado, macadamia nuts and pickled ginger. The regular handwritten menu varies daily, allowing Rigato to create a menu around his bounty of ingredients.

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.

Noodles: Ima

Grab a seat with friends or wriggle in among friends-to-be at a communal table in this noodle shop. The minimalist décor keeps the focus on broths that are nuanced with layers of flavors, including great options for meatless diners. Slurp down the Vegetarian Forest udon with a rich porcini-dashi broth loaded with sesame tofu, smoked trumpet mushrooms and plenty of plump udon noodles.

Farmer’s Market: Eastern Market

Eastern Market is not just a market, it’s part of Detroit’s history. For over 100 years residents have visited the market for lush local produce, fragrant flowers and artisan artifacts. With the rise in chef-driven restaurants, the interest in Eastern Market has renewed, especially the Saturday market, where you’ll find a farmers’ market with sheds full of produce, but also Detroit-made pickles, fresh French crepes and scratch-made Mexican sopes.

Thai: Takoi

After the beloved, much-acclaimed Thai-inspired restaurant Katoi burned down in a fire, it was reborn as Takoi, still dishing out some of the best Thai cuisine in the city. Chef Brad Greenhill travels frequently to Thailand to inspire dishes like crispy spare ribs with fish sauce caramel, pickled papaya and apple, or southern Thai curry made with a fried chicken leg and shallots, with roti. The cocktails also utilize Thai ingredients like the gin-based Backed by Science with Chinese broccoli, choy sum, lime leaf, mint syrup and green chile.

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.

Tasting Menu: Apparatus Room

Chef Thomas Lents brought his Michelin-starred Chicago cuisine to his home state of Michigan, crafting artistic dishes in the Detroit Foundation hotel. Guests are especially drawn to the weekends- and special events-only Chef’s Table, where Lents prepares an eight-to-12-course tasting menu for 12 guests with dishes like razor clams with charred leek and white asparagus or earthy venison with juniper and red cabbage.

Seafood: Voyager

Just outside of the city of Detroit, in the hip Ferndale neighborhood, is an unpretentious, low-key spot all about seafood. Dig into the oysters – there are usually a couple dozen varieties hailing from east to west and even some south on the menu. At happy hour they’ll run you just $2 a pop. Prepared dishes, all made from sustainable seafood, run the gamut, including peel n’ eat Old Bay shrimp, a tikka-inspired fried hake and a spicy chile crab spaghetti made with Sichuan peppercorns.

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.

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.

Irish Hospitality: Lady of the House

Chef Kate Williams wants you to know that she’s all about hospitality, from the spot of tea and Welsh rarebit-inspired cracker you get as a starter, to the warm candlelit fireplace. The seasonal menu highlights Williams’ take on tartare; depending when you go, it could be a Coney-inspired lamb tartare or scallop tartare with a maple-pecan vinaigrette. Tasty toasts, creative vegetable dishes and heartier mains round out the menu. Save room for dessert: The potato doughnuts — made from mashed potatoes — are topped with a beautiful sugared thyme, making it the perfect combination of sweet and savory.

Burger: Red Coat Tavern

Sometimes the best burgers come in a no-frills atmosphere, like Red Coat Tavern. In tight, dimly lit quarters, you’ll find a stellar burger made with a half-pound of the Tavern's proprietary blend of meat. It comes topped with shredded lettuce, juicy tomato and a special sauce, but customers add their choice of additional options, including burnt onions, pico de gallo, ghost pepper cheese and truffle aioli. Onion rings or thinly sliced fries make the perfect side.

Chicken and Waffles: Sweet Potato Sensations

Sweet potatoes have been the name of the game here ever since co-owner Cassandra Thomas dreamed up sweet potato cookies for her husband, Jeffrey, in the early 1990s. These days, the quaint bakery offers much more than cookie, serving pies, pancakes, cornbread and cheesecake all utilizing sweet potatoes. A major draw is their take on chicken and waffles, using sweet potato waffles. You can top it with the traditional fried chicken, a fried turkey chop or even salmon croquettes.

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 ricotta pancakes with lemon curd and cranberry preserves, 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. If you are feeling hungry, get the huge grilled cinnamon roll, dubbed the Cinnafetti Roll, made with sprinkle-filled house cake batter and topped with a hearty slather of buttercream frosting and cascade of sprinkles.

Cheap Eats: Bucharest Grill

Talented home cook Bogdan Tarasov was working construction when he happened to meet someone who was looking to serve delicious food at a forthcoming bar. He promised the best Romanian food the city has ever seen and the rest is history. More than a decade later, he’s slinging out dishes at four locations of his own restaurant concept, Bucharest Grill. They’re best-known for their foil-wrapped shawarmas like the namesake Bucharest version, stuffed with grilled chicken marinated for hours, pungent garlic spread, cabbage, pickles and crisp fries, all wrapped in pita. Many of the recipes come from his native Romania and most menu items run less than $10, making this the perfect place for cheap, but hearty eats.

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