Detroit's restaurant scene is hot hot HOT right now. Places like Selden Standard, Grey Ghost, Wright & Co, Chartreuse, Standby, and Rock City Eatery have put Detroit on the national radar of forward-thinking food culture, which is to say nothing of the many excellent craft cocktail bars and craft breweries, artisan distilleries and coffee roasters, boutique bakeries and chocolatiers, urban farms, and farmers markets large and small selling locally made goods and sourcing locally grown and raised products.
But not all of the restaurant action has been happening solely within the city. James Rigato – maybe you've heard of him? – first made waves at The Root Restaurant & Bar in White Lake, a blue collar suburban location only slightly less likely to be home to a nose-to-tail, hyper-local concept like the Root than Hazel Park, the inner-ring blue collar suburb where Rigato opened his second, and hugely buzz-worthy, restaurant, Mabel Gray.
While Rigato is certainly a champion of Hazel Park and walks his own talk—he recently even bought a house there—he is under no pretenses as to the gap between the city and the suburbs in the quality of dining.
"Nothing is going to compare to Downtown," he says. "There's all the events, the concerts; there's more money, all the big hotels and big names. You cannot compete with Detroit. Ferndale is where you push your baby stroller on a lazy Sunday; Detroit is where you tear the town up."
But, he says, there's hope still for the burbs, too.
"The food scene here is still dominated by chef-driven restaurants," he says. "There is still plenty of room for quality."
Luciano del Signore, the James Beard-nominated chef-owner of Bacco Ristorante in Southfield and partner in the fast-expanding Bigalora chain and Arbor Brewing Company (and also longtime mentor of Rigato's), says, "There's always going to be a need for suburban restaurants. The density is out in the suburbs. Even though we have the convenience of Uber now so we don't have to worry about having too much to drink, sometimes people just want to be close to home, and the suburbs are packed with people."
While Detroit restaurants will always benefit from the 200+ days a year of sports and concerts held downtown, when people come home after work or don’t plan on traveling to the city on a Saturday night, they want to stay close to home. Because of this, del Signore says, the suburbs will remain strong, even as the city continues to evolve a dining scene that is progressively becoming competitive with major cities like Chicago.
But the suburbs are a bit hit and miss when it comes to dining options…and sometimes a bit more miss than hit at that. If we're comparing the city's collection of restaurants to any given suburb's, it can often feel like comparing Thomas Keller to Steak & Shake. There are lots of restaurants in the suburbs—lots and lots and lots of them, no doubt—but most of them… well, they're not that great, TBH.
"The [greater metro Detroit market] is not like Chicago or the West or East Coast where it's easy to find a great meal. We still have to think it through. It's not just everywhere," del Signore notes. "There's still just a few more than a dozen good restaurants where you can count on a consistent good meal that aren't big chains."
If you've been to, say, Birmingham at any point in oh, say, the last 20 years, the soul of the restaurants have remained stagnant, frozen in a time when windowless steakhouses with dark leather circular booths and banquettes and white tablecloths and béarnaise sauce and $400 Napa cabs were the pinnacle of enviable dining. Sure, the names might change; some open and some close. But the fact remains that in the space of just a few miles from Troy to Birmingham to Bloomfield, there are some 25 or more steakhouses.
…That's a LOT of steakhouses.
Occasionally some outliers open and perform very well (such as our interviewees' restaurants). But for the most part, the Troy-Birmingham-Bloomfield cluster is still dominated by '90s-era steakhouses, and that's how people like it.
"A lot of the dining money is still in Bloomfield and Bloomfield still wants to spend its money in a leather booth with a big-ass California wine," Rigato says.
"That’s why we have the Eddie Merlots and the 25 steakhouses in a four-mile radius," del Signore agrees. "Bloomfield is not the foodie culture of downtown. Downtown is creating a cool foodie culture that's really enjoying learning more and getting interested in really cool esoteric beverage programs, and really esoteric wine varietals from all over the world, and we're missing that in the suburbs."
Both Rigato and del Signore agree that there are a few dining bright spots (other than their own) in the suburbs. Ferndale, the inner-ring suburb that has been successfully playing up its role as a wholly acceptable and respectable alternative to living in the city itself, also has density and walkability in terms of restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues.
Favorite standbys like Imperial, the Oakland, and Anita's Kitchen continue to deliver, while newcomers like Otus Supply, the Livernois Tap (Axle Brewing Company's brewpub), and Voyager impress even the savvies—and snobbiest—of dining aficionados.
Rigato refers to the recently-opened Voyager as one of Ferndale's best restaurants. Del Signore also praises the oyster-focused concept.
Eli Boyer, owner of Voyager, loves the restaurant's location in Ferndale, saying that it "is a great town for food and beverage."
"People are accustomed to dining out and spending time in Ferndale," he continues. "It's known for having more assertive or creative restaurants. It just felt like [the Voyager concept] fit."
For his part, Boyer isn't concerned about market saturation in Ferndale, and thinks that there is still "a ton" of room for even more.
"The clustering of like-minded businesses is a helpful thing. It brings attention and eyes to the area. I've always been excited when like-minded businesses have located near restaurants I've run. Theoretically, people will be interested in your restaurant as well. I love being in a town with a ton of restaurants."
Conceptually, Voyager—much like Mabel Gray and Bigalora —is much more akin to what you will find in the city, rather than having any obvious suburban counterparts. Ferndale's proximity to the city and the crossover in clientele has no doubt helped warm customers to the concept of an almost entirely seafood-focused restaurant that specializes specifically in oysters.
"When comparing new restaurants many people will come into Voyager and comment that it should be more in an urban or dense area, but that just tells me people are taking greater risks in the suburbs now," Boyer says.
He uses the response to his wine list to underscore how the suburban clientele's palates can surprise even the professionals: "With my wine list people told me, 'You're in the suburbs, you need to have a big cab and a big chardonnay.' No, we're creating a wine and beer list that we want to complement our menu. We didn’t want that pressure to have a big bold red that people think we should have. We do have a chardonnay on the menu that's probably coming off that's not in the [big, buttery, oaky] California style.
'Everyone was saying, 'You have to do this, you have to do that.' I said, 'Eh I don’t think we do. We'll see what happens. And we don’t have people asking for that. They're trying more interesting things and lighter whites that fit better with the food and experience we're offering. It's a testament to people's tastes changing and how our staff has to get people out of their comfort zones, and they work very hard to do that."
As it stands right now, metro Detroit's dining scene—and we're speaking strictly of the suburbs here—is still underwhelming, with a few notable exceptions. In addition to Voyager, del Signore and Rigato both praise the progressive brewpub menu at Livernois Tap (which makes sense: the food is overseen by the team at one of Detroit's buzziest restaurants, Grey Ghost). Otus Supply also gets favorable treatment both for being a cool live music venue and for offering a bit of that "Detroit experience" in its aesthetic and food. And, of course, there are places like Mabel Gray, joebar, Bacco, and Bigalora, all of which are performing well despite (or perhaps because of?) their suburban handicap.
And, honestly, metro Detroit's collective restaurant scene might never be truly comparable to the city's. The markets are, quite simply, different. For comparison's sake, let's look at Chicago: the city of Chicago has something like 8,000 restaurants, and among them are some of the top-rated in the country, and the world, as well as many many many many that are just shy of world-famous but still fantastic (or at least pretty damn good). But head out to the suburbs of, say, Schaumburg or Naperville? Meh…not so much.
In other words, the suburbs are gonna suburb and metro Detroit really has nothing to fret over. Detroit (the city) will keep killing it, and the occasional place like Mabel Gray or Voyager will pop up in an unexpected suburban spot and as a delightful surprise.
Or, to use Rigato's words, "There is always room for quality and for chefs who want to work on making better quality food."
Nicole Rupersburg used to run Eat It Detroit before Detroit's food scene REALLY hit and moved out of state just in time to miss it. She does still enjoy popping in for the occasional food piece so she can talk shop with her old friends, though. She occasionally grams at @eatsdrinksandleaves and tweets out leftist Commie propaganda at @ruperstarski.