Metro Detroit's Crepe Expectations

Sacré bleu! What's with all the crêpes?

In the past year, Metro Detroit has seen more than its fair share of crêperies opening. First it was the Good Girls Go to Paris crêpe stand on John R at Woodward, then the eclectic Corktown café Le Petit Zinc, followed most recently by What Crêpe? in Royal Oak and a second location for Good Girls.

And so it is I ponder: seriously, what's with all the crêpes?

For a town that has staked its reputation on steak, the sudden uprising of this delicate French dish seems a bit out of place. After all, this is the city that created zip sauce, a highly condensed salty butter sauce made with beef stock, garlic, and a variety of spices that no steak is truly complete without.

Detroit was also home of the infamous London Chop House, a restaurant that for half a century was famous across the world for its artery-clogging beef-á-gogo dishes. From hearty Rustbelt manly-man steaks to dainty, frou-frou crêpes? Has Detroit lost its palatable mind?

"Crêpes are not posh," Torya Blanchard, proprietor of Good Girls Go to Paris, tells me. "You can dress them up, but at the end of the day this is student food, food that you can find on every street corner in Paris. So why not start a crêperie here?"

Torya's sentiments promoting the accessibility and affordability of crêpes are echoed by every crêpe-maker in town. Bob Zagar, owner of Josephine Crêperie & Bistro in Ferndale, vows to reeducate people about French cuisine. "When people think of French food they think of nouvelle cuisine: huge plates with tiny little dots of food. But not all French food is like that! When we opened Josephine we wanted to offer something that wasn't really available in the area but also give people hearty, classic French food at a value."

The healthfulness and affordability of this classic French "student" dish is something that each restaurateur proudly hails as one of crêpes' great advantages:

"The appeal is that a crêpe can be anything: sweet, savory, vegan, vegetarian," says Paul Jenkins Jr. (PJ) of What Crêpe?. "It's endless what you can do with a crêpe." Each of the restaurants focus on affordability, and each use fresh produce from nearby farmers' markets and even their own backyard garden plots. It is very important to both that they are offering something that is affordable, accessible, and above all else healthy."

"We wanted to introduce crepes while incorporating a healthier food alternative to the public, all while showing appreciation of the French culture," PJ explains. 

Molly Motor, manager of Le Petit Zinc, tells the same story about owner Charles Sorel: "He believes in a healthy diet, and our food is generally healthy. He even says that we need to make it healthy so people don't have to think about what they are choosing."

While Detroit's Good Girls Go To Paris seemed to kick off the current buzz, it was really Josephine Bistro that started the trend several years earlier. "Well, you know what they say: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!" laughs Bob. "But really, the more the merrier."

And he means it. While it would be easy to assume that crêperies target only a niche market and thus there would be competition amongst the various vendors, Metro Detroit's bon vivants seem to have welcomed each one with open arms, and in turn, each crêperie has extended that warm welcome to every newcoming crêpe-maker.

"...PJ came to me before he opened," Bob says. "I was more than happy to help; to me, it's not about competition, it's about creating a positive dynamic. If there are more of us, that means more people are talking about us and more people are getting excited about crêpes."

"I spoke to PJ encouraging him to open a crêperie because he was interested. I want PJ to succeed," Torya explains. "I want Charles to succeed. I never had any intention of opening a crêperie in Royal Oak, so What Crêpe? is not my competition. I will never try to get a liquor license so Charles is not my competition. He's on the other side of town!"

With each proprietor I spoke to, the very thought that there could possibly be any competition between the crêperies was almost an affront, and each one took pains to emphasize that they are not rivals, and that they are, in fact, very different places.

"If you look at our menus, we're all completely different," Bob points out. "Josephine is a full restaurant and offers crêpes in addition to traditional French bistro items, like Coq au Vin. What Crêpe? has an extensive menu that is all crêpes. Good Girls is a walk-up stand. We're all different."

"We all have our own vibe," Torya confirms. "Le Petit Zinc is a cozy bistro that makes crêpes as well as delicious sandwiches and salads. Good Girls started with a walk-up stand and now just opened a second sit-down location in Midtown. We all have our own markets and our own distinct appeal."

But why here, why now?

"Charles and his wife Karima moved back here to her hometown after her father died," explains Molly. Charles has an extensive background in the restaurant industry. He worked in restaurants in France and eventually came to New York, where he opened up two of his own. When his family relocated to Detroit, he viewed it as an opportunity to serve classic, healthy French cuisine that is affordable, and take part in what he sees as Detroit's renaissance.

Torya's decision is explained as a kind of personal renaissance: "Starting a crêperie was a very personal thing for me. It was about rebirth, and living out my passions." She fell in love with crepes while living in Paris, and she wanted to do something she was passionate about and take the risk of following her dreams.

But why Detroit? "I have lived in Detroit all of my life. My reasoning wasn't to make a statement about the viability of Detroit's small businesses; it was because I feel comfortable here." 

PJ has traveled the world extensively with his entertainment marketing and special event firm, and throughout all his globe-trotting he kept gravitating towards crêperies. "Crêpes are familiar but still an untapped market," he states. He says What Crêpe? offers patrons intimate dining without the intimidation, introducing a bit of fun French culture while also being casual, affordable, and romantic.  

So why crepes? 

"A better question is What Crêpe?!," he jokes. "I'm living my dream!"

But why now? "I think anyone who has newly opened a restaurant that sells crêpes just had the same idea at the same time," Torya muses. 

Perhaps we're simply returning to our French roots. The city was founded by French-Canadian settlers, and during its economic and social peak, Detroit was hailed as the "Paris of the Midwest." You really can’t get much more French than crêpes!

When people consider classic Detroit cuisine, they conjure up images of Coney dogs and steak. Nowadays, thanks to some national coverage, we're even becoming known for our pizza. But the truth is, all those dishes are more closely associated with other cities. Just as New Orleans has its po'boys and gumbo and Philadelphia has its cheesesteaks, Detroit needs a dish it can call its own. Could that dish be crêpes?

Only time will tell. Until that day, bon appétit!

Nicole Rupersburg likes Detroit and eating. She also writes this blog: Her prevoius article for Metromode was Metro Detroit Goes Slow And Tastes The Difference.

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Good Girls Goes To Paris' new location at the Park Shelton - Detroit

A little WiFi with your crepe at Good Girls Goes To Paris - Detroit

Savory mushroom crepe at What Crepe? - Royal Oak

Entrance to the courtyard at Le Petit Zinc - Detroit

A finishing drizzle of guava syrup at What Crepe? - Royal Oak

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here