When Mary Liz Curtin and her husband, Stephen Scannell, were opening Leon and Lulu in a former roller rink 16 years ago in Clawson, people would ask skeptically "Where?" or "Why?'" Curtin recalls.
Leon and Lulu would go on to be a successful, profitable business, and the couple also ended up buying the theater next door, with that space eventually becoming the popular Three Cats Restaurant.
In the years since, the couple have seen a lot of changes, such as a major streetscape project and landscaping that beautified the city, as well as newer businesses coming in.
"There's so many new places," says Curtin, who is also chair of the city's Downtown Development Authority. "And it's also a lovely community. The restaurants are all cooperating. We all work together to do Restaurant Week. We send each other customers. If somebody is desperate for some to-go boxes, you know, there's plenty of places you can borrow. And it's nice that it's not a cutthroat restaurant community. It's very, very friendly and supportive.
Whiskey Taco Foxtrot co-owner Charlie Samson was born and raised in Clawson and has witnessed the culinary scene changing.
One of the city's newer businesses is Whiskey Taco Foxtrot. Charlie Samson, who owns Whiskey Taco Foxtrot with his father, was born and raised in Clawson and says the city has come a long way from "tile stores and carpeting stores."
"I've always wanted a cool bar in Clawson," Samson says, who realized, "'hey, I can just make the cool bar in Clawson…Now we have a really great group of restaurants and they're all growing and doing well."
As a new entrepreneur starting out, Samson, who also owns Downtown Charlie's, a breakfast spot for which he's currently pursuing a liquor license, says Clawson "offers that small town, not too busy but fun feeling to it…We have a lot of people that are really passionate about being in the community and taking care of and I think that's going to help grow it."
Tyler and Andrea Williams have a similar story. Tyler recalls in late 2019 Clawson was in transition.
"You saw a lot of the storefronts, specifically in downtown, going vacant, each vacancy had its own story behind it," says Tyler, a self-proclaimed fifth-generation Clawsonite. "I was struggling to see all that happen. And when Black Lotus [Brewery] closed their doors, my wife and I looked at each other, we were like, 'Hey, you want to open a restaurant, rather than like wait around and hope that somebody brings something cool to our downtown?' "
The couple wanted to bring chef-driven food and high-end craft cocktails in a casual, neighborhood-friendly space, seeing potential to bring that concept to Clawson.
"In the past eight to 10 years Clawson has been blessed with a wide variety of dining choices with new business owners interested in adding an element that didn’t currently exist," says Joan Horton, executive director of the Clawson Downtown Development Authority.
Horton says the development didn't happen overnight and credits the city's master plan and streetscape project as factors in the growth.
There has been some turnover in recent years, such as longtime Italian favorite Due Venti and Vietnamese restaurant Da Nang closing its doors but the spaces haven't stayed vacant for long. The newer businesses will add different options, such as House of BBQ, which is taking over the former Due Venti space.
"We currently have additional dining establishments interested in being part of the growing Dine Clawson buzz," says Horton of the DDA's restaurant committee. "The restaurant growth is occurring because businesses like to move where there are [similar] businesses."
56 S. Rochester Rd.; 248-588-5788
Established in 1958, Clawson Steakhouse has been a staple in the community for more than 60 years, serving up high-quality steaks like Bone-In Wagyu New York and Porterhouse, but also delicacies such as frog legs. On Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays the Mark James Band provides the tunes. Clawson Steakhouse eschews the latest and hottest trends and sticks to what it does and knows best: being a go-to spot for a nice night on the town.
The Lucky Duck owner and chef Grant Vella loves the local feel of Clawson.
The Lucky Duck
38 S. Main St; 248-565-8393
One of the newer restaurants in the city, The Lucky Duck is a modern Korean pub, serving craft cocktails and Korean-inspired dishes like bo ssam (Korean barbecue lettuce wraps), mandu (dumplings), Korean fried chicken, and more. The idea to do a pub-type of place stems from pubs being a staple in Clawson and the space's former life as a pub, says owner and chef Grant Vella, who had a vision to elevate pub food from the usual suspects of beer and fried food.
"We wanted to really highlight .. a pub style with cool cocktails but with also more modernized techniques in the food," Vella says. "We're a fully scratch kitchen, we source sustainably." Vella looked all over the lower Michigan area for a space, from Marine City to Romulus to Traverse City. He was about to give up when he saw the for lease/for sale sign on the former Moose Winooski's.
"I picked Clawson because it's a small city, big heart type deal. Everyone is local, or they live in the community, or at least they're a part of it."
45 14 Mile Rd.; 248-585-2314
When it comes to sushi, Noble Fish is often at the top of best-of lists in Metro Detroit and for good reason. The sushi is always fresh and impeccable. Established in 1984 with the addition of a kitchen seven years later, Noble Fish packed in fans near and far into the tiny sushi bar in the back for years. With an expansion project completed a couple of years ago, the popular market and cafe can now seat more than 40, doubling the size of its previous capacity. There's also sushi to go and for the more ambitious types, all the fresh seafood and provisions to make your own at home.
1 14 Mile Rd.; 248-632-1117
Pumachug takes its name from the city's nickname, says Tyler Williams, who opened the gastropub with his wife, Andrea, in 2020. "Two hundred years ago, there was a sawmill where we're currently located and then a cider mill just down the road. And then when you would walk into downtown, you'd hear 'pumachug, pumachug, pumachug,' a sound that the mills made. So we incorporated that into our concepts, into the design elements within the building...to always remember that we're Clawsonites at heart."
Before they even opened, they surveyed the community asking what kind of food and cocktails that they liked and what they wanted to see. They posted on the city's Facebook page hoping for 200 responses — they got over 4,500. "We were able to use a lot of that feedback to develop the final vision, the concept of what Pumachug became," Tyler says.
"I think that a lot of those efforts and a lot of our social media efforts helped give us a head start as a new restaurant." The menu has a lot of bar food favorites like cheeseburgers, pizzas, and salads but most things are made from scratch, from the sauces and soups to pizza dough.
449 W 14 Mile Rd.; 248-677-3232
Before moving to Michigan in 2019, chef Hajime Sato owned and ran Mashiko, a well-regarded restaurant known for sustainable sushi in Seattle. Sato has brought that concept to Clawson, using fish not typically seen in sushi like walleye and highlighting other Midwestern seafood like Lake Erie smelt. He tries to source as local as possible with an eye toward seasonality. What makes Sozai unique is the omakase experience where diners can choose different versions of a tasting menu, from a vegetarian seven-course meal (mori) to kappo, a three- to four-hour culinary adventure.
Three Cats Restaurant
116 W 14 Mile Rd.; 248-288-4858
Leon and Lulu owners Mary Liz Curtin and Stephen Scannell opened The Show in 2016, offering Michigan products, vintage items, greeting cards and more home furnishings. Later that year, they opened Three Cats Cafe, serving small plates and baked goods. "And we never quite got it right," Curtin says.
Through mutual friends, she connected with chef Matt Prentice, whose culinary resume included beloved Detroit restaurants including the former Coach Insignia atop the Renaissance Center, Shiraz, Morels, among others. He analyzed the space and said it would make a great restaurant, Curtin recalls. They put in a commercial kitchen and opened Three Cats Restaurant in 2019. The restaurant is known for dishes like Michigan berry salad, duck confit with butternut risotto, housemade seafood pasta, and more.
Sadly Prentice passed away last April, but his culinary legacy lives on at the restaurant he helped build. The menu gets refreshed from time to time, but "there's always a love of mushrooms and fresh foods. The Matt Prentice experience will always be part of the Three Cats experience. We're proud to be his last restaurant," Curtin says.
Whiskey Taco Foxtrot
28 S. Main St.; 248-629-7067
Charlie Samson and his dad signed the papers on the space for Whiskey Taco Foxtrot days before the pandemic hit. But business has been going well, and Samson attributes that to the restaurant's fun personality and community engagement (in the early days of the pandemic, they bagged up chalk and asked people to draw something and share it, with the winner getting a family meal on the house.).
While tacos are the name of the game, Samson is quick to say it's not authentic Mexican but they are intentional about using good quality ingredients and sourcing locally when possible, such as working with purveyors like Motor City Seafood. He and his team work as a group to come up with the different taco fillings from buffalo chicken (his favorite) to seafood to the nine-hour carnitas. There's also plenty of plant-based options for vegetarians and vegans. Whiskey Taco Foxtrot also hosts different events such as karaoke, trivia, and drag shows.
White Wolf Japanese Patisserie
31 14 Mile Rd.; 248-268-3349
Chef Doran Brooks has cooked all over the world, from Australia to Japan to California, but an opportunity to open White Wolf Japanese Patisserie brought him to Metro Detroit. This sophisticated and elegant bakery marries French and Japanese technique in pastries like Matcha Mille Crepe Cakes, with layers of silky smooth mousse and light and airy crepes; Matcha Azuki Swiss Roll, green tea flavored chiffon cake with red bean infused Chantilly; and Yuzu-Lemon Souffle Cheesecake, a yuzu citrus-infused Japanese-style chiffon cheesecake. There's also an array of espresso-based drinks, coffee, and tea.
All photos by Steve Koss.