Metro Detroit's Pitmasters

Okay all you self-styled "chefs" out there, here's a recipe for you to try: take one stylishly rehabbed vacant old building, add a smoker or two, throw in some mixed-bag barbecue from the major American south BBQ regions (Texas, Memphis, the Carolinas, Kansas City), emphasize locally-sourced products, tout the variety of Michigan-brewed beers on tap, and let simmer, stirring occasionally. The idea is that you will ultimately end up with an unprecedentedly successful restaurant which will get you bags and bags of money as well as many stories in the New York Times et al.

I kid, of course, but there certainly doesn't seem to be a great mystery behind the current metro Detroit BBQ trend.

Far from being a matter of astounding coincidence with like-minded people having the same idea at the same time à la the crepes expectations, the current trend of upscale barbecue eateries (three opened in July and August 2010 alone; two are only 0.8 miles apart) certainly didn't happen in a vacuum. Ever heard of a place called Slows?

Phillip Cooley, owner of Slows as well as the carryout-only Slows To Go, which he hopes to have open mid-December, has been quoted here before stating that the reason he and his partners picked barbecue for their sleeper success story over five years ago was because "everyone likes it, it's an American tradition, and it's one of the culinary art forms that's affordable."

This concept of accessibility and affordability is echoed unanimously by other restaurateurs as social palates have shifted and comfort food in a comfortable atmosphere is now what diners crave.

Jeffrey Tatum, General Manager of Detroit's Red Smoke Barbecue, says the place fills a very specific gap in the touristy area of Greektown. "Even on this strip you've got burger joints, a steak house, fine dining, Cajun, seafood, and pizza, but you don't really have any BBQ. There's no BBQ down here outside of the one everyone loves…"

But we'll get back to that.

Over at the nearby Rub Pub BBQ across from Comerica Park, GM Chris Smith says "the food fits the setting." It has much more of a defined sports theme as well as a more heavily promoted "Detroit" theme.

When asked "why barbecue," Smith answers, "It's a food that everyone's a comfort menu."  When asked about the inevitable Slows comparison, he simply says, "I know we make similar foods."

Mike Teftsis, co-owner of Red Smoke, is similarly tight-lipped: "We don't compare ourselves to anyone."

People seem reluctant to cop to using Slows as a barometer of success, and you really can't blame them. After all, saying that Slows is a cash cow that has cornered the market with little competition for five years now and that they wanted a piece of the profit hardly sounds like a noble enterprise…but this is business we're talking about, and nobility is a rare thing here (unless you're Phil Cooley).

Most quickly dodge any questions regarding how they stack up against Slows, but the averted eyes seem to indicate a forced humility that is less sincerity and more a learned lesson: slagging on Slows is a local taboo akin to espousing religious beliefs in mixed company. (And anyone who read into that comment a comparison of Phil Cooley to Jesus, those are your words and not mine.)

But it would be foolish to argue that the current upscale barbecue uprising happening lately was in no way influenced by the success of Slows. While other factors may have contributed to the phenomenon -- such as the economic downturn, a shift in diners' demands, and the popularization of barbecue in media thanks to shows like BBQ Pitmasters -- to call Slows anything short of a catalyst is nothing short of denial.

Still, despite the overwhelming similarities between themselves and the Restaurant That Need Not be Named, newcomers insist that they bring something new to the table.

Tatum: "There's no comparison to our service and prep of cuisine," and, "We let our guests decide."

Smith: "We're larger, more laid-back, more sports-oriented. The general consensus is that if you pick up the two menus you'd see that we're very different."

Over in Royal Oak, Lockhart's BBQ - owned by native Texan Drew Ciora whose plan was always to open a BBQ restaurant in metro Detroit and bring a little taste of Texas to the area - is just as hip and trendy though far enough away to dodge the immediate Slows comparison. In those parts, Memphis Smoke was all people knew of barbecue until Bubba Coddington came into town.

"The difference is the passion I put in my food," Bubba says. "I live, eat, and breathe barbecue." Bubba has been on the competition barbecue circuit for five years now and has won multiple awards. There's a big difference between a professional pitmaster and a chef with a smoker, and that's the difference you'll find at Lockhart's.

BBQ is probably the most pedestrian of cuisines, but it is also undoubtedly the most American. The majority of Americans won't have childhood memories of gathering around the chabudai for family sushi night (incidentally most Japanese wouldn't either), but as a culture we all collectively have memories of barbecues with family and friends. Even after families drift away from the dinner table, on special occasions and warm summer days they still gather around the grill.

Tatum notes that barbecue is becoming so popular because "everything has been done already - fusion, French, Asian, fine dining. BBQ is on its way back." 

Bubba echoes this idea: "[BBQ] is something different. Everybody's been doing Mexican and pasta and steakhouses for so many years; people are tired of the same old thing."

It is a tradition that is wholly, unabashedly American, practically patriotic in the way it is inextricably tied to fireworks, summer and the 4th of July. It is universally affordable, accessible, and enjoyable. You don't need an executive-sized salary or a chef's training to enjoy it. It is comfortable and familiar. But until recently it wasn't taken very seriously in the restaurant industry, relegated solely to the realms of bulletproof glass-enclosed box-sized diners in parking lots.

"Quite frankly barbecue done right is the only thing that hasn't been done," Tatum says.  "We're trying to do it right."

In the aftermath of the economic downturn, consumers became much more conscious of their spending. People still desired the occasional night out but they no longer wanted it to cost a whole car payment. It was the perfect storm for a new dining trend: comfortable, affordable, and fun, BBQ became de rigueur.

"Things have changed," Tatum explains. "There's just no way to do business as usual …We had to be a little more forward-thinking."

And so the barbecue joints keep coming. There's Bad Brad's BBQ in New Baltimore, Roundhouse Restaurant in Trenton, Blue Tractor in Ann Arbor, and for those looking for something a little more upscale (if you can image such a thing) there's Zingerman's Roadhouse, which was named by Bon Appetit in 2009 as among the top 10 new BBQ restaurants in the country (along with... you guessed it, Slows) and whose chef was nominated for a James Beard award.

Union Woodshop up in Clarkston is yet another example of taking vinegar and turning it into a tangy North Carolina BBQ sauce. Owners Curt Catallo and Erich Lines closed down Pizza Coco and the ill-timed upscale Clarkston Café to open this well-executed barbecue joint about a year ago that customers swear is worth the 45-minute drive. What they had before simply wasn't working, so they transformed it into something that does. 

Which is Business 101, really - barbecue is bringing metro Detroit back to the basics.

Nicole Rupersburg is Metromode's sauciest writer. A freelance writer, her main gig is writing Her previous article for Metromode was From Blogs To Bucks.

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All Photos by Dave Lewinski


Lockhart's BBQ Offerings-Royal Oak

Pittmaster Bubba at Lockhart's-Royal Oak

Ribs at Rub-Detroit

Pittmaster Bubba at Lockhart's-Royal Oak

Rub Pub BBQ-Royal Oak