5 Restaurants That Helped Rebuild Detroit
From bankrupt to bountiful: Michigan’s Motor City
Story by Diana Lambdin Meyer
When Evan Hansen and his partners first spotted the location that would become Selden Standard, a contemporary fine dining restaurant in Detroit, Michigan, the building was boarded up and abandoned. Weeds in the empty lot across the street were waist high. Meth dealers openly sold their products on the corner. There wasn’t a working street light for blocks.
That was 2012. Hansen and his partners moved forward anyway, opening Selden Standard in November 2014.
Today, the street lights all work. A local non-profit has cleaned up and re-landscaped an adjacent park. Blighted apartment buildings have been razed and renovations are complete on other nearby housing. People from throughout the Detroit metro are finding their way to this previously neglected neighborhood.
Selden Standard is one of the many restaurants that have helped transform Motor City into a foodie destination. Detroit is an exciting place to visit for lots of reasons, including the chance to discover how its leaders, business owners and resilient residents have rebuilt the city.
In July 2013, facing more than $18 billion in debt, Detroit became the largest American city ever to file for bankruptcy. The population had dropped from a high of nearly two million residents to about 700,000. An estimated 78,000 buildings were abandoned and dilapidated. About 30 percent of the city’s buildable land mass was vacant, much of it overgrown with weeds and buried in debris.
Absent that crushing debt, new leadership leveraged private investments from big names to clean up the city and look to the future.
In the period from June 2015 to September 2016, more than 350 independent restaurants opened in Detroit proper. Amazingly, all but about a half dozen are still open and thriving.
Independent restaurant owners and creative chefs have helped rebuild one of America’s greatest cities, one meal at a time. Here are five of the tasty economic drivers:
3921 2nd Avenue
Selden Standard is a farm-to-table concept that brings flavor via a wood-fired grill and oven. Attention to detail includes churning its own butter and molding its own pasta. The menu is seasonal; whenever possible, try the mushroom ragu or lentil cappalletti.
Awards and accolades are commonplace for this dinner-only, neighborhood restaurant where reservations are recommended. The most recent recognition is for Pastry Chef Lena Sareini, named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Rising Star Award, given to talents under 30 years old.
Gold Cash Gold
2100 Michigan Avenue
When coming up with the name for their new restaurant, these partners looked no farther than the massive sign already hanging on the building in the Corktown neighborhood.
For more than 50 years, a pawn shop occupied this 130-year-old building; the words “Gold Cash Gold” were already emblazoned in five-foot painted letters. It’s kind of quirky, but it works.
Gold Cash Gold opened in December 2014, but it’s still not uncommon for someone to come in hoping to pawn some old jewelry.
The menu is defined as “farmstead cooking” or “inspiration from the American South with a classic French technique.” Try the spicy fried chicken sandwich for lunch or tomahawk pork chop with white bean ragu for dinner.
The ceiling is a popular Instagram post, but in warm weather it’s hard to beat the outdoor patio.
Norma G’s Caribbean Cuisine
14628 East Jefferson
Much of Detroit’s rebuilding success can be attributed to its cooperative, supportive community of food-based businesses. The Food Lab Detroit is a non-profit that brings people together in support of local entrepreneurs.
One of its many success stories is Lester Gouvia, a native of Trinidad who came to Detroit for a corporate job. After being downsized, he began searching for a pathway to his dream.
Through the Food Lab, he began sharing a kitchen for a catering business, then connected with a brick-and-mortar restaurant where he was able to serve his cuisine one night a week. From there he opened a food truck and, finally, in August 2018 opened his own brick-and-mortar restaurant named for his mother Norma.
With roots in Trinidad, which is known for its spicy food, you can expect a bit of fire on much of Norma G’s menu. Lester serves up several versions of oxtail, lots of shrimp, and plenty of jerked chicken. The Trinidad-style potato salad is his mother’s recipe. For dessert, try the Trini-trifecta, which is basically frozen custard with cinnamon and Trinidad rum.
Michael Symon’s Roast
1128 Washington Boulevard
Located in the historic Book Cadillac building, now a Westin hotel, Roast opened in 2008, among Detroit’s darkest financial days. Although a native of Cleveland, Symon’s investment in Detroit was considered a signal that it would return to its greatness.
Roast is considered the city’s premiere steak house. While you certainly can enjoy a nice sirloin or T-bone, Michael Symon is known for creative dishes that include the cheek, ear and tongue.
Cocktails are equally creative and unexpected.
Before or after your meal, take the elevator to the Westin’s second floor lobby. There you’ll find a collection of sculptures honoring those who helped build Detroit. Among them are Chief Pontiac of the Odawa Nation and Antoine Laumet del Mothe, who builtva fort in 1701 that became the city of Detroit.
Traffic Jam & Snug
511 West Canfield Drive
Of course, much of Detroit’s stamina and resilience comes from businesses that stayed and fought the good fight when things got tough. That perfectly defines Traffic Jam & Snug, a staple in the Motor City since 1965.
For much of its life, Traffic Jam & Snug has been known for its in-house bakery and dairy. Yes, it makes its own cheeses, ice cream, butter, and so on. In 1992, it became Michigan’s first microbrewery, opening the path for hundreds of delightful craft breweries throughout the state.
But a 2010 addition of a rooftop garden really upped its local flavor. Lots of herbs and greens contribute to great salads, but the biggest talking point is the tea grown in the rooftop hot house. The restaurant now has ten flavors of tea grown and blended right on Canfield Drive.
Ask about tours of the garden, which are scheduled in the summer months and available upon request at other times.
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Diana Lambdin Meyer is a southern Illinois farm girl who grew up in the Shawnee Hills, Illinois’ only viticulture area. Now based in Kansas City, Missouri, she and her husband Bruce travel the world in search of good stories and good photos. Follow their travels at mojotraveler.com. www.mojotraveler.com