For the past and the present, Detroit is a Great American City. While time will tell if it ever becomes a city for truly everyone, a corner has undoubtedly been turned: Detroit has gone through the wringer and come out gladly shocked and proud to have something to show for it.
Berliners are coming to see it firsthand. Brooklynites are relocating, annoying Detroiters. You can see two of the nation’s finest museums, the Detroit Institute of Arts (dia.org; 1-313-833-7900) and the Henry Ford (thehenryford.org; 1-313-982-6001), then watch F-150 pickups being made at the River Rouge plant. See the Guardian and Fisher buildings, Art Deco icons, outsider art and the Motown Museum (motownmuseum.org; 1-313-875-2264). Shop at stores on a line between industrial hardness and artisanal warmth. Dance well past last call at Marble Bar (1-313-338-3674), then head to an outdoor after-party. Eat spectacularly all the while.
Breakfast and lunch
With locations in trendy Midtown and downtown, linked via the new tram line suburbanites can’t quite figure out, the Avalon Cafe and Bakery is Pure Michigan, all wholesome and cherries and a touch of whimsy. The whoopie pies are available in seasonal varieties, but the best was the banana-tahini tea cake, perfumy and sumptuous with a sesame buzz, good with black coffee (avalonbreads.net).
Mike’s Famous Ham Place has all the whimsy of a brick, but there’s something winsome about the jolly pink roast at the window, sliced thick to order. Mike Muftari bought the restaurant in 1974 after emigrating from Albania, and serves nothing but ham, eggs, toast and pea or bean soup (flavored with ham bones). For breakfast or with pickles, mustard and a poppyseed kaiser roll, all served on a Formica countertop, Mike’s has one note and hits it like a bell (1-313-894-6922, ext. 8).
Detroit-style pizza is rectangular, with a deep, deep crust, crunchy on the bottom, and rimmed by a thin line of scorched cheese. Buddy’s is the chain of note, but mostly in the suburbs. Amar Pizza (amarpizza.com; 1-313-366-0980) may be in the Hamtramck enclave with a spartan interior, but it’s halal, allowing you to sample the offerings of Metro Detroit’s huge Muslim community. Get a chicken tandoori pizza or, if you can handle it, one with the ghost pepper sauce.
Hamtramck’s Eastern European heritage endures with the New Palace Bakery (newpalacebakery.com; 1-313-875-1334), which sells paczki doughnuts year-round. Near a GM plant in Detroit, the Ivanhoe Cafe is open Tuesdays through Fridays for lunch (1-313-925-5335). Lining the wall are portraits of yesteryear celebrities and grinning men wearing dark suits and captain’s hats — it’s the Polish Yacht Club’s home port. The lake perch, served with fries, coleslaw, pickles, peppers and a mug of soup, is no joke.
Three stellar black-owned restaurants are in the city’s northwestern corner. “Detroit is appealing to people because they can try things they’ve always wanted to do, and the barrier to entry is less than in other cities,” said Espy Thomas, the second-generation co-owner of Sweet Potato Sensations. She and her sister use their grandmother’s recipes, incorporating the orange tubers into cake with cream cheese icing, walnuts, raisins and pineapple, lattice-topped cobblers and so much more (1-313-532-7996).
Named by Allee Willis for her Earth, Wind and Fire song “Boogie Wonderland,” the Boogaloo Wonderland sandwich can be found only at Chef Greg’s Soul “N” the Wall (1-313-861-0331). It’s a miracle you can find it at all. Greg Emilis Beard did not invent the sandwich akin to a funky sloppy joe: He re-created it long after its original restaurant closed. Ground beef, caramelized onions and melted American cheese meld on a toasted 8-inch bun with the special sauce, made from fresh tomatoes and 14 herbs and spices. Its original maker was of Caribbean heritage, and there’s a warm spice sizzle to it. “The food is simple, but it’s the flavor you get out of it,” said Beard.
“The most fulfilling part of it is when people who come into the restaurant who haven’t had vegan food before try it, and a light bulb goes off,” said Detroit Vegan Soul co-owner Kirsten Ussery. The catfish is made from tofu, the bacon from coconuts (it’s amazing), and smothered tempeh mimics liver and onions (detroitvegansoul.com; 1-313-649-2759). The restaurant, which grew out of a catering service, has two locations; the other (1-313-649-2759) is near the bridge to Belle Isle, known for its gardens, boutique aquarium and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum (belleisleconservancy.org).
Dinner and drinks
“Getting really fresh meat and not doing much to it really shows the mark of a true chef,” said owner Kate Williams, who opened the tastefully Hibernian Lady of the House last year in the regenerating Corktown neighborhood. The lamb tartare yields an understanding as to why people enjoy rare steaks. The tea is strong. Family-style dishes come out as soon as they’re finished; we also enjoyed prime rib, cabbage and a ribboned, spun and bound carrot “steak.” It’s one of the hottest restaurants nationwide: I could get only a 5:45 p.m. reservation for a Saturday two months out (ladyofthehousedetroit.com; 1-313-818-0218).
The Financial District’s London Chop House is ungodly expensive, but the dark interior, cigar lounge, live jazz and perfect steaks have made it a destination for expense-account-ready Detroit car execs for decades. You feel like somebody there (thelondonchophouse.com; 1-313-962-0277). Cash-only Taqueria El Rey in Mexicantown is a more budget-friendly place to indulge carnivorously. Opened in 1997 by Eliseo Fuentes, originally of Jalisco, the restaurant sells 100 adobo-marinated, charcoal-grilled chickens a day, served with rice, charro beans and 20 tequilas (taqueria-elrey.com; 1-313-357-3094).
Clubby, neon-hued Takoi was first a food truck, then a pop-up. One arson and name change later, chef/owner Brad Greenhill keeps up a singular, audacious take on Thai. The ribs, served with a spicy seasonal fruit salad, are dry-rubbed and smoked Midwestern barbecue-style, then deboned, deep-fried and glazed in a limey fish sauce/palm sugar caramel. The khao soi noodles recipe meanders over time, just like in Chiang Mai. Two- and four-tops are reserved for walk-ins; enjoy a cocktail while you wait. On Fridays and Saturdays, live DJs spin techno, soul and vintage Thai psychedelia (takoidetroit.com; 1-313-855-2864).
“There’s nothing else quite like us in the city, perhaps in many respects even in the country, when you take into account the whole breadth of the experience,” Greenhill said. “I think that’s because we were founded in a sort of freewheeling manner where we just do our own thing.” He could have been talking about Detroit itself.
Aaron Gettinger (adgettinger.com) is a Chicago-based journalist.