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Why isn't Detroit a Restaurant City?


san
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Though I've been away for about a year (in Philadelphia), I have lived in metro detroit for most of my life and being in Philly has opened up my eyes a bit regarding the way a real restaurant city should be. Obviously the economy is always a factor when it comes to Detroit recently, but I am troubled by the overall lack of great restaurants in the metro area. Royal Oak, with all of its new lofts and development, really has hardly improved on its dining scene which has been comprised of places for sustinence either before or after the bar. I should note that vinotecca/bastone both have interesting menus and decor, but service (though not bad) isn't especially good. A handful of places in the city have opened that I was genuinely excited about, only to find six months later that they either didn't change anything about their entire menu, or tamed the creativity that my excitement was based on to begin with. Here in philly there is a genuine excitement within both the public, the media, and the industry when a new restaurant opens, even if it is a 30 seat byob in a remote area of the city. Industry members seem to all know each other, get along well, and dine at (and recommend) each others restaurants. I can name any restaurant in the city with a $20+ p/p check average and 90% of Philidelphians I talk to will give me a 10 minute review. In Detroit, many people have never heard of Tappewingo, The Lark, Tribute, Etc..... There is no unified opinion of a best restaurant in Detroit. The lark and tribute are definitely great restaurants, but they get little or no national attention. Magazines like Food & Wine mention Philadelphia restaurants in every issue. Is the lack of excitement in the Detroit dining scene due to the economy? The lack of interest from Detroiters? Is the lack of interest due to the lack of quality? Am I off-base and being over-critical of a city with hundreds of great restaurants?

Sandy Levine
The Oakland Art Novelty Company

sandy@TheOaklandFerndale.com www.TheOaklandFerndale.com

www.facebook.com/ArtNoveltyCompany twitter: @theoakland

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Restaurant cities tend to be places with a solid local economy, significant tourism, and consultants traveling on expense accounts. Any city where houses can be purchased for less than the price of a car is unlikely to be a culinary destination.

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I should clarify my post - I'm referring to domestic culinary destinations...

I thought you were going to clarify your post to apologize to those of us who own homes in Detroit and paid more than we did for our cars.

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I should clarify my post - I'm referring to domestic culinary destinations...

I thought you were going to clarify your post to apologize to those of us who own homes in Detroit and paid more than we did for our cars.

I doubt many people paid for for their cars than their homes, in Detroit or elsewhere - the news reports I've seen from Detroit over the past year have shown houses selling for $10k-$20k, if you're buying a $20,000 house you probably aren't driving a $25,000 car - but who knows. Either way, the Detroit economy doesn't seem to be thriving and without a steady stream of people willing to support destination restaurants they simply cant survive.

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I should clarify my post - I'm referring to domestic culinary destinations...

I thought you were going to clarify your post to apologize to those of us who own homes in Detroit and paid more than we did for our cars.

I doubt many people paid for for their cars than their homes, in Detroit or elsewhere - the news reports I've seen from Detroit over the past year have shown houses selling for $10k-$20k, if you're buying a $20,000 house you probably aren't driving a $25,000 car - but who knows. Either way, the Detroit economy doesn't seem to be thriving and without a steady stream of people willing to support destination restaurants they simply cant survive.

I'm not sure what your source is, but I can assure you that the majority of Detroit homeowners paid significantly more than $20,000 for their homes. While some sectors of the Detroit economy are hurting, there are plenty of people here who continue to do very well. And keep in mind that, like in many large cities, it's not necessarily the people living in the inner city that support leisure-based industries like restaurants. We have many affluent suburbanites that have lots of cash to spend.

I would argue that Detroit has never really been a restaurant town, so the current economy isn't what created the environment that san is describing. I'm really not sure exactly why this is, but that's my two cents.

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I'd disagree that it's flippant or poorly researched:

Wall Street Jorunal, May 2007

DETROIT -- This city's auto industry currently faces a historic meltdown. The real-estate market is so distressed that many houses here are cheaper than cars. A population flight to outlying suburbs -- a trend that began four decades ago -- continues, rivaling the exodus from hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.

Reuters, March 2007:

After selling house after house in the Motor City for less than the $29,000 it costs to buy the average new car, the auctioneer tried a new line: "The lumber in the house is worth more than that!"

...

Realtor Ron Walraven had a three-bedroom house in the suburb of Bloomfield Hills that had listed for $525,000 sell for just $130,000 at the auction.

The only Detroit related news I've seen recently is similar. If the local economy isn't good, I don't see how destination restaurants can succeed. I'm not trying to offend anyone with these comments, I'm sure it's a lovely place to live - but without tourism, conventions, and business travelers it's nearly impossible for a destination restaurant to be successful. It's even harder in a city not known for being a culinary destination.

Edited by melkor (log)
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At one time, much of Philadelphia's downtown area was a waste land.

In fact, Philadelphia underwent a near miraculous transformation wherein Socuiety Hill seemed to emerge from the rubble almost over night.

Detroit is just beginning to recover from decades of decline. Most people with any income lived in the suburbs and apart from some places like the London Chop House there was little in the way of fine dining in the downtown area.

Most of the good restaurants where in the suburbs where the money was.

It takes time but my most recent visits to Detroit indicate things are beginning to turn around. Will it become as vibrant a food townn as Philly? Maybe, maybe not.

It is getting better though.

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Does Detroit have any strong culinary history? In places like Philadelphia, (and currently New Orleans) that went through hard economic times, at least I had the sense that there was a great culinary tradition there even if the economics weren't right at that moment for it to be a "great restaurant town."

--

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IMO, the London Chop House made Detroit a dining destination all by itself.  Long may it be remembered.

I'd add the Pontchartrain Wine Cellars (r.i.p.) to that.

In googling the spelling of PWC, I found this article from Hour Detroit, which seems to be quite on-topic with this thread.

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In Detroit, many people have never heard of Tappewingo, The Lark, Tribute, Etc.....

Are you referring to Tapawingo, the restaurant in Ellsworth, northeast of Traverse City? If so, it's a fantastic restaurant, to be sure - I loved it the last time I was there - but the fact that it's located in the middle of nowhere, 268 miles away, may have something to do with its lack of widespread notoriety in Detroit.

Edited by nsxtasy (log)
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I think for the purposes of this discussion it's important to consider the suburbs because, as pointed out, it's approximately true that there is no moneyed population in the city proper and because the suburban area (which I would take to include all of the cities mentioned by Nathan above) is big.

I read about promising restaurants opening up in places like Novi or Rochester. But I'm not going to try them because, even though I also live in "suburban Detroit" (Royal Oak), that's a 45 minute drive. A common refrain in the threads around here is that many restaurants would be worth trying if you're close by, but almost none are worth the drive, and unfortunately, the geography of the area is such that most restaurants are 45 minutes away, no matter where you are.

Case in point: Five Lakes Grill is probably in the top three of nationally recognized restaurants in Michigan (because of books by and about Brian Polcyn). (I'd say the other two are Tribute and Tapawingo, the latter, I agree, doesn't belong in the discussion.) I've been dining out in the area for 10 years and have never been. Why? Try mapquesting Royal Oak to Milford.

I can testify as a local that the economy is tanking. That doesn't help. I never ate at Emily's though I always wanted to. I never did because of the 45 minutes factor. And now it's closed and Rick Halberg works for a supermarket.

When Jeremy opened to near universal acclaim, the issue for everybody was, who's willing to make the drive to Keego Harbor? (Fortunately, it's just a few minutes away from my parents, in Bloomfield Hills, so I've been three times.) Eventually, responding to economic pressures, Jeremy trended casual -- where previously they had a tightly controlled menu of five or so items, now there's an entire section devoted to things like burgers and spaghetti -- and the critics are backpedaling from their initial enthusiasm.

So, in short, I think geography (both extent and population distribution) is a key factor as well as the economy.

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I can testify as a local that the economy is tanking.  That doesn't help.  I never ate at Emily's though I always wanted to.  I never did because of the 45 minutes factor.  And now it's closed and Rick Halberg works for a supermarket.

Boy, howdy, Rick Halberg wanted a pretty penny to dine there, though. I could never quite muster the gumption to pay his fare, since it seemed to be an almost "Are you *kidding* me?" priced menu for just about every living thing on there. Sure, it was probably well-prepared by a knowledgable kitchen, but when the average entree price is $36 or so, you're looking at a pricing structure that makes even the best customers of The Lark take pause. Emily's was *extremely* pricey. In fact, I'd say that, pound-for-pound, it was the most expensive restaurant in the state, and that includes Tribute, Tapawingo, and The Lark.

I suppose that there are those who would call me common for saying so, but I still have to factor cost into the equation of where I'll go, and where I won't. Emily's just never quite made me want to commit to it, and I don't really regret not going.

I think Rick Halberg just wanted *out* of the restaurant business, else why shutter *everything*, including the always-packed Tuto Bene in Farmington Hills? I can understand blaming the economy for the closing of Emily's, but Tuto Bene was just on fire out of the blocks, and he chose to let that die, too. I wish him well, but it did seem like he kind of left the business with a snide attitude, one that people (like me) who appreciate really good food sort of felt attacked by.

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It seems we've all agreed that metro Detroit isn't a food town, a handful of times it's been suggested that the restaurants in the surrounding towns might qualify as food towns. I can't think of any restaurant suburbs that aren't suburbs of restaurant cities - I started this topic asking if they exist.

How large an area are we talking about when we include the suburbs as part of Detroit? We need some sort of great places to eat density rating system. Count the number of city block, divide that by the number of places you'd want to eat given an unlimited budget and time and you've got a deliciousness-per-block rating. I think the bulk of the places people consider restaurant cities have extremely high deliciousness-per-block - I can't walk two blocks in Manhattan and not want to stop somewhere to snack on something. Syracuse on the other hand...

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"metro Detroit" is understood to include the suburbs.

There are some good restaurants in Detroit proper. If I had to choose to eat only in restaurants within Detroit city limits vs. any other nearby city, including Ann Arbor, objectively, I think Detroit might be the correct choice. The point I was trying to make is access -- I don't think anybody lives near these restaurants. I can't hop on any public transportation to take me near these restaurants. Maybe one goes to the city for a baseball game, or the casinos, or some museum or concert, and maybe one could include a nice dinner as part of those plans -- but personally that's not really practical for me at this point.

Edited by Leonard Kim (log)
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If there was an "el" system that went from the Detroit river to Pontiac via Woodward, that would cover most of the popular areas of downtown, the new center area, ferndale, royal oak, birmingham, and pontiac. Not only could more people visit the restaurants in these cities, but they could have more than one or two drinks!!!! How different would the dining landscape of metro Detroit become if you could visit Northern Lakes Seafood for oysters, stop at Vinotecca for a glass of wine/tapas, then dinner at Seldom Blues, and a crepes for dessert at Josephine's in Ferndale? I really don't buy the economy excuse, because while it is bleak at best, restaurants are still popping up all the time. I agree that Philly 20 years ago was worse than Detroit is now, and now it is one of the best restaurant cities in the country. Perhaps the metro area is just too big, causing the restaurant pool to be spread thin. I never visited Emily's, Jeremy, or Five Lakes Grill because I never got around to it, and every time it came up I couldn't accept that if I were going to drive that far I wouldn't be able to drink. Public transportation (for me) would definitely make me visit more restaurants, more often, and has since moving to Philadelphia.

Sandy Levine
The Oakland Art Novelty Company

sandy@TheOaklandFerndale.com www.TheOaklandFerndale.com

www.facebook.com/ArtNoveltyCompany twitter: @theoakland

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It seems we've all agreed that metro Detroit isn't a food town, a handful of times it's been suggested that the restaurants in the surrounding towns might qualify as food towns.  I can't think of any restaurant suburbs that aren't suburbs of restaurant cities - I started this topic asking if they exist.

How large an area are we talking about when we include the suburbs as part of Detroit?  We need some sort of great places to eat density rating system.  Count the number of city block, divide that by the number of places you'd want to eat given an unlimited budget and time and you've got a deliciousness-per-block rating.  I think the bulk of the places people consider restaurant cities have extremely high deliciousness-per-block - I can't walk two blocks in Manhattan and not want to stop somewhere to snack on something.  Syracuse on the other hand...

I agree with the people who have commented on the transportation problem. No one wants to travel 45 min. to dinner :wacko: I would also like to point out that the Cultural Center/Wayne State University area :wub: has a very high "deliciousness- per-block" rating. I realize this may be an exception to the rule, but it is a fact nonetheless.

"As life's pleasures go, food is second only to sex.Except for salami and eggs...Now that's better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced"--Alan King (1927-2004)

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Well I was thinking about mentioning the college factor, but didn't because I'm not sure of the facts. It seems likely that a college contributes somehow to the dining scene (in terms of providing consumers and, perhaps, raising the cultural level, including food.) But in Detroit's case, yes, Wayne State's right there, but I don't think of it as adding much in the way of a restaurant-going population because I don't think its faculty or students live on or near campus. Is there any other large American city that lacks a major, residential university in this way? Again, this is wholly my impression, unsupported by facts of any kind. And yes, there are some good places to eat around Wayne State.

Oh, thinking about my above post (where I said probably if you had to pick one city's restaurants, you still might take Detroit over any of the suburbs or Ann Arbor) -- I guess I was unconsciously excluding Windsor. I don't know, but I get the sense that Windsor might be better than Detroit as a restaurant city.

Edited by Leonard Kim (log)
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It seems likely that a college contributes somehow to the dining scene (in terms of providing consumers and, perhaps, raising the cultural level, including food.)  But in Detroit's case, yes, Wayne State's right there, but I don't think of it as adding much in the way of a restaurant-going population because I don't think its faculty or students live on or near campus.  Is there any other large American city that lacks a major, residential university in this way?

I'm not sure how relevant a university is. If anything, its impact is felt in the affluence university communities generally have, with faculty, rather than students, being the target market for eating out at all but the least expensive restaurants. But there are plenty of sizable, affluent university communities (e.g. East Lansing) whose restaurant offerings are relatively slim.

It's also worth noting that, depending on your definition of "metro Detroit", Ann Arbor may be included, and the U of M is certainly a major residential university.

As for the question about other cities with or without major residential universities, here are the twenty largest metro areas in the U.S. (ref) with a few major universities shown for each (I'm sure I missed plenty):

1 New York (Columbia, NYU)

2 Los Angeles (USC, UCLA)

3 Chicago (UChicago, Northwestern)

4 Washington-Baltimore (GWU, Johns Hopkins)

5 San Francisco (UCBerkeley, Stanford)

6 Philadelphia (Penn)

7 Dallas (???)

8 Boston (Harvard, MIT, BU, a bazillion others)

9 Detroit-Windsor

10 Houston (Rice)

11 Atlanta (Emory)

12 San Diego-Tijuana (UCSD)

13 Miami (UMiami)

14 Phoenix (Arizona State)

15 Seattle (U dub)

16 Minneapolis-Saint Paul (UM, Macalaster)

17 Cleveland (Case Western Reserve)

18 Denver (UC Boulder is about the same distance away as Ann Arbor from Detroit)

19 Tampa (???)

20 Saint Louis (Wash U)

As you can see, I'm not sure whether Dallas or Tampa have major residential universities.

All in all, I would say that the presence or absence of a major residential university is probably not a substantial factor in the vitality of a city's restaurant community. $.02

Edited by nsxtasy (log)
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I wonder why Austin isn't in that above list.

Because it's a list of the twenty most populous metropolitan areas in the United States - those with 2.6 million people or more - and Austin, with 1.6 million, is ranked 35th.

Edited by nsxtasy (log)
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I wonder why Austin isn't in that above list.

When I visit relatives in Birmingham, we inevitably settle on driving to Canada for a decent meal. Seriously.

Isn't 1,200 miles a bit far to drive for dinner? :hmmm:

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