May 27, 2010 at 1:00 am

Molly Abraham

Tasty Sunday Dinner Company helps rebuild lives, dish by dish

Cornbread is served to the tables, along with salad. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

First and foremost, the Sunday Dinner Company is a restaurant, arguably Detroit's newest, open since May 9 in a handsomely updated vintage post office not far from the Belle Isle Bridge.

Offering a buffet-style array of dishes ranging from buttermilk-battered fried chicken and smothered pork chops to dirty rice with shrimp, the fare evokes the days when home-cooked dinner on Sunday was an American tradition.

Chef Eric Giles has been preparing this kind of food for 20 years, as a caterer, culinary teacher and executive chef at Eastlake Church, and he has a real touch with the iconic Southern menu, using fresh ingredients and often surprising blends of herbs and spices, such as the touch of curry in his baked herbed chicken.

Beyond the menu, however, is another story.

A collaboration between chef Giles and businessman David Theriault, who met when the chef catered a corporate event Theriault was attending, the Sunday Dinner Company offers a second chance to those whose lives have been disrupted by poverty and crime. It's somewhat inspired by Cafe Reconcile in New Orleans, another restaurant dedicated to community betterment.

At the Sunday Dinner Company, the kitchen and dining room are training grounds for workers referred by Goodwill Industries' "Flip the Script" program, to be mentored and taught marketable skills by Giles and Theriault.

The smoothly running dining room shows what that mentoring can accomplish. You won't find a more courteous and helpful staff, both on the phone and in person, or a better-dressed one. As a table is seated, a waiter in a crisp white dress shirt brings the menu and explains the system.

The buffet lineup is not self-serve; rather, the chafing dishes are covered until a server lifts the lids and serves each plate -- so much better a system than allowing guests to serve themselves. (Don't get me started on buffet lines where diners start munching even while piling their plates.)

A small tossed salad -- ask for chef Giles' dressing -- and moist cornbread are served to the tables along with a choice of soft drinks, including, of course, freshly brewed sweetened ice tea. Dessert -- either peach cobbler or house-made carrot cake -- is also served to the tables, where big white linen napkins wrap the silverware.

The high-ceilinged room seats about 90 under small hanging lamps and spinning ceiling fans. Walls are a soft yellow and the exposed ductwork above is matte black. The big front windows are left uncovered to let the light shine in.

Construction workers also from the "Flip the Script" program took two years to renovate the former post office.

Although the restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, the staff is still in the kitchen, providing meals for the needy in conjunction with Forgotten Harvest.

The Sunday Dinner Company is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Cafe Reconcile, which has been a vital presence in New Orleans since 2000.

It's off to a promising start. The food is good and the setting attractive. And the intentions are even better.

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Mae Bosley of Riverside, Calif., from left, Janet Threatt and her husband, ... (David Guralnick / Detroit News)