It's been around since Harry Truman was in the White House. It predates the major freeways and was a favorite long before there was a blueprint for the Renaissance Center.
Mario's Restaurant is a Detroit tradition, and it carries on in nearly seamless fashion decades after founder Mario Lelli sold it to the Passalacqua family.
Anyone looking for a Fat Tuesday-style splurge will find it in the Italian menu with its lavish complete dinners and option of tableside preparation. The soup-to-nuts approach is still very much a hallmark of the place, although many lighter options are available.
In this age of "How're you guys doing?" and "You still working on that?" the wait staff at Mario's retains its professional veneer. That's not to say that the atmosphere is stuffy or overly formal, it's that the niceties of fine dining are still observed and appreciated.
To take advantage of the full experience, choose a table in the main dining room with its ornately framed paintings, mellow wood paneling, soft lighting and linen-covered tables set around a corner fireplace. (The cocktail lounge at the entrance, with its gallery of photos of the luminaries who have dined at Mario's over the years, has something of a sports bar feeling.) Walk through the archway into the dining room, and it's a different world. The multi-page menu offers time-honored Italian dishes that range from linguine with clam sauce, lasagna and chicken cacciatora to a full page of veal scallopinis — and that's before a diner even reaches the list of house specialties that are prepared tableside for two or more.
And that's where Mario's shows off its vintage style to greatest effect. Choices include two veal treatments, three styles of tournedos (beef tenderloin cut into medallions two inches thick) and the classic sirloin dish, steak Diane.
The menu also notes that this is not the option to choose before rushing out to the theater or a concert. It's a leisurely process of at least a couple of hours.
Tournedos Englais was the entree choice. But before the waiter performed the ritual with the pans and the flames, there were the other elements of the meal, first the basket of crusty Italian bread and bread sticks, and a relish tray of marinated olives, paper-thin slices of mortadella and salami, a couple of shrimp and cocktail sauce, as well as green olive tapenade and some good marinated olives.
Next, house salad in a subtle vinaigrette — and who does a simple tossed green salad better than the Italians? — and minestrone, thick but not completely pureed, so that the nuggets of carrot and other vegetables are recognizable.
Then, the chance for the waiter to perform the ritual. Out rolled the cart holding the burner, the ingredients for the sauce in separate small bowls, and the plump medallions of rich, red prime beef.
Turning the flames up high, he dipped the meat into seasoned flour and placed it in the oval pan to cook to the desired doneness. When the meat was ready (one order medium, one order medium rare, exactly as ordered), he set it aside and made a sauce with the juices, roasted garlic, lemon juice, green onions and coarse-grain mustard.
Then he popped the meat back into the pan, swirled the sauce around it, and flamed it all with sherry and cognac. Wonderful aromas curled around the table.
To accompany the beef, delicate potatoes Anna, sliced and baked in butter, and fresh green beans were served on a separate plate.
It would have been more than enough even before dessert — a delicious cheesecake with mixed berries and chocolate chips, the creation of longtime executive chef Guy Pelino — put the final touch on our indulgent dinner.