Country Ham Board with three types of ham, whole-grain mustard, butter, cheese, foie gras, pear mostarda and truffle honey at the Sardine Room. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
Confess. You usually head for the same two or three places when heading out to a restaurant. A lot of us fall into that comfortable trap. It can be much more rewarding to try something new, at least occasionally. Don't give up your old favorites, but add a couple of new ones.
Here are some suggestions for destinations you might try in the coming year.
The Sardine Room
A glance at the menu signals right away that this is a place with its own personality, one that allows patrons to express themselves with a couple of small plates to share or a full-scale entree from the mix that includes more surprises than standards. The only problem is deciding what to order. Should it be something from the ice-bedecked raw bar at the entrance, or perhaps a New England-style lobster roll with some of the hand-cut fries, or the perch po'boy on grilled baguette, or the pan-seared sea scallop topped with grilled pineapple and set off by a ham crisp? The 90-seat spot is the sibling of its two neighboring restaurants, Compari's on the Park and Fiamma Grille, all masterminded by the busy Yaquinto family.
340 S. Main, Plymouth. (734) 416-0261; www.thesardineroom.com.
Mercury Burger & Bar
A view of the classic derelict Michigan Central Station through a row of windows is just one of the perks in a bright room that seats 70 in booths, at uncovered tables and at stools at the zinc-covered bar set with Liberty dimes. A downstairs room seats another 50 or so, and there's also seating on the rear patio, known as the biergarten, at this snappy burger joint put together by Dave Steinke and Dennis Fulton. The cheerful staff in black T-shirts emblazoned in red with the Mercury logo serve the excellent burgers, sandwiches and shakes from the open kitchen behind the bar.
2163 Michigan Ave., Detroit. (313) 964-5000; www.mercuryburgerbar.com.
The Imperial has the breezy attitude of a California beach bar. That tiny menu has what might be served via taco truck, pretty little open-face soft tacos in seven varieties. There's slow-roasted pork carnitas with salsa verde,marinated pork with the surprising sweetness of grilled pineapple, always a vegetarian option or two, and adobada de pollo — delicious little tidbits of lime-grilled chicken with salsa verde. The tacos, on double tortillas, garnished only with a scattering of onion and fresh cilantro, arrive at the picnic-style tables on a central platter to be passed around.
22828 Woodward, Ferndale. (248) 850-8060; www.facebook.com/imperialonwoodward.
Crispelli's Bakery Pizzeria
Here's the premise for those coming to dine: Step up to the host stand and be assigned a table, then proceed to a food station to place the order. When the food is ready, someone will call you by name to pick it up. The system has been seen elsewhere, but not with the standards of quality in setting and fare Crispelli's achieves. Patrons give their orders directly to the pizza maker and watch as their pies are put together. Soups and salads, sandwiches, desserts and crusty European breads, and beer and wine each have their own stations. For those who like being in the middle of the action, the best seats in the house are at the high communal table topped with wood from European wine crates.
28939 Woodward, Berkley. (248) 591-3300; www.crispellis.com.
Le Chef Lebanese Cuisine
It's been around for a little more than two years, thriving on word of mouth but not well-known out of the neighborhood. Invisible from the street — you have to drive into a Home Depot shopping plaza in order to spot it — the door opens to reveal an almost formal setting, a handsomely appointed room with carefully chosen furnishings and decorative accents, linen-covered tables, soft lighting and soft background music. But Le Chef isn't just a pretty face; the well-prepared fare from the kitchen headed by Malake Bitar, the matriarch of the family who adheres to her own recipes from northern Lebanon, surpasses the elegant setting. It's among the best Lebanese food around, and that says something in an area that boasts dozens of good mideastern restaurants.
32621 Northwestern Hwy., Farmington Hills. (248) 932-1300; www.lechefmi.com.
Sameer Eid's long-standing restaurant is Lebanese, yes, but it also offers dishes from other cuisines, such as dry-rubbed baby back ribs and bone-in ribeye, without really watering down the focus on such well-prepared classics as hummus, taboulee and baba ganouge, shish kabob, lamb chops and marinated deboned chicken. Rather than the overflowing platter approach, it has a refined style and a menu that has expanded organically over the years to include an international approach. All of this gives Phoenicia an individuality. It is clearly more expensive than most of the other Middle Eastern spots. But it delivers high quality and top-notch service in its elegant, white tablecloth quarters.
588 S. Old Woodward, Birmingham. (248) 644-3122; www.phoeniciabirmingham.com.
Brandon Kahlich has turned his talents to barbecue, taking over a little storefront across the street from the St. John Hospital complex and giving it new life with an interesting if tiny setting done up with moody black-and-white photographs of New Orleans. There are just 14 seats at tables covered in white linen for his menu of baby back ribs, pulled pork, smoked chicken and sides of housemade potato chips, buttermilk biscuits and mac and cheese. Pizza is an alternative to the smoky dishes.
19222 Mack, Grosse Pointe Farms, (313)-640-4115; www.noblepigcafe.com.
KouZina Greek Street Food
Greek street food — gyros, salads, chicken lemon soup (avgolemono) and spinach pie — is the perfect segue from the previous menu of Mexican street food that was originally the premise in this little building in downtown Royal Oak. The menu is on-target, affordable and appealing. There are just 24 seats around an open kitchen where pork, chicken and a beef/lamb mix for gyros are sliced fresh from three rotisseries, and plates are put together while patrons customize their choices. Bobby Laskaris and George Xenos are the hands-on proprietors.
121 N. Main , Royal Oak. (248) 629-6500; www.gokouzina.com.
The menu at this modest, one-room spot dedicated to the cuisine of Vietnam (less fiery than Thai and lighter than Chinese) is just right for the nine-table space. In addition to the titular dish of pho, beef noodle soup, there are just two appetizers, deep-fried spring rolls filled with shrimp, ground pork and shredded vegetables, and summer rolls with plump pink shrimp peeking through transparent rice paper. Cong Nguyen and the staff love introducing the fare to those who have never tried it before.
23838 Joy Road, Redford. (313) 532-2333; www.pholucky.net.
Green Dot Stables
The old bar with a harness racing theme in an offbeat location west of downtown has been resurrected by Jacques and Christine Driscoll, and it has been an unexpected hit. A dozen-and-a-half eclectic sliders head the menu, including Cuban, corned beef, lamb, Korean, black bean and peanut butter and jelly. Local beers are spotlighted along with sides such as truffle and herb fries, mac and cheese, and chicken paprikas soup, the latter paying homage to the Hungarian origins of the neighborhood.
2200 W. Lafayette, Detroit. (313) 962-5588; www.greendotstables.com.
There's no lack of sustenance around Lakeside Mall. Restaurants of every description dot the landscape, many of them offering the predictability of a chain. Sterling's isn't a chain. It offers well-prepared, contemporary American fare ranging from grilled Angus beef to fish tacos and flatbread pizzas in a woodsy setting that underscores a local approach with photographs of landmarks and decorative pieces by Michigan artists. Add to that excellent service by a well-trained staff, and you've got something.
13905 Lakeside Circle, Sterling Heights. (586) 566-0627; www.sterlingsbistro.com.
In addition to it dishing up one of the best interpretations of mac and cheese in this town or any other, the restaurant in the former car repair shop has a lot to offer with its menu of American comfort food. The circa-1919 garage serves quality fare beyond what might be expected in the unassuming setting that includes the original scarred flooring and many other reminders of the past. There's as much effort from the kitchen as there was in making the sprawling space comfortable and appealing. Vinsetta Garage is a collaboration between the building's owner, K.C. Crain, and Curt Catallo. The big, coal-fired oven on one side of the dining room produces excellent hand-tossed pizzas with housemade tomato sauce and cheese blends; and the wood-burning grill in the kitchen turns out a crowd-pleasing list of choices, from appetizers of glistening smoked chicken wings and breadsticks to beautifully charred burgers made with everything from Angus beef to duck and lamb.
27799 Woodward, Berkley. (248) 548-7711; www.vinsettagarage.com.
There's much more to this Royal Oak spot than just its pizzas, noteworthy as the thin-crusted Neapolitan-style beauties are. The handsome restaurant offers a surprisingly extensive menu, from sampler plates of Italian cheeses and artisan-cured meats to an array of small plates, fresh pasta dishes and housemade gelati and sorbetti, all showcasing the style of proprietor Luciano Del Signore. The second floor location in the vintage building that once was a power station is spacious and airy under a soaring ceiling, with a completely open kitchen along the interior wall and huge paned windows. The name Biga refers to the yeast that makes dough for the slightly charred crusts.
711 S. Main , Royal Oak. (248) 544-2442; www.pizzeriabiga.com.