The center bar is among the newly renovated areas at the restaurant. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Getting a new restaurant up and running is a tough task, and itís magnified when the space is in a high-profile location. People love to be in on the ground floor when a place debuts, and so they rush in, sometimes overwhelming a staff just getting acclimated.
So if the service is a little shaky at the new 220 in downtown Birmingham, itís to be expected. Just sit back and enjoy the rebirth of what had been known as 220 for many years under the previous regime before the new proprietors, Denise Ilitch and Zaid Elia, gave it a new identity, if not a new name.
The sturdy red brick 1932 building, once a Detroit Edison office, has been lightened up ó and how appropriate is that ó with an array of eyecatching light fixtures, uncovered windows, soft colors against which the splashy paintings by Dominic Pangborn show up beautifully and slick new furnishings ó from the granite-topped bar at the entrance to the upholstered banquettes and wood-topped tables in the more secluded dining rooms behind the bar.
At the entrance is a Champagne bar, and I use the capital C advisedly, with bottles of Veuve Clicquot, Moet & Chandon and Dom Perignon nestled in ice, and it also serves as a coffee bar that opens at 8 a.m. to serve lattes, espresso and housemade pastries to those on their way to nearby offices.
Executive chef Scott Garthwaite, who moved here in April from Las Vegas, where he had been in the kitchen at the Sage Restaurant at Aria, is a Culinary Institute of America graduate, and he has put together a contemporary American menu that has a definite Midwestern spin. Note the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich, the soft pretzel with dark beer mustard and notably, the sharable Detroit Sports Platter of fried chicken wings, pigs in a blanket, fried cheesy risotto and Cracker Jacks. Wonder who thought of that last one.
The menu includes many of the dishes without which a restaurant of this ilk canít seem to open these days ó fried calamari, mini sliders, mac & cheese, flatbreads ó but they are nicely done, as is the sturdy house burger, made with a custom blend of beef and topped with smoked tomato jam, a swirl of pickled onions, crisp bacon and white cheddar, crowned with a fried egg. Itís served cut in half, a nice touch, and accompanied by a choice of fries or a subtle little salad of field greens in the house vinaigrette. Burger purists, of course, may have a more traditional lettuce, tomato, onion-topped patty.
Entrees that appear on both lunch and dinner menus include lake perch, fried at lunch and served with warm potato salad, and sauteed at dinner and accompanied by heirloom tomatoes, and spicy penne pasta with Italian sausage, one of the few vestiges of the old 220. Steaks are relegated to the evening, and there are just two, a flat iron served with roasted mushroooms and a bone-in ribeye at the top of the price scale at $44.
Wine by the glass may be ordered in two portion sizes, 6 ounces and 9 ounces, and I wonder why more places donít do this.
Lively bar action has always been part of the scene at 220, and the bar seems to be where most people want to be. Those who want a little more seclusion, and service that is a little more attentive, should choose a table in one of the dining rooms rather than perching at the bar or at ones of its array of high-tops.
What the ratings mean: One star equals good, but routine; 2 good-plus; 2 Ĺ, very good; 3 excellent; and 4 outstanding, taking into account all of the elements of dining: food, atmosphere and service. 4 is the top rating.
220 Merrill, Birmingham
Call: (248) 646-2220
Rating:★★★3 stars (out of 4)
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Wed..,
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. Closed Sun.
Prices: Appetizers $11-$18, wood-grilled flatbreads $16, burgers and sandwiches $10-$14, lunch entrees $18-$24, dinner entrees $22-$44, desserts $2-$8
Credit cards: All major
Liquor: Full bar and an extensive wine list
Noise level: High in bar at prime time, moderate in separate dining rooms
Parking: Valet or next door parking
Wheelchair access: No barriers