The massive Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) building on Grand River and Cass in downtown Detroit doesn’t look like any other building in town, and so it seems particularly fitting that the menu at the restaurant that opened last month on its first floor doesn’t resemble other local menus, either.
The concise list of dishes is as individual as the structure that was constructed prior to the 20th century as a tribute to the soldiers of the Civil War. It’s been called “the castle” for years, but it really looks more like a fortress with its turrets and massive stone façade.
Now the grand old building has new owners, David and Tom Carlton, and Sean Emory of the media company Mindfield — they just moved the company to the top floor of the building — and part of their vision for it is Republic Tavern, where chef Kate Williams and barman Paul Fradeneck are collaborating on the food and drink that give it identity. Rabbit pot pie, anyone? Or perhaps a Detroit Pink cocktail made with Two James Old Cockney gin?
The marble-topped bar at the entrance offers room for 22 on high-legged metal chairs for the blend of old and new that infuses the one spacious room, where tables are topped with reclaimed wood and lighted by open-filament bulbs on black wrought iron arms overhead. Bartenders wear heavy-duty denim butcher’s aprons, while the waitstaff is wrapped in baker’s aprons, just another of the distinctive touches here, like the contrast of the contemporary black-and-white mural on one wall and the collection of cloudy antique mirrors on another. The vibe is comfortable and convivial.
The chef plans to change the menu regularly, but there are surely some items that diners are going to want to see for a while, such as the notable seared beef tartare garnished with apple, tarragon and pickled mustard seed. The “seared” part doesn’t mean it isn’t the classic raw dish, but refers to the fact that the beef is quickly slapped on the heat and then removed just before it is minced. Beef tallow fries, thin, crisp and salty and complemented with a mildly spicy pepper aioli dipping sauce, also appear headed for longevity, as does the whole roasted trout with preserved lemon, white beans and a touch of fennel.
The dishes are generously garnished and served on white china or, in the case of the Ploughman’s Plate of charcuterie, cheeses and pickles, on a wooden board. Rabbit pot pie arrives in a small metal pot and the tender meat is topped with celery, julienned carrots and a couple of little meatballs made with pork belly. Bone marrow turns up tucked into fritters, and what a great way to deliver the fatty treat.
I love the creativity here on both food and beverage menus, and the unpretentiousness that includes dish- towel napkins and stemless barware. It’s an auspicious beginning.
1942 Grand River Ave., Detroit
Call: (313) 446-8360
Hours: Dinner 5-10 p.m. Sun. and Tues.-Thurs., 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Closed Mon.
Prices: Sharable dishes $6-$16, main plates $20-$42, desserts $8-$10
Credit cards: All major
Liquor: Full bar, with an emphasis on whiskey
Noise level: Moderate
Parking: Street and nearby surface lots
Wheelchair access: No barriers