When Le Petit Zinc hung out its classic blue, white and red emblem of a French rooster six years ago, it was the very definition of an urban hideaway, a surprising find for those who happened by the corner of Trumbull and Howard on the edge of Corktown and caught a glimpse of the café behind a wrought-iron gate.
It retains that quality today, although one of its founders, Jean Charles Sorel, has moved to Paris. His former wife, Karima Sorel, carries on, keeping alive the original Gallic flair indoors and on the pebbled patio and garden where market umbrellas shade the tables.
Le Petit Zinc whispers rather than shouts, and for those looking for a charming little oasis for breakfast or lunch, it offers a serene atmosphere with soft background music and a menu of such French classics as quiche Lorraine, Swiss or Brie-filled crepes, a particularly inviting Nicoise salad with all the proper components, including tiny white anchovies, olives with pits removed, and nicely cooked green beans, a sturdy ratatouille and lighter dishes such as fruit and cheese plates and smoked salmon.
Espresso, latte, an array of tea and other soft drinks, including Mexican Coca Cola, are the beverages.
Everything is contained in a single room, where a handful of tables topped with crisp brown paper torn from a roll against the wall, and a zinc-topped counter seat about 25. Those who choose the counter are treated to a view of the working space where literally every inch counts. What the crew does in that space is remarkable.
From the espresso machine to the crepe and salad-making space — and even the dishwasher — it’s all right there under windows veiled with crocheted café curtains that match the ones at the door, just one of the little touches that give this place its personality.
Although it’s wisely brief, the menu has expanded from the original handful of dishes. Soups have been added, like the sturdy tomato topped with shards of Parmesan that was on the chalkboard last week, and like many of its Corktown colleagues, Le Petit Zinc sources locally, using produce from urban farms and bread from the Avalon bakery. Salad greens are particularly fresh and appealing, and subtly dressed with balsamic vinaigrette or citrus mustard vinaigrette. One of the things I especially like about Le Petit Zinc is that it sticks to its theme and doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. This is simple, not complicated, French fare.
The main dish crepes belie the dainty reputation of the thin pancake. They are a sturdy lunch with such fillings as ham and cheese, roasted mushrooms and my favorite, smoked salmon with spinach and hard-cooked eggs. But I have to confess that when it comes to crepes, I prefer them in their dessert guise, especially those drizzled with chocolate and embellished with a fresh strawberry on the white plates.
Water comes to the tables in wine bottles, adding the right look if not the expected beverage, and water glasses are Bonne Maman jam jars. Because this is a breakfast/lunch spot that isn’t open in the evening (except for private parties) the lack of a liquor license isn’t crucial.
Corktown is a very different place today than it was in 2009 when the Le Petit Zinc opened. Many flashy new dining options are available, but that hasn’t hindered this little place that sticks firmly to its niche, offering what Karima Sorel calls “simple and accessible” French fare served by a casually dressed and friendly staff.
Le Petit Zinc
1055 Trumbull at Howard, Detroit
Call: (313) 963-2805
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun.
Prices: Crepes $4.75-$12.75, salads $7.25-$12.50, sandwiches $8.50-$12.75, desserts $3-$5
Credit cards: All major
Noise level: Low
Parking: Attached lot and street
Wheelchair access: No barriers