Detroit dining scene abuzz with activity

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

A cheeseburger spring roll in Cass Corridor; farm-fresh rabbit in Hazel Park; 50 craft cocktails at a 50-seat restaurant in a Detroit alley; an expertly twice-cooked egg on a bed of greens near the Detroit Institute of Arts.

These are some of the vignettes of Metro Detroit’s restaurant scene that are making the area a growing dining destination that is gaining more steam with each cluster of hotly anticipated openings.

Big steaming white bowls of Pho are whisked to customers during a busy lunch hour at Pho Lucky in Detroit.

In early 2016, the Michigan Restaurant Association released the industry’s forecast for the year and estimated that statewide projected restaurant sales for the year would grow by 4.8 percent, totaling $15.4 billion — up $2 billion from just two years ago.

While the MRA doesn’t break down those numbers into regions, it’s undeniable that Metro Detroit’s restaurant swell is contributing to those figures.

Explore our map: Top new Metro Detroit restaurants

“It’s pretty obvious the Detroit restaurant scene is growing by leaps and bounds,” said Adriane J. De Ceuninck, vice president, marketing & communications of the Michigan Restaurant Association. “I think ultimately we’re seeing entrepreneurs investing in Detroit and they and restaurants are playing a role in the resurgence, and that resurgence is creating a demand (for restaurants) that we haven’t seen.”

Toward the end of 2015 we saw openings from Jacques Driscoll’s third Detroit restaurant, a lake fish concept in the southwest called Huron Room, and the debut of the revamped Forest Grill in Birmingham. Both opened Nov. 16 followed by vegan restaurant GreenSpace Cafe in Ferndale, Jim Brady’s Detroit in Royal Oak and Standby, a craft cocktail lounge and restaurant in The Belt in downtown Detroit.

The most recent notable debuts include La Rondinella and Stache International in Eastern Market, Peterboro Chinese restaurant and bar in the Cass Corridor (from the same folks that brought us the applauded Wright & Co. in 2014), Thai-inspired Corktown lounge Katoi and the spacious Pop’s For Italian in Ferndale.

Detroit chef Kate Williams says she can’t keep up with all the places opening.

“It’s a good problem to have,” she said. “I love the excitement around it and all the places opening.”

Williams’ Lady of the House concept in Corktown will be part of the next wave of new Detroit restaurants to open this year. Until then she’s been hosting monthly “Lady of the Market” pop-ups in Eastern Market. She says in order to compete with the restaurant scene in New York and Chicago, Detroit will need the workforce to support it.

“With all the places opening, staffing is tight, but good places will always have a staff,” she said.

More openings on the way

There is an average of at least one new buzz-worthy restaurant opening per month. Is that enough, or too much?

De Ceuninck says it’s too soon to tell.

“I don’t think we really know where the saturation point is,” she said. “There’s more and more people living and working (in Detroit) and so as they’re down there more, there’s more people flooding into the city it really kind drives up the demand for more places to eat. So, I don’t really know if we can really comment on when the saturation point will be; it’s exciting, though.”

Getting a table at the hippest and hottest can be daunting with hours-long waits common, especially on weekends.

Katoi and Standby don’t take reservations and aren’t open for lunch. Selden Standard will take only a limited number of reservations and saves some tables for walk-in guests. Flowers of Vietnam operates out of Vernor Coney Island for weekend dinners only. Mabel Gray isn’t open Sundays or Mondays.

Zagat restaurant guide also took notice of our blooming scene, and listed Detroit third on a list of the nation’s 10 “next hot food cities.”

Chains look to Michigan

While they are the most exciting, chef-driven concepts aren’t the only type of restaurants opening by the dozens. A flurry of national and international chain restaurants have recently popped up or are planning their first Metro Detroit location.

Canada’s poutine king Ryan Smolkin is expanding his Smoke’s Poutinerie empire to hundreds of U.S. locations, including restaurants in Ann Arbor, Lansing and Detroit. He was in town last week discussing deals with the Detroit Red Wings and looking at the buildings in Michigan that his franchisees are looking to lease.

“Right downtown, Hockeytown, in Detroit, that’s our sport, that’s what we’ve been doing since day one ... downtown, urban, the nightlife, that 18-25 core pocket and beyond that, the whole entertainment district,” said Smolkin, who says his smothered French fry chain is the No. 1 vendor at several hockey stadiums in North America. He plans to put a Smoke’s in the new Red Wings arena, plus standalone restaurants near the stadium.

Smolkin says there will be Detroit-specific menu items at the local Smoke’s Poutineries.

“We can get that local store special and we can let individual units do whatever they want to cater to that market,” he said. “Everyone loves their fries, but you can load whatever you want to on top. We’ll definitely have a Detroit special.”

Around the block from Selden Standard, chef and restaurateur Zack Sklar is going to be bringing in a Detroit outpost of Memphis-based Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. Started in the 1950s, the restaurant is being brought to town by chef Sklar’s new Schmaltz Hospitality group. Sklar also owns Peas & Carrots Hospitality group, which operates Birmingham restaurants Au Cochon, Arthur Avenue, Social Kitchen and others.

Easily the most buzzed-about chain coming to Detroit is Wahlburgers. Set to open this summer at 569 Monroe, the chain is owned by actor Mark Wahlberg and his brothers Donnie and Paul. The Greektown restaurant will be the first of six Wahlburgers planned for Metro Detroit.

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Twitter: @melodybaetens