Checking in with some of Detroit's older restaurants as the city's dining scene evolves

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

With new restaurants opening each week and local spots getting national recognition on a daily basis, it's clear Detroit has a hot restaurant scene going.

But with all eyes on what's new, it's easy to forget about places that have been around for years, particularly Detroit's destination restaurants that may not be in growing neighborhoods.

Some of Detroit's decades-old businesses are flourishing while others are fighting for survival. Those in developing areas - downtown, Midtown, Corktown - seem to be having an easier time.

The exterior of the Detroit classic, The Whitney, along Woodward Ave., now serving lunch, in Detroit, Michigan on December 28, 2016.  (The Detroit News/ Daniel Mears)

The Whitney in the heart of Midtown, for example, has been buoyed by the area's development. 

"I'm a believer that a rising tide floats all boats," said Bud Liebler, owner of the historic mansion and restaurant. He bought the business about 10 years ago, around 20 years after the Whitney's debut as a restaurant in the mid 1980s.

"Bringing all these people into the city is a good thing," he said. "Secondly, you're creating a ton of buzz outside the city. So it's getting people in here, making them more aware of restaurants — the old ones and the new ones."

Liebler says last year business was up about 30 percent, he saw increases the years before and he expects to see an increase in business again by the end of 2018. 

Besides being a unique setting — the Whitney mansion, 4421 Woodward, is 125 years old and is rumored to be haunted — the restaurant has a variety of events like paranormal dinners and garden parties that draw in customers.

"Our traffic is good, but it doesn't happen by itself," he said, pointing to the Saturday and Sunday brunches that are "extremely popular," the summertime parties in the garden (they've even hired a botanist this year) and special events in their third floor Ghost Bar. They also have a dessert parlor to offer guests service just for sweets, as well as an absinthe room. 

Another longstanding destination restaurant is the Dakota Inn Rathskeller. A nod to Bavaria, the Dakota will close for the summer after Saturday and reopen Aug. 1 for its 85th anniversary celebration at lunchtime, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.. 

Then it's onto its busy season with a chili cook-off that is likely older than the average age of a Quicken Loans employee. Oktoberfest, weekends mid-September through October, is often booked well in advance. And the Euro-style eatery stays busy with Christmas sing-alongs on the 80-year-old piano. 

Back to Midtown, 70-year-old Italian favorite Mario's Restaurant recently made updates to the front dining rooms, adding garage doors for an al fresco dining experience. 

"You gotta keep up with the Joneses," said Mario's owner, Vince Passalacqua. "We're holding our own. Last year I had a very, very, very good year and this year seems to be a little different, but you gotta remember, I live on what's going on downtown."

The veteran restaurant owner says his business hinges on events, particularly the theater scene. He offers a free shuttle service to usher diners to and from downtown happenings. Mario's also has theater packages. Later this summer, guest can get main floor tickets to see "Wicked" at the Detroit Opera House, plus dinner at Mario's and transportation from the theater to the restaurant for $135 per person. 

"Mario's looks very attractive to go to before the theater," he said, adding that parking near the Opera House could be up to $50 depending on the evening. 

Amore da Roma in Eastern Market (formerly Roma Cafe) and Joe Muer Seafood in the Renaissance Center and other special occasion restaurants also provide guests with free shuttle rides to certain events.

Passalacqua said 2018 started off a "little sluggish" but he's not worried about it and is looking forward to the business that shows such as "Hamilton" will bring in 2019. He said more than volume, Mario's had a problem retaining staff. A lot of his longtime employees have been with the restaurant for decades, but they're getting closer to retirement. 

"Replacing them has been hard," he said. "I don't know if it's because of all the restaurants and casinos taking all the good help, but once you get them and you get a good one, you try to keep them." 

Chicken breast cacciatore with Italian beans and homemade pizza bread served at Vince’s Italian Restaurant on Springwells at Homer in Southwest Detroit. (Todd McInturf, The Detroit News)

Meanwhile, south of downtown, Vince's Italian Restaurant is not only competing with the restaurants that are in more concentrated areas, but also with construction on I-75. 

At nearly 60 years old, the cozy family restaurant at 1341 Springwells hasn't changed much during the years. Dishes are still made from scratch, the owners are hands on and in-house daily and there's still a sign upon entering that boasts of a nonsmoking section, eight years after state's smoking ban went into effect. 

"It seems that everything is being directed to downtown and to keeping people downtown," said owner Lidia Improta, whose parents Vincenzo and Maria Perfili opened the restaurant as a small pizza cafe in 1960 after emigrating from the Province of Frosinone, just south of Rome. "What did they say ... 35-40 restaurants opened downtown? And then the freeway’s not helping at all. That makes it quite an issue."

She says the closing of southbound I-75 starting in Detroit is the biggest issue because even their regulars have a hard time getting to them. Improta says GPS sometimes doesn't direct people to the easiest route (she says Fort Street is the most direct path), and there is no construction signage letting people know Vince's is open. 

Owners Francesco Improta, 68, and his wife, Lidia, 65, both of Allen Park, hold a plate of tomato bread, left, and the Assorted Pasta Platter near a painting of the Bridge of Syces in Venice, Italy. 

XXXXThese are images of Vince’s Italian Restaurant on Springwells at Homer in Southwest Detroit, Friday afternoon, March 30, 2018. (Todd McInturf, The Detroit News)2018.

(Downriver's Fort Street Brewery recently announced it would close after 13 years and cited the I-75 construction as a reason for revenue loss.)

The owners of Vince's are going to hang in there, though. Improta says they will be closing for summer vacation July 2-17, but after that they'll stick it out through the construction, which is expected to last until later this year. 

She says Vince's, which serves pizza, homemade soup and classic Italian dishes such as gnocchi, lasagna and chicken picatta, is a destination restaurant. People meet there and stay for the evening. The family restaurant is also huge. Need a table for 30 on a Saturday night? Call Lidia — (313) 842-4857 — she can probably help you out while other restaurants are booked well in advance.

Twitter: @melodybaetens