Legendary Ginopolis' restaurant is closing, but not quite yet
Farmington Hills — Word has spread about the rezoning and impending sale, which puts Ginopolis’ Bar-B-Q Smokehouse in a peculiar position. John and Pete Ginopolis need to let everyone know they’re still open, or they might go out of business — before they go out of business in three or four months anyway.
It's an odd twist, but one of Oakland County's most storied restaurants has had an odd decade, so it fits. Besides, it's better to say goodbye too early than wait until no one is listening.
The Ginopolis brothers bought a little bar called Oba's in 1979. Three years later, they built it out into what was then called Ginopolis' On the Grill. Two years after that, Playboy magazine ranked Ginopolis' as one of the 10 best singles spots in America.
Packed houses, parachute pants ... those were the days. Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra would swing by 12 Mile Road and Middle Belt for dinner. Bob Hope drew a spontaneous standing ovation one night as he left.
Former Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly practically treated Ginopolis' like his kitchen, or maybe his brass-and-hardwood, burgundy-banquette living room. Sparky Anderson became a pal. Don Rickles, Soupy Sales, Telly Savalas — at one point or another, all of them were faithful customers.
At this point, alas, all of them are deceased. Therein lies a problem, or at least a metaphor.
"Everything's different," John Ginopolis says. The times, the tastes, the traffic.
Sheesh. The traffic. Middle Belt has been shut down just north of the restaurant twice in nine years for long construction projects and once to fix a gaping, gassy sinkhole. Another project last year blocked the road to the south. Oh, and in December 2013, the barbecue smoker shot flames up the stack and caught the roof on fire.
Customers don't like inconvenience, and habits can change in less time than it takes Ginopolis' signature Montgomery Inn ribs to arrive by truck from Cincinnati. When you're treading water, eventually your legs get tired.
"We weren't sure we wanted to sell," John says, but it turned out a company called Harbor Chase that builds assisted living centers wanted to buy. The Zoning Commission approved the change with a unanimous vote, the City Council said OK late last month, and now the ball will gradually work its way upcourt with the Planning Commission.
Figure late spring or early summer, says City Manager David Boyer. Plenty of time for John and Pete to worry about the employees who've been with them for decades, and for the long-timers at the bar to worry about where they'll go next.
Problem is, there's now a mandatory billboard out front: "Zoning Change Proposed." That's all it takes, the brothers are learning, for people to assume your business is defunct — to offer condolences to staffers they think are already unemployed, or to poke a head in the door wondering if any of the signed photos of movie stars are for sale.
"Everyone keeps asking what I'm going to do now," John says.
The short answer is work. Keep greeting people with a handshake and a joke. Keep introducing stories or learned judgments with his standard, "Let me tell you something."
Keep table-hopping through lunch and the early part of dinner before Pete comes in at 6 to do the same, because there might not be a Mr. Applebee at Applebee's, but at Ginopolis', you see an owner.
As for the long-term answer? "I'm 77," John says. "Don't I get to retire?"
He started in restaurants as a busboy at 12, which means his career is now old enough for Medicare. At 25, when he worked at The Topper in Dearborn, readers of The Detroit News voted him the area's favorite bartender. The trophy was a golden cocktail shaker, and it's still on a shelf in his cluttered office.
In '68, he and Pete bought their first restaurant together, and sure, they've had a disagreement or two since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House.
"But it's been 51 years," John says, "and we're still brothers."
Pete is 73, looks 53, and has three children between 14 and 20. "What am I going to do if I retire," he asks, besides drive his wife nuts and go broke?
He and the oldest kid, Nicholas, are planning to open a barbecue joint on Main Street in downtown Brighton. Ginopolis' Smoke N Pit BBQ will be rustic, he says, with a basement they might turn into a speakeasy.
"I know what it takes," Pete says, and then he laughs. "That's what scares me."
As the night-shifter, Pete was on duty the time Muhammad Ali came in for dinner. One customer hesitantly asked for an autograph as Ali was leaving, Pete says, and then suddenly there was a conga line.
The enduring memory for his host is Ali's grace. "Is it OK to leave?" the three-time champion asked. "Does everyone who wants an autograph have one?"
When he was still Speaker of the House in 2015, John Boehner hosted half a dozen friends on the patio one summer Saturday, refusing to let the brothers comp his meal and tipping 50 percent. Sinatra, another legendarily generous tipper, was their guest in Farmington Hills and then their host in Palm Springs, Las Vegas and New York.
"Where else could that happen?" John says. Where else could two kids from Detroit meet the Hollywood Wax Museum and become close enough friends with the Bad-Boy-era Pistons that they wear championship rings?
Where else can Suds and Hondo go after work?
Mark (Suds) Sutherland, 61, and Don (Hondo) Nadeau, 60, are sitting at what everyone calls Amen Corner, where the long and short sides of the bar form a right angle.
They're both financial planners, Sutherland from Farmington Hills and Nadeau from Northville Townhip. Sutherland has about 20 years of seniority on his barstool, which puts him 12 years behind his buddy.
Ginopolis' is "not replaceable," Suds says. They had auditioned a brew pub a mile west the night before, but "it's not the same."
"We're still looking," Hondo says. "We figure we're going to show up at John's house."
At City Hall, John sat with some Harbor Chase executives as the council voted 7-0 to approve the zoning change. With the Ginopolis' 2.4 acres and another parcel to the north, the company will plant 88 rooms on four acres.
"I'm very sorry to see Ginopolis' close," said council member Valerie Knol, "but all good things come to an end at some point."
Ginopolis nodded. Every party breaks up eventually. But at his, he'll remind you, it's not quite time to turn out the lights.