The Detroit diner (often referred to as a "coney island") is the unsung hero in the restaurant world. Its purpose is rooted in utility, a place where busy lunchers can rest their feet for a few minutes, scarf down a quick bite for cheap, and shoot the shit with the surly short-order cook behind the counter.
Until pretty recently, that's the image one sees when envisioning the quintessential greasy spoon. That's beginning to change, though, thanks to a number of spots that aspire to be finer than your average diner.
One such bright update to the diner is the fairly recent arrival of Parks & Rec situated inside the beautifully restored GAR Building downtown. The building was brought back to life in 2014, after many years of remaining vacant, by the video production company Mindfield, which occupies the upper level. The 30-seat eatery's kitchen is shared with the Republic tavern and, in many ways, outshines the larger fine dining establishment, in particular for its ability to elevate the otherwise underdog meal of breakfast.
The 1899-constructed Grand Army of the Republic building was used by the city of Detroit's Parks and Recreation Department during the 1940s, hence the name. Thus the interior is chock-full of era-appropriate decor, with its retro-looking white laminate bar, muted blue-green walls, stools designed like giant Oreos, a reclaimed wooden sign from the James Scott Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle, terrazzo flooring, and green folding chairs that seem as if they came out of a community rec center.
As for the kitchen, it's headed by chef Sarah Welch, who took charge after the departure of Kate Williams, Republic's opening chef. In the first 18 months on the job, she's since opened the diner, and has managed to find a way to balance the work of running both concepts simultaneously.
The result: a chef-driven spot that has grown from being known for scratch-made pastries and comfort foods to a finely edited menu that changes with the seasons and that works no matter what time of day you visit.
To bring Parks & Rec to the next level, Welch brought on sous chef Allie Lyttle, who's introduced a number of savory offerings that so far have proven to be a hit.
As with Republic, much of what you'll find in the kitchen is made on the premises, including sausages and bacon, breads, pastries, pickles, jams, and fresh-squeezed orange juice; ingredients are sourced locally whenever possible.
You'll note when your meal is served that the plating at Parks & Rec is a departure from the old-school lunch counter, with dishes made not simply to satiate your hunger but also to appeal visually, as many entrées are accented with local floral garnishes.
The brisket and cornbread, for example, is exquisite and complex. It starts with a generous, subtly spicy, crumbly layer of house-made cornbread covered in sweet, marinated brisket sourced from livestock at Michigan State University, and topped with a yolky duck egg, sunny side up. The sweet and savory is cut nicely with the acidity from a side of pickled green tomatoes.
There's also the nostalgia-inducing bologna sammy, with a formidable slice of tasty bologna, with a fried egg, maple pub cheese, bright yellow house-made mustard, and pickles — all tucked into a brioche bun. It's the kind of sandwich that will have you longing for that Tiny Toons lunch box (sans the Wonder Bread and fruit snacks).
Lyttle also comes up with a divine peach and black pepper bread pudding that summons up a unique spiciness not often associated with the otherwise sweet dish. The leek anglaise soaked bread is covered in a peach and cilantro salad, goat cheese, and macadamia nuts, offering a strong contender for a filling breakfast or lunch.
Several items have remained on the menu from the beginning, including a flavorful shrimp-and-grits, with locally raised shrimp that are sauteed with vegetables and harissa atop popcorn grits with hot sauce; and a hearty biscuits and gravy, which offers a richly brown, complex sausage gravy on top of warm buttermilk biscuits and a poached egg.
Even keeping it simple with the so-called standard breakfast, you're in for a treat with rustic toast, homemade jam, eggs, and your choice of pork or lamb bacon. We highly recommend the lamb bacon. It's thick and somehow comes out with the slightest hint of maple so there's no need for dunking in syrup.
For finicky eaters who'd rather control what goes in their breakfasts, there's the ever-popular build-your-own section. Choose between a potato hash, omelet, or benedict, and add your choice of veggies, cheeses, (including a heavenly burrata, feta, or Brie), meats, or salmon.
As for those sweets, the baked goods have become standbys, including a rotation of delicious cookies and muffins (the back-of-the-house staff are encouraged to research different recipes each week to mix things up). There's also the massive cinnamon roll ($10) that's ideal for sharing, coil by buttery coil. It's baked to order and is drenched in an orange zest-goat cheese icing that evenly coats the walnut infused, cinnamon and brown-sugary roll.
The atmosphere feels relaxed during off-peak times, enough so that you could pull out the laptop and get some work done or chat with the personable staff, but during the busy weekday lunch rush or weekend brunch crowds, expect the vibe to liven up considerably. Prices are a step up from the typical diner and have, in fact, gone up since it first opened. That standard plate goes for $8, biscuits and gravy for $9, and the brisket and cornbread is the most expensive item on the menu (as of now, as we mentioned the offerings are seasonal) at $15. Still, you're not getting typical.
Also added: a full cocktail program, including a double beer tap installed in time for the Tigers season early this year.
We usually reserve our reviews for fine dining experiences or hidden treasures off the beaten path. In this case, we were excited to break from routine and explore a diner that goes beyond the norm.
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