Inside the Fisher Building, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
Entrées: $8-$11; brunch $6-$11
Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday & Saturday (brunch menu 9 a.m.-3 p.m.).
Note: Restaurant will have expanded hours upon receipt of its liquor license.
Although the Zenith won’t reach its … er … pinnacle? acme? … until it gets its liquor license in a week or two, we couldn’t resist reviewing this shrine to retro culture and advertising after seeing photos from friends on social media. If there’s a restaurant with more photo ops than this one, I’d like to see it.
Recently opened in a huge former bank in the Fisher building, the Zenith is a time capsule of mid-century artifacts. Anyone visiting should take a few moments to explore the entire space; don’t miss the private room dedicated to paint-by-numbers art. The ephemera was brought to Detroit from Boston by owners Melissa and Robert Jasper, who have been collecting for the past 30 years. Somehow, it’s much nicer to know that this is a personal collection amassed over time, rather than someone with a bloated budget who bought it all a month ago.
The Zenith’s menu concept is Southern-meets-Mexican, which gets a little confused at times, but mostly works well. There are two sides to the menu, one with “large plates” such as burritos, tortas, and burgers, and another where you build your own dish using dozens of possible components.
At first glance, we found the choose-your-own menu too confusing and overwhelming, so we stuck to the prefab items at first. One companion chose the “High Voltage” burger, stacked with fried green tomatoes and topped with melted pimento cheese; another went for the Notorious BLT, with the BLT components served as tacos. My own choice, a burrito with pulled pork, slaw, and a generous amount of avocado, was the table’s favorite, though it’s worth noting that the bacon in the BLT is thick-cut, meaty, and flavorful.
Once you get a feel for the restaurant’s flavors, it’s easier to delve in and create your own plate. Servers can help you figure out what might go with what, although a short list of suggested pairings could come in handy for newcomers. If you’re unsure about sauces or condiments, they’re happy to put them on the side, although “smothered” dishes seem to be part of the concept.
My attempt at build-your-own was a dish that included fried chicken, sweet potatoes, corn, poblanos, and a jalapeno hollandaise. While I was happy with my creation overall, the chicken’s crunchiness was lost under the sauce and vegetables, and it seemed a bit tough. We also tried a salad with a mammoth portion of catfish. One of our favorite condiments was the incredibly fresh-tasting salsa verde. I ate it on its own, almost like a relish, and my friend said it would’ve made a great dressing for her salad.
Side dishes that accompany the large plates range in quality. Mac & cheese is nothing to write home about, with a strong taste of black pepper, but we all loved the creamed greens and chipotle mashed sweet potatoes. Coleslaw is on the limp side, with a spicy kick. I didn’t much care for it on its own, but it worked fine inside my burrito.
There are no appetizers on the menu, but you can order a plateful of the Zenith’s take on poutine, with cotija cheese, four-pepper gravy, bacon, and scallions. Unless they add any other small plate items down the road, I foresee this being a runaway hit once the bar opens, both because it’s tasty and because not much else on the menu is shareable.
At the moment, brunch is when the Zenith is most happening, although we suspect that’ll change once the tiki lounge opens. Brunch favorites were the Appalachian crêpes with apple butter, smoked ham, and cheddar, and the chilaquiles. I’m not huge on sweets in the morning, but my companions were big fans of the passion fruit Bundt cake French toast.
Although the food could use some tweaks here and there, you definitely won’t go hungry at the Zenith. Portions at both brunch and dinner are extremely generous, especially at an average price of $10 per plate. While fine dining seems to be the fastest growing category of new restaurants in the city, the low- to mid-price category can always use fresh additions.
We asked our server for a preview of the drink menu, and he says it will contain lots of fruity drinks with housemade syrups, certainly appropriate for the tiki bar vibe. But we have a feeling that they could serve almost anything, and people would flock there just to bask in the retro glow of the tiered drum lampshades. The Jaspers have done an exceptional job creating an ambience unlike any other in the city, and for that alone, we hope the Zenith becomes a Detroit institution.
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