Despite all the new restaurants we've welcomed this past year, it feels like we've said goodbye to nearly as many iconic places. In just the past month alone, we've bid adieu to the Lark in West Bloomfield, and Detroit's Gracie See Pizzeria and Hogan's in Bloomfield Hills both will hang up their aprons for the last time Jan. 31.
In place of these mainstays, we're seeing in dizzying numbers the proliferation of composed small plates, plant-based menus based on science, and upscale burgers paired with craft cocktails. Amid the frenzy to introduce Detroiters to the newest culinary trends — or at least to fads that metro Detroit is finally catching up to — you have restaurateurs who want to give you a taste of Old Detroit, but with a polished, modern look.
That appears to be what Jim Brady's Detroit aspires to with its flashy, reimagined location, which fills the space of the former Oxford Inn in Royal Oak. Reimagined because the restaurant had been a staple of Seven Mile at Greenfield in Detroit since 1954 until it closed in 1990. This was the kind of spot where the Don Draper-type could order a steak, a shrimp cocktail, and a Tom Collins, all the while leisurely smoking a cigar. Back then, under the helm of proprietor Jim Brady, you could walk in and be greeted by name. That was the case for customers like Chuck Walton, who went by Charlie Brown, and who later got a burger named after him.
Now under Brady's grandson, Tom, that essence is recaptured, minus the cigar smoke. Tom Brady and his business partner Darin Dingman spent nine months overhauling the interior of the shuttered Oxford Inn, trying to replicate just about every detail of granddad's spot. What you get are plush, upholstered barstools and table seating, mirrored walls, and mid-century starburst light fixtures. Artifacts from a different era in Detroit dining abound throughout the space. A black-and-white photograph of the original Brady patriarch is blown up and adorns a wall next to the bar. And the ladies' restroom comes in the same all-pink hue as in the original location, complete with an operational pay phone where women used to call for rides from bad dates.
The menu is a mix of both favorites from yesteryear and new creations, mastered by executive chef Dave Ogren. Offerings from the original menu, denoted by a diamond, include the jumbo shrimp cocktail supreme, Jim Brady's chili, the 7 Mile Caesar (made using the same dressing recipe created by longtime former waitress Theresa Watkins), and that Charlie Brown burger. The shrimp comes ever-so-chilled and ever-so-jumbo. It took us three healthy bites to get through each one — they're that big — and the sauce has that timeless cocktail sauce zest, nothing like watery ketchup. Same goes for Jim Brady's chili: We've had chili from all across the country, and one complaint we tend to have about Detroit chili is it doesn't have enough kick. Not so with this one. Ogren goes to great lengths to get the recipe just right. In fact, he spent several months on it. The result of that dedication is a chili that has a nice bean-to-meat ratio and the kind of fiery heat you might expect in a recipe from the American Southwest (a good thing in our book). The salad dressing does have a subtly unique quality to it, and the Charlie Brown is made just the way old Chuck would have ordered it, but with the new Jim Brady treatment: a half-pound of proprietarily blended, free-range Black Angus beef chuck, with Ogren's secret seasoning. Topped with Swiss cheese, crispy bacon, and lettuce, tomato, pickles, and red onions, the spice really comes out and you're left with one mouthwatering burger.
Newcomers to the roster include a roasted cauliflower, grandma's fried chicken poppers, the "Big Junior" sandwich menu, as well as "Mark's Mac," a mac 'n' cheese dish that pays tribute to a former chef and close family friend. The cauliflower comes out whole, not in little branches, and slightly charred, leaving diners to chomp away bit by tasty bit. The chicken poppers are freshly battered in buttermilk and honey, and more of that secret seasoning. Guests choose from a handful of interesting dipping sauces, including an intriguing Choco-Tella, which uses Nutella hazelnut spread to produce a slight mole flavor, and a barbecue sauce made with Faygo Rock N' Rye. The freshness comes through, as the chicken doesn't come out like flimsy, frozen tenders found all too often on starter menus. Our dining partner tried the Little Tony off the Big Junior menu. It's a heaping meat-lover's delight, with salami, ham, capicola, and melted provolone, and grilled to a crisp on a flattop. We couldn't get over the mac 'n' cheese, an immensely rich blend of cavatappi pasta and cheese that's baked into a crunchy Ritz cracker-and-cheddar crust. We tried a helping with smoked chicken, peas, asparagus, and cherry tomatoes, which offers at least the illusion of offering a healthy dosage of vegetables (with the amount of gooey cheese, there's nothing healthy about it).
As for entrees, we have mixed feelings about them. Our dining partner loved the 8-ounce center cut fillet, with Brady sauce, roasted garlic whipped potatoes, and green vegetable tangle, while we struggled with the Chicken a la Brady, which resembled a rubbery airline chicken. If you're after poultry, we recommend you to stick with grandma's.
Desserts are indulgent. The Fabulous Carrot Cake comes straight from the original concept and is rich in sweetness. Served as a generous slice, sharing is encouraged. A massive Boston Boulevard Cream Puff is stuffed with house-made Vernor's ice cream, then topped with Sanders fudge and caramel sauces. A bit overwhelming at the end of an already big meal, we instead favored the Bodacious Banana Split. Bruleed sugar bananas are topped with the Vernor's ice cream, as well as house-made Chocotella and strawberry ice creams, Better Made pretzel bits, brown sugar-coated bacon, whipped cream, hot fudge and caramel sauces, sprinkles, and a cherry. The presentation alone harks back to memories of Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor. The only thing missing were the singing waiters and ringing bells.
Jim Brady's Detroit joins sister restaurant Diamond Jim Brady's Bistro in the Novi Town Center, owned and run by executive chef Mary Brady, Tom Brady's stepmother. Tom Brady tells us work is under way to open locations in Ann Arbor and in Detroit's old Chinatown near Cass and Peterboro. This carefully crafted homage to the yesteryear's extravagant dining experience is finely executed.