Something to talk about

Say What? You could never tell by the puzzling name itself that They Say is a new jazz-oriented restaurant in the old Dunleavy's in Rivertown. When owners Terry Payne and James Parker were looking for a distinctive moniker for their watering hole they came up with They Say, a name whose origins are still murky even to Payne, who years earlier decided to label his food concession at Detroit's Summer Festival with that common conversation starter.

Both Parker and Payne are first-time restaurateurs who previously worked as landscape contractors for the city. Greenhorns or not, they made a wise choice by developing They Say in the spacious, ruggedly handsome, early '20s structure on Joseph Campau adjacent to new lofts, apartments, and the almost-completed Riverwalk.

Most of the time the action takes place in the brick-walled, cherry-oak trimmed, first-floor lounge and dining room, with simple bare tables befitting a music bar. On the second floor, They Say flaunts an outdoor patio with impressive views of the RenCen along with two large comfortable rooms that can be hired for special occasions.

Operating out of a tiny open kitchen, Chef Gerald Gregory, formerly executive chef at the Holiday Inn in Southfield, turns out a menu of old standards, some of which involve Cajun preparations. Late diners will be pleased to discover that They Say is one of the few downtown restaurants that offers their full bill of fare as late as 11 on most nights and even 10 on Sunday when many restaurants are shuttered.

Among the appetizers ($7-$9), the tender buffalo wings score, with their mildly sauced version offering enough kick to please those who are nervous about anything more incendiary. Other usual suspects in this category are nachos, quesadillas, potato skins, shrimp cocktail and a combo of three of them. The salads, which include a decent Caesar and Cobb, seemed a bit skimpy for the price ($7-$11), or at least the plates upon which they are served could be larger.

The six personal pizzas ($8-$10) are more generously proportioned with one admirable thick-crusted, slightly charred pie meeting some of the appetizer needs of a party of four. Available in a larger size at double the price, Hawaiian and taco are two possible busy variations.

Gregory turns out just six entrées — if you are superstitious do not read the rest of this paragraph. For some (satanic?) reason, he also constructs six sandwiches along with the aforementioned six appetizers and six salads — 6666!

The thick, deftly seasoned 12-ounce strip, which arrived rare as ordered, is a good choice for a main course, as are the blackened chicken breast and catch of the day, often blackened salmon. The sides, as well as the warm rolls, which accompany the mains are mostly window dressing, however, and those who are salt-sensitive may not be entirely happy with the fish option.

Rounding out the six entrées, vegetarians can choose a well-prepared pasta primavera in a sort of Alfredo sauce, while carnivores can nibble on roasted lamb chops or a signature dish, baby-back ribs priced at $17 for a full rack.

They Say is not yet a destination for wine drinkers, although Parker suggests he does serve a lot of champagne. A handful of selections are available by the glass but buying by the bottle is difficult since there is no wine list, save a scrap of paper the bartender uses for his own purposes. On a recent night, one server admitted she had not fielded an order for a bottle in three weeks. If you do figure out how to order a bottle as well as its price, you must caution your server not to fill your glass up to the brim. They Say is still a work in progress.

Of the (only) five desserts, the one made in house, a warm cobbler à la mode ($5) served in a rakishly designed martini glass, is satisfying.

At this point, Parker and Payne seem most interested in building up a clientele for their jazz and blues in an attempt to create a music district in Rivertown. Performers currently appear five days a week, with Thursdays and Sundays not yet slotted for live entertainment. In addition, from time to time, musicians play in the early afternoons. Be aware that it may be difficult to maintain a conversation in the smallish dining room while the performers are into their sets. Decibel level aside, this is a good place to observe not only the musicians but the cosmopolitan patrons who reflect a broad cross-section of Detroit's citizenry.

With its relatively unambitious menu, They Say is unlikely to rival the Rattlesnake just down the block any time soon. But Gregory's food is solid and respectable, the old warehouse-style building romantic in its own way, and the late hours will prove attractive to those who need a place to sup and chill out after 10, even during the week. And that should be enough for a conversation starter.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].

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