I wrote my first review for Metro Times in March 1982 during the Reagan recession, when I praised the Cook's Shop in Windsor for its budget-balancing brochettes. I have been writing reviews on and off over three decades. During that period, legendary and not-so-legendary Detroit restaurants and culinary fads have come and gone, but it is still possible to find first-rate meals turned out in an unusually wide variety of ethnic kitchens — including American — at prices that are more reasonable than those that prevail in our putative centers of gastronomy on the coasts. We in flyover country are usually latecomers to the newest trends. For example, back in the late '60s it took several years for Szechuan fare to make its appearance here alongside almond chicken; in much the same way, more recently, it took a few years for fish tacos to migrate from the Pacific and beet salad from Manhattan.
But we have always been a center for bargain-basement dining. In terms of inflation, $1 in 1980 is the equivalent of $2.50 today. Easily beating the inflation rate is the venerable Cadieux Café, the premier and likely only bastion of feather bowling in the United States, which charged $8.50 for a tureen of mussels in 1982 and only $17.95 today. Or how about the Polish Yacht Club (aka the Ivanhoe) whose signature mess of perch went for $7.25 in the early '80s and is now $14? And Moti Mahal's tandoori chicken, which fetched $6.50 25 years ago and is now just $13.95.
On the other hand, wine prices have more than kept pace with inflation. When Lorraine Platman's wonderful "World Beat" Sweet Lorraine's opened in 1984, most of the wine was in the $7-$13 category; now rock bottom for her is around $25, and the modest if "legendary" Bagger Dave's ("Est. 2006") with its estimable sliders, charged $6-$7 for a small house pour of Little Penguin last week. Parenthetically, my first MT paycheck in 1982 was for $35, which is one of the reasons I kept my day job.
My day job, teaching at Wayne State University, brought me into contact with many current and former students working as servers. One night, at Yvonne Gill's Tweeny's in Birmingham, a server, after reminding me that she was in my American History class, growled that I gave her an E, and then turned on her heel to return to the kitchen where she did who knows what with my order. Fortunately, I handed out few D's or E's over the years.
When I took up this post, trips to Windsor for Asian and Italian food were de rigueur, with Wong's in particular a favorite of Detroiters. Raymond Wong has moved on several times over the years, with his latest posting at the Shanghai Café Midtown, while Detroiters flock to the Golden Harvest, Mon Jin Lau and Hong Hua on this side of the river, avoiding the post-9/11 border-crossing hassles and no longer especially favorable exchange rate. And with that bastion of Turkish cuisine, the Mason-Girardot Manor, now shuttered, there are even fewer reasons, alas, to cross the river, even though the best view of downtown Detroit is from Windsor's Dieppe Park, and "our" colorful Little Italy is on Erie Street.
In the early '80s, here and elsewhere, chefs started to become outsized figures on the restaurant scene. The Golden Mushroom's Milos Cihelka was the doyenne and mentor of many of today's celebrated chefs. Jimmy Schmidt was recognized at Detroit's nationally venerated London Chop House, which closed in 1991. He went on to run the path-breaking Tres Vite, and then another of our most celebrated restaurants, the Rattlesnake Club. Soon foodies began to follow the peripatetic Keith Famie (a TV Survivor) and Brian Polcyn, among others, to their several enterprises over the years — Famie to Chez Raphael, Les Auteurs, Durango and Forté; and Polcyn to Chimayo, Pike Street, Acadia, Forest Grill and Cinco Lagos.
And now thanks to cable, celebrity chefs-owners-authors Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali (who summers in Northport) are bigger than their restaurants. Our own John Sommerville of the classy Lark was recently a Top Chef contestant. There was a time, when I first started reviewing, that owners — such as Les Gruber of the London Chop House and Joe Muer of his eponymous seafood emporium on Gratiot — were the stars, but that era is gone, except perhaps for Jim and Mary Lark.
Another dramatic change has been the morphing of culinary wastelands into dining destinations. In the '80s, sleepy Royal Oak began to draw the attention of gourmands and gourmets alike, and was followed a decade later by prosaic Ferndale. Now we find it worth the journey, as the Guide Michelin would say, to travel from all over the metroplex to Clawson, Grosse Pointe and Dearborn for our equivalent of a starred meal.
And while Dearborn was always host to family-run Middle Eastern places, most Detroiters in the '80s went downtown to the Sheik for their fattoush fix. Now we can find authentic Mediterranean food in Ferndale at Assaggi and Anita's, in Sterling Heights at Ike's and La Saj, in Clinton Township at Brigette's, and in Troy at the Lebanese Grill, to name a few places that make Detroit a national center for shawarma and kibbeh, even after the demise of the empire of La Shish.
We were also the center for muskrat. During the Hoover Depression, a local priest declared that muskrat, which was cheap and plentiful, was a fish that could be eaten during Lent. Downriver, Kola's Kitchen served the aquatic rodent multiple ways, with the whole baked muskrat looking like its close relative, a rat. Of all the places I took my favorite dining partner over the years, this was the one that caused us the most disharmony, as I encouraged her to savor her critter bits submerged in a stew.
Like most of my reviews, I found good things to say about Kola's, but I usually never gave a restaurant a perfect score. When I reviewed the charming Bagley Café, a Spanish outpost in Mexicantown, I noted that the gazpacho soup was "shockingly bland." The next time I returned, the owner must have pierced my anonymity, since he followed us out the door, good naturedly, I hoped, repeating the critical words about his cold tomato-based broth. The Bagley's owners, the gregarious guitar-playing Juan and the more grounded Eva Llobel, later moved to an obscure east side location where they tried to make a go of it with Casa de España. They were progressive Detroiters who always supported the right causes in local and national politics. Just before Juan died in an unfortunate accident, we were surprised to discover that they left Spain not as refugees from the Franco dictatorship but from its democratic successor, because they did not want to raise their many children in a society with such permissive social values.
It was always sad to see restaurant closings, particularly those with character, such as Cardinali's, which served its wine in coffee cups, Aliette's, the best French bistro in a city that curiously continues to eschew its founders' cuisine, the majestic Royal Eagle in Indian Village, the upscale Van Dyke Place, with its less expensive cousin, Cuisine de Pays, and in Greektown, the century-old New Hellas and the unique Cyprus Taverna. Missed as well is Pontiac's WE, one of our first Vietnamese restaurants. This one was special, as Mr. Han — the incorruptible, ascetic former tax minister of South Vietnam, who in an aborted coup d'etat almost overthrew his authoritarian regime — ran his business as a co-op.
On the other hand, in the city, the wondrous Whitney, which opened in 1986, is still wowing locals and visitors; Traffic Jam & Snug, established in 1965, maintains one of the most creative menus in town; and the centenarian Roma Café anchors Eastern Market. Among other places more than two decades old in the suburbs are the dependable Salvatore Scallopini's several branches, as well as Boodles and Paul's Chop House, both of which flaunt retro-flamboyant tableside preparations. There is also the Clawson Steak House, for such roadhouse fare as frog legs and a lively dance floor full of mature graduates of Arthur Murray University — who think they can dance.
Space limits my ability to mention the many other contributors to our gustatory wellbeing over the years, such as Avalon International Breads, Loui's for "Detroit-style" pizza, sommeliers like Madeline Triffon, her boss Matt Prentice, and the ever-gracious food critic Molly Abraham.
Here we are in the Bush recession, having come full circle since the early '80s. Despite the dismal economy, you can still find local restaurateurs and their professional staffs responding to our cravings — whether we are looking for prime rib and lobster or bureks and pierogi.