Punch Bowl Social joins Detroit's gastropub scene

All in the game

Aug 5, 2015 at 1:00 am
Cauliflower nachos.
Cauliflower nachos. Scott Spellman

The quest of a growing number of restaurants is that of upscaling bar food, swapping out their greasy, dripping cheeseburger and fries for more sophisticated customers who want their meals as carefully made as that craft cocktail or microbrew they ordered. Perhaps something on the healthier side, something that didn't necessarily involve the slaughter of hormone-injected cattle (not that there's no room for that, also) or food that's served in a red plastic basket lined with wax paper.

A more upscale, healthier version of bar food seems to be the goal of Punch Bowl Social, which opened in December alongside the Z parking garage on Broadway Street. The menu specifies what's vegan and what's gluten-free, and the kitchen puts as much love into both meaty and plant-based dishes, so vegans and vegetarians don't feel like they're sitting down to a dining experience that would only appeal to a rabbit nibbling on a carrot.

Described as "up-scaled, gastro-diner fare," the menu is varied and available all day, from 7 a.m. to bar closing. Mornings here work for the power breakfast meeting, offering a variety of juices and dishes that range from rib-sticking to just enough. A co-diner contrasted Punch Bowl Social's breakfast tacos to the tacos of his home state of Texas, where they usually come in flour tortillas and are packed with scrambled eggs and mixed with the kind of dripping, oily chorizo that practically soaks through its vessel. At PBS, they're made with corn, and the chorizo is lightened with a crema, salsa verde, roasted jalapeno, and topped with crunchy, razor-thin ribbons of radish, onion, and cilantro. The taco plate — they come three per serving — is enough by itself, but includes sides of refried beans and roasted potatoes.

For lunch or dinner, there's a large selection of salads, organic burgers, entrees, and "craft" sandwiches. These are not your typical deli variety of clubs or turkeys; they're prepared with a twist. Take, for instance, the "Very Serious Grilled Cheese" — the typical American or cheddar is replaced with generous helpings of Gruyere and goat cheeses and are joined by poached pear, quince, and sea salt crisps — all inside ciabatta. The cheese could be spread a little thinner, as it oozes out of the bread and onto your hands, but the sweetness and tartness work well together — sort of like a cheese and fruit plate in sandwich form.

As for bites you'd just want to munch on while imbibing, the cauliflower nachos are a solid choice. The sharable plate of tortilla chips is topped with creamy jalapeno sauce, queso fondito and queso cotija, creme fraiche, and Fresno chili peppers, all pulled together with bits of roasted cauliflower that hide nicely under the sauces, giving it a substantial crunch.

The bar menu, as one would expect from the name of the place, has a strong punch presence, giving drinkers potent, tiki-inspired cocktails available in a single serving or bowls for four to eight people. We recommend the "You must bring us ... A shrubbery," which is made with watermelon shrub, Moscato vodka, cardamom syrup, and red wine float, or the "Bachelor's Bowl," made with bourbon, Pimm's Blackberry Elderflower liqueur, pineapple guava mate tea, and lemon juice.

All this, of course, is meant to accompany Punch Bowl Social's main draw: its expansive lounge and gaming areas. Bowling, table tennis, shuffleboard, darts, billiards, board games, and karaoke are all on the "social" menu.

This sprawling, 24,000-square-foot spot is the millennials' answer to Chuck E. Cheese. Only with the grown-up version, leave out the soggy pepperoni pizza, fountain-style root beer, and that sticky ball pit full of screaming children and replace it with the spiked punch, gastro-diner fare, Jenga battles, and bowling tournaments — all in surroundings that are equal parts sophisticated lounge and sportsman lodge.

PBS is a growing chain, with five locations across the country, dreamed up by founder and CEO Robert Thompson. It made its way to Detroit following a courtship with Dan Gilbert (whose Bedrock Real Estate Services owns the Z structure), who convinced him Detroit should be the next city he places his bets on, that this dining, boozing, and gaming emporium is what young downtown office workers want after they've clocked in long days in a cubicle.

The problem is that bet turned out to pay off, more so than Thompson or his local team could had bargained for. The place was staffed to accommodate roughly half of the volume that actually turned out within its first few months. This resulted in a venue fraught with an overwhelmed crew and a customer base that took to social media to voice its disappointment in the service.

"I've been in this industry since I was 16, an owner since 1997, and I've never in my career experienced the onslaught of business in my first 60 days as I did in Detroit," Thompson told us. "It's a good problem to have but it's still a problem, nonetheless."

In its first 90 days of opening, PBS replaced 95 percent of its 175 staff members and spent thousands of dollars to throw a free brunch for a peeved Facebooker (and popular local shop owner) and 99 of her closest friends (which turned out to be a social media free-for-all for the first 100 people who signed up online) following an undisclosed fiasco with the crew.

The service dilemma seems to have worked itself out for the most part, as the venue continues to attract customers, but some kinks to linger. The staff's interactions with customers are mostly prompt and attentive, but in the three occasions we visited, some were overheard griping out loud over guests' complaints about what came out of the kitchen.

In all, PBS is a fun concept, with a forward-looking yet accessible menu and drink program that would tend to appeal to the growing downtown millennial population. One problem seems to be that workers at Punch Bowl are expected to man such a wide-open arena. The venue's success hinges on whether management can train a restaurant staff to handle an environment that feels more like an oversized gaming parlor than a dining establishment.