Around a year ago, the lines that regularly ran out of downtown Detroit's Shake Shack and wound down Woodward Avenue got me curious about the New York City-based burger restaurant. As a general rule, I don't eat at fast food chains, but few restaurants arrive with so much hype, and some in its cult of fans assured me it's "a good chain."
So I went.
In a nutshell, my June 2017 review said this: Shake Shack is fine, but it's merely decent fast food. It presents itself as a boutique burger shop, but it's not really that. And that part of the experience was off-putting because it isn't much more than marketing designed to capitalize off of consumers' desires to support ethical, local mom-and-pop shops.
I mention that because Lovers Only seems like the place that Shake Shack wants to be, but it's the former that's the genuine article. It's a local craft burger restaurant with a menu developed by talented Detroit-based chefs. It sources ingredients from reputable metro Detroit producers like Farm Field Table, McClure's Pickles, and Calder Dairy. The Capitol Park restaurant has some style, but it isn't gimmicky. There's no corporate vibe or weird marketing tinge to the whole operation. And because there's one shop instead of a chain of 127, Lovers Only can do what Shake Shack can't — maintain consistent quality.
Of course, being local doesn't mean much if the food is no good, but there's not a miss on Lovers Only's menu of four burgers and four sandwiches.
It should be noted that the restaurant doesn't trade in the thick, char-grilled patties you'll find at places like Motor City Sports Bar in Hamtramck. Instead the chefs hand-pack thin six-ounce patties that are laid down on the griddle where they sizzle in their own fat until the edges and outside are crisped and charred, while just a hint of pink remains in the middle. It's diner-style, and a few bites almost remind me of the Bates burgers from my childhood. The high quality beef from Farm Field Table could carry a burger on its own, but each of the menu's four options are done up with an interesting selection of fixings.
Top billing goes to the Classic Smash, which is the most straightforward with lettuce, onion, mustard, mayo, and pickles. But an even better option is the Burlington, a burger with a spread of dijonaise on a soft, slightly sweet brioche bun that holds lettuce, Wisconsin cheddar sauce, twice-cooked onions, and pickled relish. The best bites here are those with charred beef that plays nicely with the acidic condiments, and the super-caramelized onions mixed with a few raw onions for texture are also a nice touch. In the Bitter South, Lovers Only arranges a patty between toasted rye (though they were out of it on my visit, so I got brioche) with hash browns, emmentaler cheese, fried onions, and comeback sauce. There's a lot going on, but the Bitter South works.
Even the vegetarian option — often a weak link at burger spots or similar meaty restaurants — is solid. Lovers Only makes its Green Street with a moist, flavorful Impossible Burger patty that's placed between toasted English muffins with white cheddar, lettuce, and an enlivening parsley-shallot yogurt sauce.
Arguably the best menu item is the Extern, a cold-fried chicken sandwich — meaning the fried chicken is served cold — that's a real treat in a town short on fried bird worth mentioning. It arrives in a coat of thick-but-light crag that's accented with vinegary cabbage and jalapeño slaw, and a vinegary white barbecue sauce. The whole package offers plenty of appealing textural and flavor interplay.
Lovers Only's fried bologna sandwich is one of the area's best, and I can say that with certainty because I've tried nearly every fried bologna sandwich southeast Michigan offers. Called The Bodega, it's made with semi-thick slices of nicely charred Sy Ginsberg bologna, mustard, mayo, white cheddar, and an egg with a yolk that you'll burst in the sandwich. I tend to think less is more when it comes to fried bologna, but this is a case of more is more.
The Recession Dog is the restaurant's take on the Chicago dog. It's usually wise to pass on Detroiters' versions of Chicago dogs, but chefs Jennifer Jackson and Justin Tootla are Chicago transplants. It arrives with a toasted poppy seed bun, crunchy dill spear, electric green relish, and sport peppers that bite. There's no tomato, but instead it comes with a few hand-cut fries on top. Finally, the Fast Eddie is Lovers Only's loose burger with a flavorful helping of ground beef on a soft New England-style bun with crunchy lettuce shreds and mayo.
The menu also includes a couple thoughtful salads, and a choice of onion rings or fries on the side. The fries are the thick, hand-cut variety with patches of skin. If loose meat, cheese, and onions are your thing, get them smothered and covered for a few bucks more.
The beverage list is longer than the food menu with a selection of good craft beers and cocktails that are cheaper during happy hour, as well as basil lemonade, lime coriander soda, Topo Chico, Mexican Coke, and more. The rich malted chocolate milkshake is one of Detroit's better shakes, and the malted vanilla shake and Boston Cooler are also solid.
Lovers Only fills up during lunch hours and I suspect it's going to get busier as more of Capitol Park's buildings under renovation come online. Get there before the lines start winding down Grand River.
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