Review: It’s hip to be square at Shield’s in Detroit

The classic Detroit-style pizza.
The classic Detroit-style pizza. Bridget Ekis


5057 Woodward Ave., Detroit
Wheelchair accessible
Noon-10 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Wednesday, 11a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday
Appetizers $6-$12, sandwiches $10, dinners $12-$17, four-square pizza $9-$13

If anyone can overcome the jinx that's haunted the intersection of Woodward and Warren, it should be Shield's, which can boast a history of pleasing first Detroiters and then suburbanites since 1937.

Since 2017 restaurants under successive owners have bombed in the historic Maccabees Building; they flailed about wildly, trying three concepts in their final months (Italian, anyone? soul food? Asian?) before surrendering. The building's Albert Kahn design and its place in the National Register of Historic Places have apparently not been enough to tempt customers to taste the food. Will deep-dish square pizza, now gaining a reputation nationwide as "Detroit-style," turn the trick?

When I moved to Detroit in the '70s, restaurant choices were limited. You went to Shield's or Buddy's, six blocks apart on the near East Side, for their fabulous crisp-edged pizza, invented at Buddy's but spread to Shield's, legend had it, when the Buddy's chef walked down the street after a dispute with the owner.

There is no Mr. Shield, by the way — the name comes from the restaurant's original cross street, Shields, with an apostrophe thrown in just because Detroiters like to put everything in the possessive. ("I work at Chrysler's").

Shield's left the city long ago, but what's now a chain has been serving much more than pizza in Southfield, Troy, and Macomb Township. It's one of those kitchen-sink "American and we welcome immigrants" menus, with burgers, ribs, and chicken but also quesadillas, nachos, and hummus. The website says "Something for Everybody"; it's an Applebee's-type menu but with a few Middle Eastern favorites, since this is metro Detroit — plus pizza.

My advice: go for the pizza.

Pizzaphiles will of course dispute till the Mediterranean buffalo come home about which is best, with the thin-crust advocates having the advantage of home-country authenticity. But I love Detroit-style. Those micro-thin crisp edges standing up above the body of the bready, but not too bready, crust are miracles of crunch and flavor. There's a reason the pizza's got to be rectangular — oh, the corners!

New franchise owner Norman Mourad, who also owns a Big Boy, says the tomato sauce he's using is identical to Shield's original; cream sherry is one of its secrets. He offers a build-your-own pizza with a ton of options (yes, anchovies, and yes, pineapple). "Specialties" are $12 or $13 for four slices, and at least some are available on a hand-tossed round crust, too (but why?).

The vegetarian specialty breaks the mold in that you can actually taste the mushrooms, a mean feat, as well as the black olives. In the Meat Lover's, the fennel of the Italian sausage overshadows the other three meats. My favorite was the Gold Medal, which adds Romano to the traditional brick cheese and uses sweet peppers and banana peppers for a little bite. But the best part is thick Italian pear tomatoes pre-sautéed in garlic. They melt beautifully into the cheeses, creating a taste-island of sweetness and nuttiness.

Other options involve barbecue sauce and Cheddar, chicken sprinkled with Parmesan, or the new round Margherita, with far more ingredients than the traditional.

As to the rest of the menu — it's middle-of-the-road fare in gargantuan portions. You can get better ribs at any one of a dozen places; these are way slathered in sweet sauce. Clam chowder and chili are thick, meaty, and meh. Lasagna is sweet and heavy, with seven layers of pasta, and tomato sauce both between the layers and on the side.

I liked the mild dry-rubbed wings, very meaty, and the chicken quesadilla — four big triangles — though it has little or no relationship to Mexico. Maybe it was the "mixed cheeses" that caught my fancy, or the grilled tortilla. I told them to hold the sour cream. You see what kind of food I'm talking about?

There are eight salads, some of them loaded with fattening and crowd-pleasing ingredients. My companion noted, "My favorite part of fattoush is the croutons." Duh. The "croutons" are everyone's favorite part of fattoush. They're the reason you order fattoush. Did you think it was the cucumbers? Shield's goes it one better by using thick Greek pita instead of the thin stuff, and cutting it in cubes. They are fabulous soaked in "secret dressing."

Shield's has a full bar. I didn't like a high-potency Midtown Mule made with maraschino liqueur — it had a confused taste — and a Pinot Noir was sour; I didn't finish it. Those are just two of many choices, though; a tried-and-true beer like Bell's will do you just fine. Eleven Michigan beers are on tap.

On weekdays Shield's offers an "express lunch": a simple individual pizza with soup or salad for $8, or pizza plus soda for $5.

But you've been wondering: Which is better, Buddy's or Shield's? I have to give the nod to Buddy's, and not just because I appreciate the fact that their flagship store remains in the same spot on Conant that it's always been. The Buddy's crust is crisper; that's all.

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About The Author

Jane Slaughter

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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