Simply the best

Into every Best Of issue a little drama must fall. Perusing the results of our reader's polls, often two or three esteemed eateries will battle neck and neck for years, only to find a newcomer snatching away the laurels. Or our panel of food critics will spurn a beloved fixture to embrace some stylish young dining concept. Frankly, each time we get the verdict on what's really "best," it's at least a minor nerdgasm to see how opinion has shifted in so short a time.

But some eateries earn the title year after year, and one of the occupational hazards of opining what's best in Detroit's food scene year after year is repeating yourself -- trying to argue why you must do it, to again distill what makes some places such delightfully stubborn winners.

Take a restaurant like Coach Insignia (Renaissance Center, Detroit; 313-567-2622), perennial winner of our Best View honors. It's head, shoulders and skyline above all other restaurant views in town, perched atop the tallest structure for hundreds of miles around. And the elegant flagship of the Matt Prentice empire does not disappoint, with a far better kitchen than the space's predecessors -- only without the 360-degree rotating view. Sure, it's expensive, as any restaurant with that vista overlooking Canada and the river should be. But order frugally enough and you have the makings of a romantic date or a night with out-of-towners, basking in night views of our international metropolis.

A little closer to the river sits another champion, the unchallenged Best River View of the Rattlesnake Club (300 River Place Dr., Detroit; 313-567-4400). Sure, lots of other spots have pleasant water views, but none can match the fine-dining experience of the Rattlesnake Club. For decades, Jimmy Schmidt, the respected doyen of local chefs, has presided over one of the most creative kitchens in town. Alas, dinner at the Rattlesnake comes at a steep price. The best way to sample the fare and lower the bill is to go for lunch, when some of the same dishes appear in smaller portions and at a lower price.

Though we were pleased to see that we have a growing list of vegetarian, vegan and organic options in town, including Ann Arbor's Seva, the Best Vegetarian (and Best Vegan, for that matter) remains Inn Season Café (500 E. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-547-7916). Away from the bustle of Royal Oak's Main Street, in a sedate dining room decked out with art, patrons can rest assured of their "food security," with no GMOs, and seasonal food that's produced as locally as practical. And even though you'll find the usual stir-fries and salads, the results are often unlike anything you've known as "health food," such as San Antonio burritos, quesadilla grandes and Mediterranean pizzas.

When it comes to our daily bread, the Best Bakery is, as usual, old reliable Avalon International Breads (422 W. Willis St., Detroit; 313-832-0008). Pioneering the rejuvenation of the Cass Corridor, Avalon continues to spoil us with a wide selection of healthy and fresh artisanal bread, scones and cookies, not only for its fortunate walk-in patrons but also for several area restaurants and grocers. From the slender baguettes to the earthier farm breads, bread-heads are certain to discover their favorite crust and dough.

Unquestioned master of the Best Italian Chain category, the many iterations of Andiamo's (multiple locations; are part of an Italian chain, all right, but they have different styles and menus. Under the tutelage of Chef Aldo, the kitchen staff is trained to prepare the outstanding recipes that have sustained this operation and enabled its growth for the past 20 years.

Another ethnic champion would be Best Irish Restaurant champ Baile Corcaigh (1426 Bagley St., Detroit; 313-963 4546). In addition to the gorgeous dark wood and stained glass interior, they're making some quality victuals there. In the comfort category, the cuisine goes well beyond corned beef and cabbage and should delight a range of diners. The charming dense and crumbly house-made soda bread might as well be called a scone.

When it comes to special dishes, a whole host of consistent champs occupy the summit. Take the Best Square Deep Dish Pizza served at Loui's (23141 Dequindre Rd., Hazel Park; 248-547-1711), which wins in this fiercely contested category for its deep-dish pies, which boast deftly charred, crunchy crusts and an appropriately greasy and sublime blend of cheese and tomatoes. (Then there's the chianti bottles hung everywhere, the endearing plastic dinnerware and colorful veteran servers who can make it seem like a night at central casting.) Or the Best Burger champs at the Redcoat Tavern (31452 Woodward Ave., Royal Oak; 248-549-0300): Thick, juicy, succulent two-handers that call for extra napkins are what crowds them in every day at lunch and dinner — and usually in between. The notable burger is served with the "special" sauce, grilled onions that most folks request burnt and the rest of the usual toppings found wherever a good burger can be had.

Our critics say nobody can beat the Best Dim Sum at Shangri-La (6407 Orchard Lake Rd., West Bloomfield; 248-626-8585), which serves as many as 75 varieties of these delectable delights (or "touches of the heart") on Saturday and Sunday. Similarly, Noble Fish (45 E. 14 Mile Rd., Clawson; 248-585-2314) dominates the Best Sushi category for another year, proving that diners don't need Eastern flash when they're biting into that fat spider roll. Carryout might be advised during the dinner rush, or you can snag a box of what is surely the freshest pre-made sushi available.

And, near and dear to our hearts, even though the far-flung National Chain is best known, and even though we often hit Grandy's on the way home instead, the Best Coney Island to us remains Lafayette Coney Island. Oh, sure, the food is your typical sturdy coney fare, and the service is quick in the old-fashioned way, with plenty of shouting and the clanking of dishes. But at 2:30 a.m., when nightclubbers, barhoppers and music fans rub shoulders with each other, for an hour or two it feels as a real city eatery should, with people from all walks of life joined as one in celebration of the perfect coney dog.

Special thanks to Jane Slaughter, Mel Small and Jeff Broder for their input for this column. Send comments to [email protected]
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