Whenever someone discovers that I do restaurants, they immediately ask, “So what’s your favorite?” They are invariably disappointed when I hem and haw, pointing out that it depends on the type of food, how far I want to drive, how much I want to spend, if there is a milestone being celebrated and, above all, my partner’s desires.
As if those variables were not enough, I then proceed to list a few ground rules, beginning with a preference for restaurants that both take reservations and then honor them. I hate being shunted to a crowded bar to wait for a table and then feel compelled to buy overpriced and undersized house pours of wine. On the other hand, I am strongly partial to establishments that not only serve wine but mark them up reasonably (100 percent to 150 percent) or, often under the table, permit you to bring your own. This arbitrary rule means that “family style” restaurants, alas, will never crack my favorite list.
I also eschew places that have no respect for the bread “course,” (Asian restaurants are naturally excluded from that concern) rely on iceberg lettuce for their greens, show little taste in their canned background music, and employ servers who ask, “Are you still workin’ on it?”
One longtime favorite is Maria’s Front Room in Ferndale. (Pardon me if I rhapsodize over establishments covered elsewhere in this issue.) I have followed Maria’s from Grand River Avenue in Detroit in the ’70s to a brief interlude in Southfield to its current cozy location in Ferndale, and I have rarely had even a mildly mediocre experience. Maybe that is because little has changed on the old-fashioned, red-sauced menu since the early days, except the prices and maybe the dried cherries in the distinguished house salad. I love Maria’s take on chicken cacciatore and shrimp piccante, find the veal surprisingly good in terms of a cost-benefit ratio, and absolutely pig out on the warm, pizza-dough garlic bread. And after some early trials and errors in the basement, the house-made wines — red, white and pink — are charming if primitive.
Another favorite, the New Hellas, is undoubtedly a contentious one, considering the fact that several other Greek kitchens on Monroe may be more refined and sometimes, at the Hellas, you have to wait in line until the ageless Gus finds you a table. But it’s romantic to be able to eat in a century-old restaurant where hundreds of thousands of frugal diners have come before to partake of tender lamb shank, the once garlicky, now lemony broiled sea bass, the turpentine-tasting (but only the first glass) retsina and crusty bread. On the latter, when I, along with my family, first began frequenting the Hellas as a young and modestly paid college instructor in the late ’60s, the best — and probably only — bread beyond Wonder in those culinarily barren years were the loaves in Greektown’s restaurants and stores. Opa!!
Despite the change in ownership several years ago and the abolishment of that singular approach to wine pricing — upscale supermarket plus a corkage fee — the Traffic Jam remains the choice for those looking for a creative meal to attract job candidates to Wayne State University or for pre- and post-film or theater dinners. The prices have risen over the years and the fern bar decor in the rambling restaurant may be antiquated, but few kitchens in our region cast so wide an extra-continental net or offer as many inventive vegetarian dishes. And the addition of house-made cheese and beer has only increased TJ’s attraction.
Moving to even more exotic fare, Golden Harvest, in the spacious old Arriva in Warren, whether for the elaborate dim sum lunch or the Hong Kong seafood specialties, is the choice for favorite Chinese restaurant this side of the river. The creamy walnut shrimp, featuring especially succulent jumbo crustaceans, eggplant-garlic hotpot and a surprising chicken-corn soup are among winners here.
Although its trappings are far less attractive than those at the Golden Harvest, Thang Long, in a strip mall in Madison Heights, is where I go for my Vietnamese food fix. You can grill your own beef or shrimp to combine with cold vegetables and greens in rice-paper sandwiches, go for a meal-in-itself bowl of pho, sample lemon-grass chicken or beef, or try the crispy, fried whole catfish or the number 52 noodle dish, one of my partner’s favorites.
A few miles south to Hazel Park will lead you to Loui’s for deep-dish pizza, red-checked tablecloths, chianti bottles on the walls, and cheeky waitresses. A retro pizza-parlor stuck somewhere in the ’70s, with few genuflections to the 21st century (although they do take credit cards now and offer better wine by the bottle), Loui’s charred crust and perfect, slightly greasy blend of tomatoes and cheese are unsurpassed.
With a bit more space I would have doffed a toque to Assaggi in Ferndale for upscale Mediterranean fare, Atlas Global Bistro downtown for the space as well as the kitchen, and Salvatore Scallopini in Madison Heights, part of the mini-chain, for quality and consistency at a reasonable price. And for the big splurge, where else but the Rattlesnake Club on the river?
These are a few of my favorite things.Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected]