In 1985, saloonkeeper Tom Brandel opened a small raw bar in Grosse Pointe Park that served drinks and oysters on the half shell. Today, there are four Tom's Oyster Bars in various metro Detroit locations offering full menus and hearty atmosphere. We sat down for a glass of wine and a chat at his newest location on the St. Clair Shores Nautical Mile.
Metro Times: Are oysters really an aphrodisiac?
Tom Brandel: A friend of mine came into the bar on a Friday and ordered two dozen oysters. He said he had a "romantic weekend" planned. When he came in the next week I asked him if the oysters worked. He said, "Yeah, 23 of them." I'm not sure what they do for women, though.
MT: You serve at least six different kinds of oysters. Can you taste the difference?
Brandel: Oysters derive flavor from their environment just as wine grapes do. You can go to France or California and the grape grown on one side of a hill will taste different from the same grape grown on the other side. That's because of the soil and environment. With oysters it's the water. So in the United States oysters are named by where they came from. It can be a village or a bay or a river. If you go to Bordeaux and ask for a cabernet sauvignon they would look at you strangely and say, well, they are all cabernet sauvignon. Which one do you want?
Oysters are affected by the temperature of the water as well, the colder the water, the more solid the flesh. Salinity is a factor too. In New Orleans you can't taste the salt in the oysters and they are very flaccid. My favorites are from the coldest water. We sell a lot of oysters from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. I love those oysters. We feature mainly Atlantic coast oysters but we also sell Pacific oysters. Pacific oysters have a steely finish where Atlantic oysters are brinier. They're all very good.
MT: How do you get past the texture?
Brandel: Everything is an acquired taste. There's nothing we ate before we were born. People get it in their mind that they don't like the texture of an oyster before they ever eat one. They think it's going to wiggle around in their mouth or something. I don't know what they are imagining. It's food. We've been eating them for thousands of years. Larry McDaniel, WDET's Arkansas Traveler, came in to the Royal Oak bar one night and I offered him some raw oysters. He said, "I like my oysters fried. That way I know they died." It's true that when you open an oyster, it's alive.
MT: Where are all your oyster bars? Are they all the same?
Brandel: Every restaurant we open has its own identity, its own personality. We don't do cookie-cutter restaurants. In January of 1994 we opened in Royal Oak. It was immediately successful and still is. It's a great location. We opened downtown in December 2000 and seem to be a destination for hockey fans. We run shuttles to and from all the major sporting events, but it's the hockey fans who have adopted us. I love Detroit. I've always loved that location across from the Renaissance Center and a couple blocks from the tunnel, and when it became available I jumped on it. We'll be opening next in Rochester Hills at the corner of Rochester Road and Tienken. Because of the location we'll probably go heavier on steaks. It will have more of a steakhouse feel but it will still have framed covers of the New Yorker on the walls and blue-and-white checkered tablecloths. And now we're here in St. Clair Shores on the Nautical Mile. This reminds of me of the Royal Oak location. There was no promotion. We just opened and were busy from day one.
MT: This is Detroit. Why oysters and seafood?
Brandel: If I had to sell oysters and nothing else I'd go broke. They're very expensive. It is a way to bring people into the bar and I wanted to be different. Back when I owned Union Street, I used to pick up the fresh seafood myself from this seafood place that had a chalkboard hanging just inside the door. It was cold in there and there were all these people cutting fish and the chalkboard listed what they had available. I thought this was a great idea for a restaurant. When I got my kitchen at the first Tom's Oyster Bar, we didn't have printed menus. We only had a chalkboard menu. We would order what we knew we could sell. We would get our fish delivered every day. I made it a funky restaurant. We served very high quality fish on paper plates. It was all about freshness.
MT: How has the business climate changed in Detroit in the past 20 years?
Brandel: It was just great in the early '90s. Things started falling off everywhere around 2000. The economy really affects restaurants. We're doing well enough that we're opening new restaurants, but when the economy is down, restaurants are the first to feel it.Todd Abrams is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]