Detroit has been emerging from dark culinary years when expensive chain restaurants were considered the best of the best, and too bad: Fertile Michigan is something of a cornucopia of beautiful produce, meat, dairy and other primo farm products that call out to be used in imaginative ways.
Enter the young chefs who are transforming Detroit's food scene and winning national accolades in the process. Their restaurants reflect curiosity, hard work and a soulful approach to using the best of Michigan. Here are some of today's best of the best downtown Detroit restaurants that have been winning kudos, plus one outlier that could not be omitted because it may be the best of them all.
It is recommended that you check with the restaurants' websites for current hours, prices and menus before you book.
01 of 07
NOTE: This southwest Detroit restaurant, located inside Vernor Coney Island, is closed until late August 2017 for renovations.
What do you get when a chef born of Palestinian immigrants, trained in the rarified ways of Chicago's Alinea, Las Vegas' Bouchon and Copenhagen's Noma, opens a run down pop-up that becomes a runaway hit restaurant in the Mexicantown neighborhood of Detroit?
You get, astonishingly, Flowers of Vietnam: a technique- and taste-driven turn on Vietnamese cuisine that is winning hearts and palates beyond the boundaries of Motor City.
Vietnamese food is, truth be told, a tantalizing fusion of Asian and French cuisine all by itself. But twenty-something chef George Azar is putting his own spin on traditional dishes like sublimely crackling Korean caramel chicken wings; pho (beef and rice noodles in a gorgeous broth); bo kho (beef stew, also in a rich broth); green papaya salad and egg cream coffee. The food is phenomenal, but the tattooed chef and his... frequent DJ guests endow the place with a cool vibe.
For all of this, Azar is winning awards, many awards: In 2017 GQ named Flowers of Vietnam one of America's 10 best new restaurants. Zagat made Azar a "30 Under 30" semifinalist. Thrillist named him one of Detroit's best chefs at the end of 2016. And the "Detroit Free Press" in 2017 called Flowers the area's No. 3 Best New Restaurant. Plus, he's partnering with Paul Saginaw, co-founder of Zingerman's, which is no stranger to awards.
FLOWERS OF VIETNAM
Address: 4430 Vernor Hwy.
Phone: (313) 554-2085
Call before booking.
02 of 07
Roast, a fixture among Detroit's best restaurant's since 2009, is an extreme expression of award-winning chef Michael Symon's love affair with all things meat. Located in the glamorous Westin Brook Cadillac Hotel, Roast is a 200-seat temple to Symon's signature nose-to-tail cooking, with a focus on steaks and chops, ranging from bavette sirloin with blue cheese to bone-in dry-aged rib eye.
In 2009, Michael earned the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes, and the "Detroit Free Press" named Roast its Restaurant of the Year. These follow a long list of awards for Symon or his restaurants. "Food & Wine" named him Best New Chef in 1998. "Gourmet" tapped his Cleveland restaurant Lola as one of America's Best Restaurants in 2000. "Bon Appetit" magazine included B Spot Burgers, with locations in Michigan and Ohio, on its list of Top 10 Best New Burger Joints, and B Spot’s Fat Doug burger won the People’s Choice award at... the SoBe Wine & Food Festival.
1128 Washington Boulevard
Call before booking.
03 of 07
You might ask why a pie shop is on a list of top restaurants. Well, technically, it is a pie shop. But it's actually so much more that it's not. The stars of this West Village establishment are the pies. But, as the website says, every day, this homey place serves "pies, cookies, breakfast, and lunch," and we might add simple weekend brunch.
You can get both sweet and savory treats; a breakfast box for 10 that includes scones, muffins, and egg-on-top galettes; a standard list of pies like the scrumptious salted maple and constantly changing seasonal pies. You can also satisfy special needs with vegan, gluten-free brownies and gluten-free buckwheat chocolate chip cookies. Whatever comes out of the kitchen run by owner Lisa Ludwinski is "nontraditional" and "rustic"—her words.
That sounds right when you consider that each pie and its delicate crust is handmade with "all-natural, whole-food ingredients" using "high-fat French butter and... unbleached, all-purpose flour." Fillings change with "Michigan’s growing season, from apricots and blueberries in July to cranberries and apples in November." Every effort is made to source seasonal products locally, from dairy to flour to vegetables and fruit.
The experts have noticed. A roving Eater restaurant editor called noshing at Sister Pie "holy happiness." The place figured in the top 50 of "America's Best New Restaurants 2016" by "Bon Appétit," which declared, "We'd visit Detroit just to eat at this pie shop." And Sister Pie was the 2014 winner of Hatch Detroit, which helps launch high-quality brick-and-mortar businesses in neighborhoods.
8066 Kercheval Ave.
04 of 07
Grey Ghost, the creation of two Chicago food industry stars who returned to the Detroit area, is a modern big-city steakhouse with exceptional cocktails.
Co-executive chef John Vermiglio with his twin and business partner, David, grew up in Clinton Township, Michigan. Then they went off to Chicago, where John became a well-known chef. He was primed to play a major role in a hospitality group there when they decided to return home to Michigan to follow the ghost of a long-ago Detroit River rum runner (the inspiration for the name).
They've done well, so well that the "Detroit Free Press" named Grey Ghost the number two Best New Restaurant in Detroit of 2017 and called out "Grey Ghost loaded potato soup" as the year's best new recipe.
Inside Grey Ghost, it's all urbanity, with dark wood and incandescent mood lighting. The menu is definitely a meat lover's paradise, with expertly prepared dry-aged New York strip steaks, house-made charcuterie and the popular... fried bologna (go figure!).
But there's also seafood like the exceptional smoked whitefish and the oysters, which are not served with the usual mignonette but with tongue-in-cheek tomato, pickled mustard seeds, green relish and celery seeds that mimic Chicago-style hot dog toppings.
Wildly inventive cocktails by partner and bar manager Will Lee complete the picture.
47 E Watson St.
Call before booking.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
Most of the seats in this democratically inclined, Cass Corridor eatery are kept available for walk-ins. This is notable, but what really impresses is the seasonal, locally sourced New American menu, one of the best in Detroit. Revered Mabel Gray chef James Rigato has called the place "the unicorn of restaurants."
Chef Andy Hollyday, who helmed Roast for Michael Symon, came onboard along with what Thrillist called "a dream team of everyone behind them, from the design, furniture and metalwork to partnerships with Michigan farms for their rustic small plates to their well-chosen, truly excellent" craft cocktails, like partner Evan Hansen's One Day Stand with tequila, ginger, honey, hibiscus, lemon, Gose and floral bitters. This sounds like a deliciously friendly way to ease into any meal. To accompany your food, you could try a leading Spanish biodynamic cava.
Hollyday, a three-time James Beard semi-finalist, created a casual, fun, seasonal menu designed to be shared... with friends and family. Think sweet potato pancakes with pecans and maple syrup for brunch, roasted beets and a smoked brisket sandwich with kohlrabi sauerkraut, aïoli and horseradish gremolata for lunch, then for dinner, grilled whole trout or rabbit porchetta with a shaved vegetable carpaccio and, for dessert, rhubarb panna cotta with hibiscus granita. A cup of Anthology coffee puts everything in perspective.
3921 Second Ave.
Reserve or walk in.
06 of 07
This hip spot may just make the best weekend brunch in Detroit, and it's served all day long. Other days, it's great breakfast, lunch, and booze.
Dime Store is located in the Chrysler House (aka the Dime Building), where diners have come to expect attentive service at a place that's more than the diner it's known to be. The fare is elevated and luscious thanks to a well-trained staff: Executive chef Josh Taylor studied at New York's French Culinary Institute, while chef de cuisine Aris Nueva Espana attended New York's Culinary Institute of America. Both have worked at some of America's top restaurants, from Moto in Chicago to Nobu in New York.
Owned by three longtime friends, this friendly place offers distinctive scratch-made favorites made of fresh, high-quality ingredients, from the popular house sausage omelet and smoked salmon Benedict to the duck Reuben sandwich and sweet poached pear salad. Craft beer, wine, and classic cocktails or locally roasted... Zingerman's coffee and Rishi organic teas accompany meals.
Social media is full of exclamatory praise for Dime Store: "The duck bop hash [a blend of Korean bulgogi and traditional breakfast potatoes] is amazing!" "Spicy pork belly eggs Benedict!"
On one popular review site alone, there were more than 500 snaps of customer-approved Dime Store dishes. Among the most lauded: Philly cheesesteak Benedict; spicy-sweet Korean fries; poutine-style fries piled high with thick-cut bacon, Parmesan and white truffle oil; duck confit hash; mac and cheese with bacon; crisp pork rinds with sriracha; white Walker French toast made of almond shortbread–crusted challah and chocolate ganache topped with blueberry lavender syrup and whipped cream; and "out of this world" cauliflower gruyère soup topped with crispy leeks.
719 Griswold St #180
Phone: (313) 962-9106
07 of 07
Mabel Gray could not be omitted, even though this restaurant, named after a famed Lake Michigan recluse, is located in Hazel Park, a suburb of Detroit and Royal Oak. It has been named one of Eater National's Best New Restaurants in America and in 2017 the "Detroit Free Press" honored it as Restaurant of the Year. Thirty-something chef James Rigato, a "Top Chef' alum, was a 'Food & Wine" The People’s Best New Chef: Great Lakes nominee.
Eater says Rigato is "turning heads across the country with his Michigan-influenced, improvisational tasting menus" at the "intimate, unpretentious" Mabel Gray. To be clear, Mabel Gray has only a hand-printed menu that is updated daily.
But we can share some examples from one memorable tasting that reveals Rigato's global touches: spaghetti with milk-braised pork and English peas; quail with mole, jicama, pepitas, cilantro and queso fresco; octopus a la plancha with spicy romesco, saffron aioli, black... garlic, sorrel and radish; rabbit paprikash with Guernsey sour cream, spaetzle and dill; and crispy-skin Rushing Waters trout with couscous and salsa verde.
Thrillist calls Mabel Gray "the most famous restaurant in Michigan right now, thanks to the slew of national accolades and media attention it has garnered, in part due to chef James Rigato's larger-than-life personality, but also because he practices what he preaches,...creating a world-class restaurant in the sleepy inner-ring blue-collar bedroom community of Hazel Park." He achieved something similar in his previous incarnation as chef of The Root, where his contemporary American menu with a Michigan focus earned 2012 Restaurant of the Year from the "Detroit Free Press."
So with national influence on the horizon, Rigato and Mabel Gray may have the clout to become a regional force that could help turn the culinary no-man's-land where he's chosen to establish himself into a culinary belt. After years in the dark, Detroit area food, including that of downtown Detroit, is moving toward the light, and Motor City patrons are excited.
23825 John R Rd
Hazel Park, Michigan, 48030
Reservations highly recommended.