Detroit is not new to me. When I was a kid, when my brother and I would stay with our grandmother and aunts for weeks in the summer that meant kickin’ it in the suburbs where they lived – Redford and Dearborn. That’s not Detroit, of course, and unless we were going to Comerica Park or Ford Field, that wasn’t a destination for us. As it relates to food, if we were going out to eat there was so much good Polish, Middle Eastern, even Vietnamese nearby there was little reason to drive into the city.
Of course, Detroit has changed in the decade-plus since, both, one can argue, for good and bad. Unlike Washington DC, studies suggest that the creeping gentrification of Detroit may be somewhat tempered compared to other American cities, especially Portland, OR and DC. Still, this is not the same city as it was when I was a kid visiting my family. Thrillist has a Detroit guide. As does Eater. In 2017, the New York Times, no less, asked if Detroit was “The Most Exciting City in America?“
Though there’s the kielbasa-thickened blood of a Michigander running in my veins, I’m certainly no authority on the Wolverine State or Motor City. I’ve only ever been a visitor, a fly on the wall. What I do know, however, is that Michiganders (and Detroiters) come from prideful stock. They care deeply about their histories and traditions and it reflects everywhere: in their sports, their politics, their food.
There’s a Midwestern-ness, a conservative-ness, a happiness that exists here, though the potion isn’t quite so tonic. There’s real pain, a feeling of true loss and neglect for Old Detroit – and that fire is well tended. Even so, the past is never so good as the memory, the future never as bright as its potential. Blend that together and you have Detroit (or Arby’s). Drizzle it with internet hype and you have the city’s food scene.
If there is a Ground Zero for destination restaurants in Detroit, it’s Slow’s. It’s one of the first places I remember eating downtown, a mainstay of the city’s Corktown neighborhood, and certainly on the shortlist of where to eat in the Motor City. Also on that shortlist you’ll certainly find Lady of the House and Marrow, restaurants considered by many to be among the best in the country the year they opened (2018 and 2019, respectively). I was headed four hours north of Detroit for a week long family vacation – something like 11 hours from DC not accounting for stops – and it quickly became obvious I should split that trip into two days and try one of these restaurants. We got reservations for both.
We chose Lady of the House, clearly, because the timing was better and its location in Corktown gave us more to do after dinner, when we walked to Batch Brewing for a flight of beer and some Connect 4 and before we totally collapsed from traveler’s exhaustion. That was later. A few hours earlier, we feasted.
Luckily for us, the night we visited was beautiful. As an even greater surprise, there was an open table in the restaurant’s back patio. Seated among a garden of lavender, rosemary, sweet pepper, among other greenery, we consulted the menu and dined outdoors in an air temperature that lacked humidity. As someone who has almost exclusively lived in the air fryer that it DC in the summer, this had me questioning my life choices. There’s no way around it, this was nice. A comfort I’ll remember.
And then we ordered food.
Being late July, we were dubious when our waiter pulled our eyes toward a plate of fried ramp bulbs. Whatever freshness the late season may have sacrificed was made inessential by the cooking method, though the egg-y and acidic sauce helped cut through the grease and had me eagerly licking the serving spoon when the vegetables were evenly distributed.
From our online sleuthing, the eggplant toast stood out. Not only is it highly photogenic (I really need to stop yelling, “Camera eats first!” when I’m out with people), it’s damn good and a dream to eat. You know how the mark of a bad slice of pizza is one where you take a bite and the whole top layer of cheese comes with it? I had that fear with the roasted rings of onion that topped the toast. Who wants one bite to turn into an unseemly gobbling of an entire meal? Luckily, my fears came to pass and all ended up right in the world. Several scrumptious bites later, this was nothing but a memory.
As with more and more restaurants these days, I felt my preference lean hard toward the menu’s smaller plates than it’s larger ones (has anyone else found that to be true?). We settled on fettuccine and the olive oil poached salmon, knowing full well we’d trade bites with one another, though if our dining compatriots in the patio were any indication the shareable meal may not have made it’s way to Motor City just yet. Each eater at the table next to us ordered individual bowls of lamb bolognese, an easy way to strain the ol’ credit card statement, and which frankly makes the dining experience less fun.
Having no such trouble, we dug in and found ourselves perfectly impressed by our mains: my fiancé’s fettuccine was good, made extra creamy by a soft-boiled egg on top; my oil-poached salmon was a little more rare than typical, though I’ll chalk that up to the cooking method. Served on an island of sushi rice in a sea of pickled fish stock, it felt as though I’d ordered deconstructed sushi that had gotten lost somewhere cold, perhaps Scotland where this particular catch of salmon hails.
By the end of the meal, having leaned heavily on oily and buttery foods, we were left wanting a bit of brightness. Something crisp, perhaps sugary.
And so we were bad and ordered the sunflower cake. Topped with a dollop of lemon ice cream, I inhaled this while nearly forgetting to breathe, finding in this dish the sharp, tart combo I needed at the end of this meal. As a seed, the sunflower doesn’t pack a whole lot of punch, but the flavor was there and certainly did not serve to overwhelm the rest of the plate. The potato donuts looked good, but something about a flour-y, cake-y bite after our meal wasn’t cutting it for me. It ended up a fitting end to a recommended meal.
I’m excited for Detroit. Though we mostly stayed put in our suburban life when I was a kid, I’ll always have a soft spot for the city as it continues to change. Until the Washington Nationals moved to DC in 2005, I was a Tigers fan and still find myself checking the daily box score despite a faded rooting interest. For me, Detroit beckons. There is more to explore on future trips, areas of the Motor City that will develop, gentrify, add residents to a population that was once among the largest in the country. This change will anchor the next chapter in the city’s long history. As my dad would say, there will be more places to go, people to see, things to eat.
Do I think it’s the most exciting city in America? I reject that question’s premise entirely. Detroit is different, changing. If that excites you, then OK. If it doesn’t, there’s good reason for that, too.
I just know that I’ll be there for it. Whatever happens.