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Detroit: Food & Wine City

Wine Geek Detroit F&W City Graphic JAS 2015

Imagine this: in less than five years, Detroit has gone from ‘Will the last person to leave please turn out the lights?’ to ‘2014 Bar City of the Year’[1], ‘15 Hottest Cities in America’[2] and Zagat’s ‘#3 Hot Food City in America’.

Really. The #3 Hot Food City in America—right behind Berkeley CA, and ahead of places like Asheville NC, Nashville TN, and San Antonio TX. And unlike many such lists that fill magazines and the blogosphere, Wine Geek can confirm that this recognition is legit and justified. The number of new, cool, mostly high-quality places in Detroit proper—and the region at large—is astounding (not to mention the established classics). From burger bars to farm-to-table small plates venues, they all have in common a freshness and vibrancy that Detroit mostly lacked compared to places like Chicago, Portland & Denver. And they all share one other common attribute: very well thought out beverage programs.

‘Well thought out beverage programs’ does not mean ‘big, expensive wine lists’. Well thought out means having quality wine, spirits and beer offerings that enhance a restaurants food and match the concept. Some of the best wine programs we’ve seen of late (around the country, not just in Detroit) have tight, very focused lists: one of Detroit’s newest comes to mind with their 100% French list of only about 15 wines—but all are carefully chosen and no one would leave feeling vinously unfulfilled. Another place that comes to Wine Geek’s mind is a new spot with a 100% chalkboard wine list—they can change with the wind, or the menu, or the seasons. And most of these operators have very aggressive pricing: no need for ‘half off wine nights’; our increasingly savvy wine consumers will make every night like half off wine night when they know they are getting value. For spirits, ‘well thought out’ means tilting towards premium spirits, tilting towards local spirits, opting for more fresh ingredients, and having bartenders that are schooled in crafting cocktails—not necessarily the 10 minutes-to-make-shrub cocktails—but at least someone that knows how to use a muddler and shake a cocktail (and no more wooden muddlers please!). Having a small handful of signature cocktails appeals as well. For beer, ‘well thought out’ means a nice selection of crafts of course (not necessarily 150 of them by the way), both local/regional as well as international selections. Also, offering the beers at the correct temperature and in the proper glassware. Needless to say, for all three categories, staff training is essential, and in Geek’s estimation, he’s never seen a savvier, more informed, collective crew than the crop of servers and bartenders in place currently. Geek recently held a 2 hour seminar on sake for the staff of one top restaurant—attended by most of the staff, including kitchen personnel—and by the way, this is not an Asian restaurant. That’s professionalism. This spate of new Detroit restaurants, as a group, apply the principles above and obviously the national press has noticed.

Wine Geek  & dog graphic JAS 2015Of course, this isn’t only happening in Detroit; the suburbs are booming with restaurants that apply the same principles. There are almost 40 restaurants in downtown Birmingham now— all appear to be thriving and almost all have engaging, thoughtful beverage programs. There is even a new vegan restaurant in the works in one suburb that plans on having an ambitious wine program—with only vegan & organic wines—‘well thought out’ for sure! And how about Traverse City? Two years ago, they had three James Beard nominees (the Academy Awards of the restaurant industry) from this fairly small community…and all three extremely deserving. Ann Arbor teems with great restaurants—with extremely sophisticated wine, spirits and beers offerings; on a per capita basis, they might offer the most fun per person. Grand Rapids has a large handful of good restaurants with great lists (especially beer—it is ‘Beer City USA’ after all), and a small handful of staggeringly good restaurants, including one spot that is regularly noted as a top 100 in America.

The ancillary benefit of this new energy and excitement in the Detroit food scene is that the service professionals and back of the house staff—those that are career restaurant people—can now stay in Detroit; without having to move to another state they can show off and elevate their skills, and earn like the professionals they are. Geek can cite over a dozen instances in Chicago over the past couple of years where—while conversing with a server or bartender and claiming Detroit as his home—they pronounce that they too are metro-Detroiters—ex-pats from the ‘limited options’ era for top F & B jobs.  Not anymore.

#3 Hot Food City in America. Let’s keep this going and get #1!


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[1] Esquire Magazine May 2014

[2] Business Insider November 19, 2014

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