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Where You Should Be Eating in Detroit Right Now

The best way to navigate this city’s rapidly changing restaurant scene? Follow the guidance of Detroit native Ben Hall, the chef and co-owner of Eastern Market mainstay Russell Street Deli.

OCTOBER 26, 2018

Article for re-use by permission of Bon Appetite.

My old man was a world-class eater. Huge, unabashedly gluttonous, he liked to eat out, and he took me everywhere in Detroit. We had tenderloin sandwiches at Lindell AC, Alex Karras busing tables. We had beef tongue at Vivio’s—I was always the lone child in there among truck drivers and men still bloody from the kill floor. We had short ribs at the Roma, the ultimate red sauce joint. You know where I’m going with this: You shoulda seen it back when.... And you know how developer culture isn’t always particularly good at maintaining the heritage of food-based social spaces that makes a city—all these little food bubbles of society linking it together. Detroit is changing right now: some good, some bad. I like the new stuff in combination with the old, how it makes a little continuously changing island-chain of history, immigration, change, and people. And I’m fine with it all, so long as there are places like these that make Detroit more of what it is: diverse, sprawling, and constantly improvising.

Photo by Jesse David Green

Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy

Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy is the only place downtown that captures predevelopment True Romance/The Crow–era Detroit. Owner/raconteur /former high-level-Detroit- political-operative Larry Mongo purchased the lounge in 1985, mothballed it in 1996, then reopened it for Fridays only in 2007. It has an interior like a fever dream, the house band plays woozy covers of “Darling Nikki” and Kim Wilde, and the grilled cheese sandwiches are very effective belly alcohol sponges.

Photo by Jesse David Green


Enter through an alley for this boozehound’s cocktail bar, where Joe Robinson, co-owner and bartender of Standby, turns sherbets, house bitters, tonics, and a wide variety of labels into 42 winning combos. The up-tempo bar food menu is plenty good, and the banquettes are comfy, but this a place to sit at the bar and drink. The staff is pro but also welcoming and nonjudgy, as evidenced by the diversity of customers sidling up. Farther down the alley, Robinson has a slushie bar called The Skip.

Photo by Jesse David Green

Nunn's Bar-B-Que II

Since the legendary Milt’s closed in 2012, there’s been a tussle to see who’ll wear the rib-tips crown. Sold at bulletproof-glass Chinese restaurants and street stands throughout the city, rib tips are a cut off the sparerib with a little piece of fat and cartilage. The ones at Nunn’s are sweet, juicy nuggets with some chew and some char (and all at a nice discount from the slab)—almost more like Chinese barbecued pork and better than any other version in town.

Photo by Jesse David Green

Yemen Cafe

The town of Hamtramck is said to be home to Michigan’s most diverse population and its best immigrant-made food. Yemeni food is the star, and of the four Yemeni restaurants here, Yemen Cafe is the best. Order the lamb fahsah, a lava-hot pot of bone-in lamb, onions, and peppers topped with whipped fenugreek and served with flatbread.

Photo by Jesse David Green


Just blocks away from James Beard Award–winner Al-Ameer (that moujadara!) and a favorite spot of the late artist Mike Kelley, Cedarland (that lentil soup!), Hamido (the Dearborn location) is the zenith of Detroit-metro Lebanese food. Expect long lines for carryout; orders written, unaccountably, on cigarette cartons; and a family-style dining room that’s at capacity every sundown of Ramadan. The chicken shawarma, layered with bits of lemon zest, is part dark meat and becomes al-pastor-level crispy; the foul (a fava bean breakfast bowl) is bathed in olive oil and comes with tomato, onion, and bright pink pickled turnips.

Photo by Jesse David Green


While only a few months old, Folk seems once and always Detroit. Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes, who also own The Farmer’s Hand (the boutique-but-down-home greengrocer next door), anchor a building filled with women-owned businesses and are across the street from chef Kate Williams’ smash-hit Lady of the House. They’ve created 24 seats of communal warmth in a bright, airy space. And they’ve found an enthusiastic audience for an L.A.-feel brunch—bowls with hummus and greens, cold soba, toast with pimiento cheese—in Rust Belt portions.

Photo by Jesse David Green


On a stretch of Michigan Avenue in Corktown that’s laden with new restaurant “concepts,” Ima is a noodle-centric pay-at-the-register one-off. The small menu and no-frills layout read as new-school utilitarian, but the food is meticulous in a way that fast-casual rarely is. The yaki udon is slathered in a velveteen sesame-butter sauce so unctuous it could double as a healing face mask.

Photo by Jesse David Green

Good Cakes and Bakes

April and Michelle Anderson’s bakery, Good Cakes and Bakes, was one of the very first businesses to reemerge on this once super-busy stretch of Livernois Avenue, just south of 8 Mile and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, a great historical Detroit stop. Pastry chef April presents a slew of all-organic sugar bombs, including a St. Louis–style Lemon Gooey Butter Cake. The OMG bar—ganache, homemade (and perfect) marshmallow, graham- cracker bottom—is a s’more in a tuxedo. The shop has become a neighborhood hangout, with pop-ups from the local food-business incubator FoodLab Detroit and open mics—it even doubles as a UPS access point.

Photo by Jesse David Green

Scotty Simpson's Fish & Chips

Scotty Simpson's is a faith builder for a fish-and-chips skeptic. The interior design is...if your grandparents’ carpeted basement was a banquet room with a fryer in it. The owner, Harry Barber, has been frying fish here in Brightmoor for 50 years. He stands over the fryer in a way I’ve never seen a cook in a kitchen do. It’s as if he understands some deep mystery about the baskets and the oil—the roil. As a consequence, his cod, flown in daily, ends up being a flaky delicacy steamed inside a fried pastry. It is precision. The Charles Gabriel of Detroit fish.

Photo by Jesse David Green

Detroit Style...Chili

“Coney Island” refers both to a type of hot dog and the places serving them. The Coney is a snap-casing dog in a steamed bun covered with a hearts-kidneys-ground beef chili sauce, white onions, and yellow mustard. Most places use a local chili sold frozen, but the standout spots still make their own. The best downtown version is Lafayette, whose chili is served steel forge–hot. Marcus Hamburgers, deep in a neighborhood right out of the first season of True Detective, pours chili creamy with roux over a rectangular beef patty. Sort of like White Castle on growth hormones.

Photo by Jesse David Green

Detroit Style...Pizza

Square-cut with gooey dough, golden crust, and highly sought-after corner slices, Detroit-style pizza continues to breach improbable provincial pizza borders. But even locally, there’s still wild variation among square pies. My wife likes the chain Jet’s because it’s a seven-minute walk from where we live. We order it well-done— the caramelization is essential for Detroit pie—and then drown it in Parmigiano-Reggiano. At Amar in Hamtramck, the Naga pie (ghost pepper, chicken, cilantro) is a must. When we dine out at one of the regional independents, though, we usually end up at Loui’s, the interior bathed in coral Naugahyde and the incredibly buttery pie drowning in sauce.

Photo by Jesse David Green

Detroit Style...Toum

While Coneys and pizza are the most well-known Detroit food, the thing most argued about here is toum. This Lebanese garlic emulsion is the cousin to aioli and allioli, and its construction and personality are equally specific, differing, and well-guarded. Rarely called by its actual name, it’s often referred to as garlic sauce/dip/spread, or gruntingly, “garlic.” Omnipresent at Lebanese restaurants in metro Detroit, toum is slathered inside shawarma, eaten a forkful at a time on meats, and melted on fresh pitas. My current toum fave is at new-school banger Kanun Grill, but the Best in Show year after year is Beirut Bakery, where a touch of egg white turns it so airy and smooth that it becomes something closer to mousse.