Corktown Rises: Michigan Ave. Has a New Shine
Michigan Avenue has a new shine, driven by drinks, food and neighborhood spirit.
Published: February 4, 2014
Of course, goodwill can only take you so far. But the food at the Detroit Institute of Bagels is hearty and satisfying. All the food is done with a bit of extra class, from the big sandwiches down to the cucumber-infused water. The bagels themselves have a nice crispy rind, and aren’t the poofy jumbo-sized carb-bombs you find in stores. I bite into one with a satisfying crunch, and the chewy dough offers the perfect resistance. Bradish orders a luxurious lox sandwich, cream cheese, red onion and capers. It may cost $11, but it’s worth every penny to my hungover friend.
Then I dig into the Chicago Bagel Dog, an all-beef Sy Ginsberg frank wrapped in bagel dough and cooked, then sliced open and dragged through the garden, stuffed with green relish, a pickle, a slice of tomato, a sport pepper and chopped red onion, all in a crisp poppy-seed bagel coating. You know how you sometimes leave that last bit of bun on the plate? Not with this dog.
It’s almost noon when we stroll down to PJ’s Lager House, where jocular daytime bartender Paul Maiale is setting up. We each ask for only a digestif for now, although the Lager House’s kitchen churns out great food, as one customer dropping in to pick up a take-out order attests. Owner Paul “PJ” Ryder has told us in the past how, after the smoking ban, he decided to amp up his food offerings, including plenty of vegetarian options. Bradish praises the vegetarian biscuits and gravy, and I fondly recall a barbecue tempeh sandwich I once crushed here. Ten years ago, it would have been unheard-of to request such delicacies in a Michigan Avenue bar, but Ryder and company churn it out, especially during the bar’s popular weekend brunches.
Braving the icy wind, we stroll down to Brooklyn Street Local, another hands-on local business. This weekday’s lunch has drawn a bit of a broader mix than the bagel shop, with a few older diners among the twenty- and thirtysomethings. Clean and bright inside, there’s a mild quirk-factor, the sort of place that has stylish chairs but uses milk bottles as carafes and rocks glasses for water. A small library of books at our elbow includes The Mullet Book and Look at This F*cking Hipster.
We order a chicken-and-pesto sandwich and, naturally, a bowl of poutine, for which the joint is somewhat famous. There’s a bit of a wait, given the size of the crowd and the small size of the kitchen, but it’s an enjoyable place to people-watch. It takes us a while to realize what’s different, but we see no television, and diners are actually reading books, with nary a laptop to be seen.
We chat with one of the owners, Deveri Gifford, 32. Deveri and her husband, Jason Yates, opened the joint in May 2012. The couple emigrated to Corktown from Toronto, taking up residence on Leverette Street two years ago, and turning this former coney island into a smart little café.
Canadians moving to Detroit? We begin speculating whether attitudes toward cities are any more enlightened north of the border. She replies, “It’s funny. I think a lot of cities have that urban-suburban divide. I think in Detroit it seems a little more prevalent. But I know in Toronto there’s definitely a big divide between urban and suburban. You see very different attitudes and mentalities. I mean, think about Mayor Rob Ford,” she says, as we all burst into laughter. Seriously, though, she explains, “If you look at the districts that voted for him, they were all outside the core of the city. So I think that’s kind of a common thing, I definitely saw it a lot in Toronto.
“But being in the city was very important to us. We didn’t have any interest in being in the suburbs. We wanted to be right in the actual city, and we certainly have made a lot of friends who live in the city and who’ve been really supportive. … I grew up near a really small community, so that kind of closeness has always been very important to me, but I love the city as well, so Detroit, for me, is kind of like the perfect melding of the two, because it does feel like a small town a lot of the time, and you get to know everyone in your neighborhood. I love it. I think the sense of community in Detroit is fantastic. It’s one of the main reasons I love this city.”
And with Brooklyn Street Local, Gifford and Yates have given everyone another reason to love the neighborhood. The menu’s choices are a little more playful than standard diner fare. Plus, the place is much more friendly to dietary restrictions — even the pesto in my chicken sandwich comes with options. As for the poutine, Bradish digs in while explaining its virtues. “It’s one of those things where a side dish is just so damn hearty it almost becomes like a main,” he says. “You’ve got it all. You’ve got your starch, your protein, your fattiness. And these curds are more pungent than usual.”
Fortified, we head out again into the ice and snow, ready for our next stop.
Approaching Ottava Via from the rear, Bradish describes what’s not there yet. The tread-marked dirt lot will be a bocce court. The snow-covered outdoor hearth will be full of dancing flames. The cozy, enclosed courtyard will fill with diners. Outside, at least, it’s still a work in progress.
But inside, it’s finished. It’s beautiful. Maybe a little too nice for the likes of us. The interior is all dark wood and chic lighting fixtures. The sound system is playing “Bei Mir Bistu Shein.” The crowd is definitely older, more upscale, more male. The customers sport blazers, neckties or warm-looking long overcoats. On the wall in a hallway is a depiction of the neighborhood by local artist Jerome Ferretti, full of signs for businesses old and new, many of them brand-spanking new.
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