A gracious island of comfort and style in the land of the big boxes
Published: March 28, 2012
Roadside Bar & Grill
1727 S. Telegraph Rd.
Opens at 11 a.m. daily, with brunch on the weekends, and closes at 11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, midnight Friday-Saturday, and 10 p.m. Sunday. A patio will open soon.
Successful restaurateur Bill Roberts says he was thinking about roadside restaurants in northern Michigan when he designed his new Roadside Bar & Grill in Bloomfield Township. It's pretty hard to envision such an up-North place on that portion of Telegraph, which is the most soulless kind of Big Box Row — no hand-lettered "Live Bait & Ammo" signs dot the landscape here. "A space that is urban yet suburban," says the website, obliviously.
But we in metro Detroit have gotten used to finding our food inside places that are no fun at all on the outside. One new and excellent restaurant, the Root, comes to mind, sited in a parking lot surrounded by an array of huge boxes that make up something wildly misnamed — "Town Center Boulevard" — no town, no center, no boulevard. We shrug off the strip mall when we get inside and turn our attention to our immediate surroundings.
In the case of Roadside that means concrete floors, cinderblock walls and pre-owned, distressed wood, certainly a casual atmosphere to go with the casual menu. The lack of padding could be a reason for the high noise levels.
But another reason would be that the place is jammed. I saw people accepting wait times of an hour and 45 minutes (and others walking back out the door). Roberts takes no dinner reservations, and as long as people want his food enough to put up with it, he'll stick to that plan. His loyal fans at Beverly Hills Grill, Streetside Seafood and Town Tavern have been waiting a combined total of years.
I haven't visited those Roberts locations for quite a while, but they have stellar reputations. If Roadside isn't consistently there yet (it opened Feb. 13), I did sample plenty of wonderful dishes. It's also importing dishes popular at the other properties, such as lobster mac and cheese and short rib tacos from Town Tavern, Kobe meatloaf from Beverly Hills, and cedar-planked salmon from Streetside (one employee called it "Cedar Point salmon"). Daily specials (check the website) are unique to Roadside; one night they included steelhead trout, lobster-stuffed pepper and strawberry Brie risotto.
First on the table are top-of-the-line biscuits — a welcome change, and their high and flaky goodness doesn't need additional butter.
Chef Chris Johnson does a good job on the Caesar salad too, with just the right amount of dressing, lots of Parmesan and two big fat anchovies. Other salads are a Carolina coleslaw and the ubiquitous Michigan cherry, with a maple vinaigrette.
Tomato soup is not puréed all the way smooth, which is a good thing, with bits of onion and tomato evident; it's creamy, of course, but a bit piquant, just right. Turkey chili and French onion are the other options.
Johnson mostly plays it traditional with the appetizers: oysters on the half shell; shrimp cocktail, jumbo, of course; calamari in that same red cocktail sauce; Buffalo chicken tenders (not wings) with blue cheese. I asked for warm potato chips with Gorgonzola and bacon and loved the thick hand-cut slices, scattered also with scallions and tomatoes and a splash of Mornay sauce. A lot's going on here, but it works.
Another wonderful appetizer is smoked whitefish cakes with a remoulade that stars roasted tomatoes and capers. The two cakes aren't large (Roadside portions are generally small to medium) but they do set you up nicely. I'm one who believes smoked whitefish deserves to be much more widely ordered and eaten.
Starters were better than mains, at least the four mains I tried, of 15. We found our two burgers, a $12 cheeseburger and a $13 buffalo burger, pretty good to OK. The buffalo burger carried some good caramelized onions but wasn't served medium rare, as ordered. The other was sold as a mix of short rib, steak and brisket but didn't feel especially upscale. The buns did seem lightly toasted, a plus, but were still too soft and characterless.
I don't quite get the fuss about lobster mac and cheese; in our stark-white serving, the delicate mascarpone did not stand up to the lobster. A cheesier cheese wouldn't work well either, though, in my opinion. My fat spaghetti with short-rib Bolognese was on the sweet side, reminiscent of Sloppy Joe more than Bologna, Italia. Other possibilities are fish and chips, three steaks and a $15 enchilada ($18 with meat).
For dessert, two nostalgia items are pineapple upside-down cake and Detroit Athletic Club rice pudding. A warm chocolate ganache cake with raspberry sauce and three perfect raspberries hit the spot; for $6, it was petite.
The drinks list tends American, with vodkas, gins and rums that will be unfamiliar to many. The wine list is also U.S.-focused. I liked a zingy New Zealand sauvignon blanc.
When the excitement dies down and you can get in the door at a reasonable hour, Roadside will be worth that visit.
> Email Jane Slaughter