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New in Midtown: Cheap but good dining, from crepes to dim sum






People who live in Midtown like to talk about how much they love living in Midtown. And what's not to love? Midtown is the cultural and intellectual hub of the city. And thanks to some new and improved restaurants and bars, Midtown is cementing its status as the city's social center, too.

Popular consensus seems to be that Midtown -- and specifically, the University and Cultural Districts -- has been woefully underserved in terms of casual restaurants. There is a huge market of working professionals, college students, and culture-seekers that previously had little local recourse. Until now.

Majestic makeover

The Majestic Theater complex has been under the ownership of the Zainea family for over 60 years, and has served as the stage that launched the careers of many of Detroit's skinny-jean-wearing, shaggy-haired rockers. But the secret to this multi-venue entertainment complex's long-term success is its ability to roll with the punches, most recently with its new Alley Deck and made-over cafe.

"We had to adapt to what was going on within the community and economically," says owner Dave Zainea. "We wanted the menu to reflect the current times in Detroit, so we changed the format, redesigned the cafe to give it a more intimate look and feel, and cut price points a lot lower." Most items on the new  menu (which highlights various "street food" cuisines found around the world, including mahi mahi tacos and tamales) are $5-10, and the kitchen is open late to maximize the night-owl business. The lounge-y nightlife atmosphere and less expensive, trendier food has served them well: "We've seen a huge improvement in business. Sales have definitely increased."

Park Shelton

Down the street, the Park Shelton building has been experiencing a transformation of its own. Last year hyper-mod Japanese-Korean eatery Wasabi opened, much to the delight of Park Shelton residents and nearby office workers. Just this past August, Detroit darling Torya Blanchard opened up the second location of her popular Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes next to the new Leopold's Books and just a few doors down from Wasabi. At this location, customers can sit down, surf the web, and enjoy over 50 different seasonal crepe varieties including gluten-free and vegan-friendly options.

"I always knew even before original walk-up location that I eventually wanted to be in Midtown," says Torya. "Here we're surrounded by two universities and there are so many people living and working in this area, there's always room for more restaurants and so much room for shops that cater to the needs of the people living in the area."

It is the diversity of people in Midtown that also gives it a unique draw: "Midtown has such a variety of people," Blanchard continues. "There are business people, students of every background and ethnicity -- I love that; that's what Midtown's all about."

Shangri-La

With cultural diversity comes the inevitable diversity of eateries. Welcome Shangri-La in the former Twingo's location. It's the city's Detroit's first authentic Chinese eatery. "We did a lot of study of the area's demographics, and we found that there are a lot of people from Asia in the area and there is a demand for authentic Asian food," explains Shangri-La's business consultant Raymond Wong. "We also want to cater to the built-in college crowd, so our pricing is very reasonable." Most entrees cost around $8 and come with very generous portions. In addition to Chinese dishes, they also offer real Thai curry, but don't confuse this place with some of the generic hodge-podge strip mall Chinese restaurants you would find out in the 'burbs: What sets Shangri-La apart is its authentic dim sum.

"We couldn't open until we found the best dim sum chef around," says Wong. "That was a must." Shrimp shiu mai, baked BBQ pork bun, steamed chicken feet ... there is nothing on this dim sum menu that isn't top-notch. (If you're unfamiliar, think of dim sum as Chinese tapas—small plates served in succession).

Shangri-La has been open since Oct. 1 and is currently in the process of acquiring a liquor license and adding a sushi bar. For the health conscious, the restaurant is completely non-smoking. Dim sum is served until one hour before the kitchen closes "so that Asian students getting out of classes late can still have access to it."

The social transformation of Midtown began about a year and a half ago, when Lefty's Lounge opened on Cass Ave. and found a completely untapped college sports fan market. Then Motor City Brewing Works started serving some of Detroit's favorite pizza, and the rest, as they say, is history.?

Pardon our French

Yes, there are plenty of new places in Midtown to nosh and whet your whistle. More casual eateries, renovated spaces, and lest we forget: Another Fucking Bar and Grill. That's the name -- we didn't make it up. "It's like a fart joke that everybody gets," says co-owner Dave LaMarche.

"AFB" is on the Midtown/Downtown border, just north of I-75 near Brush Park. "This is a location with a lot of growth opportunity," says Dave. "It's got easy access to the freeways, it's close to the theaters, gaming, WSU, the DMC. We want to draw from all these locations and people in town for sporting events, but also attract the Detroit residents too." 

It's not a sports bar. It's not a gastropub. It's a bar, another (wink wink) bar, and their goal is to be a comfortable, friendly place where people can meet and conversation is encouraged. If you find yourself struggling for conversation topics with strangers, AFB provides all that you need with their "centerpiece": a wall of urinals which serve as the keg taps. "It's something unique to talk about," says Dave.  Um, yes. "There are a lot of things here people will have a reaction to, but it's a friendly place."

For example, one might react to "Another" you know what "Burger" on their "Little Ass Menu" (the full menu is not yet complete), described as being "slaughtered cow, hung, bled, seared, and served on a perfect Avalon bun." The taste is pure burgervana. The meat is fresh from Eastern Market's Fairway Packing Company and for only $6 (with fries, coleslaw, and cheese -- all served together in a dog bowl) this burger is easily a Detroit Top 10. For a casual bar with no pretense aside from cheeky humor, AFB is the place to be.

So, OK, all smarmy little Midtown dwellers, we get it. Midtown is great. It's hipper, it's edgier, it's more cultural and artistic, and now it's upping its coolness ante with trendy, tasty new restaurants and bars. Fine. You win, Midtown. Hats off to you. Good day, sir.

Nicole Rupersberg is a regular contributor to Model D. She writes about what she eats at Dining in Detroit.

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