Nothing like a Detroit food party: High energy restaurant jam gets off to roaring start

The day the Detroit census results were released, it seemed to be the only topic on people's lips: whether surprised, concerned, nonplussed or even apathetic, everyone had an opinion, and the overall vibe in the city was rather glum. So it was a welcome relief to shake off the cold and sleet and duck into the packed bar at the Rattlesnake Club for a Restaurant Week happy hour preview, where the mood was distinctly more upbeat thanks in part to the drink specials and generous spread of complimentary appetizers (I know the bite-sized pork sliders certainly put a smile on my face).

I jockey for a spot at the bar, where unhurried bartenders mix fruity concoctions for the clamoring crowd. I stick to wine, which I sip while chatting with James Cadariu of Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company and Marc Djozlija, head chef at Wolfgang Puck Grille. Rather than dwell on the census results, the topic inevitably turns to food and wine. I mention last week's Model D story on Roma Café and Angelina Italian Bistro, and Djozlija divulges that he goes to Roma Café about once a month to treat himself to its Chicken Parmigiana. A pretty solid endorsement if I ever heard one. Djozlija also mentions that he moved to Detroit from out of state to take the job at Wolfgang Puck, so take that, census.

Fast-forward one week, and I'm sitting at the bar at Atlas Global Bistro chatting with Suzanne Vier of Simply Suzanne, Randall Fogelman of Detroit Spice Company, and Kerry Doman of After 5 Detroit, three young, successful Detroit entrepreneurs. As I sip on the drink special du jour, a mystery punch that tastes deliciously similar to a strawberry lime rickey, I'm invigorated and inspired by the energy in the room (which, like the Rattlesnake Club, is packed to the gills: we Detroiters like our happy hours). If Atlas happens to be a stop on your Restaurant Week junket, be sure to try one of their specialty cocktails: the bar makes their own bitters and infusions in-house.

A short few days later, I find myself gazing out the great glass elevator of the Renaissance Center at a hazy Detroit afternoon-tuned-evening as we shoot up to the 72nd floor to visit Coach Insignia. There's a definite feeling of exclusivity here, with a host inquiring if we have reservations before we even board the elevator, and a manager who requests that we be discreet with the photography so as not to disturb the many GM executives who dine there regularly. In spite of its rather dated 1980s décor, Coach Insignia is still a force on the dining scene, drawing a chi-chi if conservative crowd of men outfitted in Brooks Brothers and their Vuitton-toting, skyscraper-heeled dates. From the restaurant's upper level bar, we drink in the views as a jazz band sets up and patrons below munch on mini lobster corn dogs and watermelon and chipotle-glazed ribs.

As the sun begins to fade, we dash over to the MGM Grand to check out Wolfgang Puck Grille and Saltwater. My mind lingers on the soaring heights of the Ren Cen, but the sounds of Kiss and Motley Crüe in the bar at WPG bring us firmly down to earth. We wave hello to Chef Marc as he oversees his team in the huge open kitchen. Where Coach Insignia is buttoned-up, WPG has the much more casual vibe of some chic, kooky upscale diner. Cries of "Order up!" pierce the air as the waitstaff scurries to and fro amidst stacks of firewood, cartoonishly overgrown floor lamps, and a sea of antlers suspended from the ceiling. Even the water is hip here: as I sit observing, the manager brings me a sleek, cylindrical glass bottle. I find myself guiltily hoping they recycle.

The Restaurant Week menu at WPG is, like everywhere, quite the bargain at $28, but if you're inclined to visit some other time, the signature Wolfgang Puck pizzas on the menu are a reasonable $12-$15. I'm tempted, but we have to get over to Saltwater. This being the casino, we are given badges and escorted behind the scenes, passing through Bourbon Steak, chef Michael Mina's other restaurant, on the way. Saltwater is low-key and mellow after the bustle of WPG, like slipping into a warm bath. Mosaic tiles on the ceiling mimic ocean waves, and the chairs at the bar are the deep teal blue of the Atlantic. Patrons sip martinis and slurp oysters at the bar, while hushed conversations take place in the snugs that border the dining room. While Marvin snaps photos, I flip through the Michael Mina cookbook on display, admiring the chef's creations both on the pages and in the dishes that float past on their way to the dining room.

Next stop on our tour is 24 Grille, inside the Book Cadillac. The place is jammed, and I just manage to squeeze in at the very last seat at the bar. Despite having been to its next-door neighbor Roast on several occasions, I haven't yet eaten here. I make a mental note to change that soon, especially since Christian Borden, former chef at Atlas Global Bistro and one of our favorite chefs in town, is now at the helm. The crowd here is quite the mixed bag, the tattooed-and-pierced mingling with the Dockers-and-sport-coats set, with an age range to match. The contrasts don't end with the clientele; I look up to see blingy modern crystal chandeliers hanging from sprayed-black exposed duct work, bringing to mind a young girl caught between her sparkly princess phase and her punky smudged black eyeliner phase. The staff moves at a frantic pace as they deliver dishes such as Blue Point oyster salads, Berkshire pork tenderloin medallions, and trios of house-churned ice creams. With over 9 choices for appetizers alone on the Restaurant Week menu, and all of them sounding equally enticing, I don't know how diners make up their minds. My advice: Go with a group of friends who like to share.

As we make our way across the vestibule to Roast to wrap up our night, it's like coming home. The bar is an oasis of calm repose. Grace, the hostess, greets us enthusiastically as Travis Fourmont, our favorite bartender, mixes us a couple of stiff cocktails with a smile. You know a place takes its drinks seriously when they refer to their cocktail list as a "program." Fourmont not only serves up flawless renditions of classic cocktails like Sazeracs and Negronis, but takes pleasure in creating his own infusions and signature drinks like the Cape Cardamom, which we sip contentedly. Across the bar, a couple hipsters get brave after a martini and somewhat nervously order the roasted bone marrow appetizer. They're in for a treat. A couple next to us orders from the Restaurant Week menu, and wisely so, since the $28 price tag is about what you'd pay just for the Roast Beast of the Day any other time. We raise our glasses to an evening well spent.

If any of this has made you remotely hungry, you still have six days left to take advantage of Restaurant Week pricing. Peruse the menus and make your reservations here.

Food writer Noelle Lothamer pens a food blog that goes by the tasty name Simmer Down! Look for her monthly Model D contributions in SimmerD.
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