Originally settled by the French, British and Americans colonists quickly erased any hopes of fancy fare from the menus; leaving only place names on the odd street sign. Detroit stands out in the Midwest for its later influx of immigrants. While cities like Chicago and St. Louis grew quickly with westward expansion and trade, Michigan was left behind in the rush to expand in the 1800s.
The World knows Detroit as The Motor City for good reason. In the early decades of the twentieth century immigrants were drawn to the city by the promise of good wages and shorter working hours in the factories of Henry Ford and other automotive manufacturers. Farmers from the Midwest, immigrants from Europe, and African Americans from the South all descended upon the city. There was money to be spent; a vibrant middle class sprung up and housing boomed. Detroit was one of the few places a black man and a Polish immigrant could earn the same as a white factory worker. Equality mostly ended there though, and the city eventually collapsed amid the downturn in the auto industry and race riots in the late 1960s. White flight and the loss of jobs left a broken shell of a city, but one thing remained: the rich food culture. Today, a new generation is discovering the cuisines brought together by the auto industry as the city rebuilds.
Detroit is becoming a foodie heaven, though what many young Instagrammers don’t realize is the food never left. It’s been hiding in the few restaurants frequented by office workers or confined to certain neighborhoods. Today we’re seeing these old establishments regain popularity and new eateries popping up as the city cleans up and jobs return. Detroit is now a city worthy of a foodie road trip.
Any trip to Detroit has to start with coney dogs. A proper coney includes a natural casing Vienna style hot dog, chili sauce, and a stripe of mustard and chopped raw onions. No cheese. Detroit coney sauce is a smooth beanless chili made with a finely ground beef and often beef hearts; not chunky like many other chili dogs. While the exact origin is impossible to nail down, the soul is certainly centered in downtown Detroit. Most notable are the Lafayette and American coney islands sitting door to door downtown. It’s a great opportunity for a visitor to taste two of the best. You’ll also find coney island restaurants serving coney dogs and other Greek fare across the Detroit Metro area.
Detroit Style Pizza
While Detroit has long been known for its coney dogs, somehow its pizza has flown under the radar for years. You undoubtedly have strong onions on Chicago deep dish or giant New York folds, but you Detroit style pan pizza will change your outlook. Originating in the 1940s at Buddy’s, these rectangular pizzas are baked in industrial auto parts trays; no silly pizza pans for serious Detroit flavor. The slightly chewy bottom is surrounded by a crispy, almost fried, edge that is a delicacy all its own. While Buddy’s tops their pizzas with sauce, most layer the brick cheese the traditional way. Detroit style pizza is finally getting recognition by foodies and also spreading its way across America through the local Jet’s and Little Caesar’s chains.
Burgers, Bars, and Brewpubs
Detroit is a city of industry and has long been a place mired in the rut of cheap beer with locals swilling Stroh’s and other weak American brews. But there has been an awakening during the past decade. Michigan now has over 200 microbreweries and numerous brewpubs. Atwater Block Brewery was one of the first, opening its doors near the river front back in the late 90s. More recently, the craft beer movement has gained momentum with several new locations, such as The Jolly Pumpkin, being a major draw and helping to draw more visitors downtown.
And what goes better with a ice cold brew than a burger? While a few over-the-top creations may grace the foodie social feeds, Detroit is a great place to hunker down with an honest cheeseburger. Quality ingredients, experienced cooks, and griddles seasoned by years of serving hungry patrons is what you’ll find in the older bars. There’s no need to mess with perfection, though some classic eateries have adapted to modern tastes. One of my favorite local bars, Honest John’s, offers an eclectic mix of craft and cheap beers at the bar and Fruity Pebbles crusted French toast for Sunday brunch.
Many visitors are surprised to learn of the many excellent restaurants in Mexicantown. One of the alter immigrant groups, Mexicantown formed in the 1940s. During the 70s and and 80s it was one of the very few areas in Detroit to actually grow. Today there are some amazing Mexican restaurants and grocery stores to satisfy any appetite. Geared more towards family meals than street food, you’ll find everything from salsa to tamales made from scratch. A favorite of mine is the giant burrito stuffed with tender beef stew and smothered with sauce known as The Burrazo found at Mexican Village. There are also some authentic local Mexican establishments on the northern edge of Detroit’s suburbs where I live among the farms and orchards that are worth a drive.
Hamtramck and Polish Food
One classic cuisine that is fading from Detroit’s collective memory is Polish food. A large number of Many Poles immigrated to work in the expanding automotive factories and settled in the small town of Hamtramck (surprisingly a French name) located within the confines of Detroit. During the hard times of the 1970s many scattered across the suburbs. Despite being mostly Bengali and Pakistani today, there are some some excellent Polish restaurants, such as Krakus and Polish Village Cafe, serving up classics. The fare is generally simple, consisting of stuffed cabbage or zucchini, sausages, and pickle soup. There’s also duck blood soup for the adventurous diners.
It’s difficult to say if these ethnic classics will hold on in the restaurant line, but they can often be found in the home kitchen repertoire of local families. Many long time Detroiters, such as myself, share some Polish lineage and can be found cooking up kielbasa and sauerkraut or the breaded and fried pork skewers known locally as city chicken.
Middle Eastern Influence
While Polish food is fading, Arabic restaurants are spreading across the Metro area. Just outside of downtown Detroit lies the suburb of Dearborn. Home of the Ford Motor Company and the largest Arab community in the USA. Despite what you may have heard on TV or radio shows, the population is more Christian than Muslim and many families have been a part of Detroit for decades.
You’ll find some well established Middle Eastern restaurants, such as Cedarland and La Shish, in the heart of Dearborn. The menus, which tend more towards the Mediterranean Lebanese variety, are full of healthy and flavorful items like fatoush salad and grilled shawarma (chicken, lamb, or beef). The popularity of healthy items, such as hummus, have recently lead to the rapid spread of Middle Eastern eateries across the Metro area. We used to drive an hour for a great Lebanese dinner, but now I can go just down the road for my fix.
The New Generation of Detroit
With the accelerating redevelopment in downtown Detroit a younger generation is moving in and bringing with it new tastes and entrepreneurs. Fresh takes on traditional cuisines are popping up alongside international flavors. Circling Campus Martius Park in the downtown core you’ll find high end Mexican and Brazilian restaurants and Thai eateries, while visitors and suits wait in line at an expanding row of food trucks.
In Midtown you can find everything. Classic bars, farm to table, tapas, brewpubs, and more. Gus’ Famous Fried Chicken recognized the potential and had the confidence to open a location here, which plays well with homegrown Slow’s BBQ just down the street. Outside of the upcoming neighborhoods, there are several efforts to build community gardens to help bring fresh produce, and a sense of pride, to residents of long neglected streets.
Long known for cars, sports stars, and singers of timeless tunes, Detroit is quickly becoming a foodie paradise. Or is it already there, just waiting to be fully experienced? The Motor City is being rebuilt in part by the burgeoning restaurant industry. We’re starting to crest the wave of animosity and a younger, educated generation is discovering a city full of potential. Detroit is creating new jobs, but not just factory work this time. Office jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities are laying the path for revitalization. Restaurants and brewpubs are filling the bellies of the city’s new residents and providing jobs to locals. They also create a space within the community to draw people together in a place that has for decades driven them apart. If you travel for the love of food, you need pencil in Detroit at the top of your destination list. If you also travel to learn more about local culture and want to see urban renewal firsthand, underline it with your best marker.