Saturday, October 18, 2008

Adventure Detroit: Food Nostalgia and the Motor City

Nostalgia is described as a longing for the past—often in an idealized or unrealistic form. Time and time again our memory recreates past events in an idyllic way. We tell stories from our childhood as we choose to remember them—sublime, beautiful, and good humored.

My sister and I grew up in Detroit—meaning we grew up in the suburbs. Most of the people you meet under 50 who hail from the Motor City are suburban Detroiters—whereas, the Detroiters from my parents' generation, actually grew-up in the city proper.

On a recent visit, I couldn’t contain my nostalgic feelings toward Detroit and my childhood. Sure, Detroit has seen better days; it was once a bustling city with a bright future. Today, the city reminds me of Batman’s Gotham—a once hopeful metropolis that has become a bed of corruption and deep-routed urban decay. Although, if you take the time to look closely at Detroit, past the wreckage, it boasts some of the greatest food finds on earth. These Detroit gems and institutions have almost become obsessions for my sister and me.

Lafayette: In my mind, Detroit houses the pinnacle of junk food—the Coney Dog. If you have never sunk your teeth into a “Detroit Coney” you have absolutely no idea what you are missing. A classic Detroit Coney is a steamed hot dog and bun covered in chili, chopped raw onion, and mustard. Sounds like a regular chili dog, you say? Not exactly. The chili has no beans and the way it absorbs into the white, warm bun is something words can’t really do justice. Coney Dog spots are everywhere in Detroit, but the place not to miss is Lafayette. Lafayette seems unchanged since it opened in the early 1920s and has achieved legendary status for Detroit locals. It’s incredibly dingy and cramped, the Formica tables are out of a time warp, and the fryer grease pours into the dining area—but this is all part of the beauty. The food is simple—dogs, bowls of chili, loose meat burgers smothered in chili and cheese fries. For the food junkie, Lafayette is the most magical place on earth. Details: 121 W. Layfayette at Michigan Ave., Detroit.

Carl’s Chop House: Where to go next? How about a steakhouse that has not updated its décor since it opened and the only place I know where each patron receives a free plate of pickled herring. This winning combination is Carl’s Chop House—nicotine-infused red carpeting, dark wood paneled walls, and steaks accompanied by their house-made cheese potatoes. With its red velvet curtains, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and smoke-filled dining room, this place is reminiscent of a 60s Las Vegas . Nevertheless, it is the oldest steak house in Detroit and it is an institution—almost other worldly. Details: Sadly, the beloved Carl's Chophouse has closed its doors since this article was first published.

Roma Café: The historic Roma Café is an old Italian restaurant—dusty waiters, dingy carpet, and “American Italian” food. Nothing about the menu offerings are unusual and the chef will not be receiving the James Beard Award anytime soon, but Roma embodies a characteristic that does not exist today—the spirit of tradition. It has been around since the late 1800s and has remained in the original structure since its humble, boarding house beginnings. The food, staff, and atmosphere haven’t changed since the first time I visited, nearly 30 years ago. Oven-baked cannelloni and red wine are served by a mustache-clad waiter who looks like he stepped out of the “Godfather.” Every entree comes with minestrone soup or a house salad. Finish off your meal with a coffee and a classic spumoni and you would swear that you were back in 1945. Details: 3401 Via Roma (Riopelle), Detroit,

Mario’s: Another Detroit institution that has to be mentioned is Mario’s. Mario’s has been around since 1948 and everything about it screams “old school.” Not many supper clubs from the 50s can boast that they have withstood the test of time and continue to turn out satisfying dishes. Mario’s seems virtually untouched by the modern world—from the stainless steel relish tray you receive the moment you sit down to the menu that still offers several “meals for two,” including Chateaubriand and Roast Tenderloin Beef “Flambeau.” Plus, don’t forget the house specialties, Torenados Royal, Veal Olympic, and Steak Diane or the traditional and comforting classics, manicotti, lasagna, and linguine with clam sauce. As Mario’s website states “this isn’t retro, this is real.” Details: 4222 Second Ave., Detroit,

The Bronx Bar: If you have time for a pre- or post-dinner drink, be sure to check out the dim-lit Bronx Bar just a block away from Mario’s. The Bronx Bar’s regular, local clientele and eclectic jukebox make this one of the best dive bars in town. Drinks here are classic and strong—just like Detroit. Details: 4476 Second Ave., Detroit.

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About Mod City Mom

After becoming mothers, sisters Sarah Romine and Leah Weyandt wanted to marry the activities and interests that they experienced before motherhood with their new found lives with children. This was not always an easy task—traveling to obscure places, shopping at off-beat boutiques, and sipping lazy-afternoon cocktails doesn't always fit neatly with parenthood. Stemming from their frustration, they meticulously searched, and continue to search, for activities, establishments, and entertainment that they take pleasure in and their families benefit from. The result? Mod City Mom.

About Sarah

Sarah is a passionate cook, fashionista, writer, actor, and mother. Like all actors, she ended up working at many-a-restaurant to make ends meet and shopping at countless bargain boutiques to maintain her sense of personal style. Her culinary journey, love affair with fashion, and desire to remain true to herself after becoming a mother are the inspirations for this site. Sarah lives with her husband and two sons in Chicago.

About Leah

A polymath wannabe, Leah loves books, films, music, cooking, and travel. After co-starting a writing and editing shop in 2002, Leah has spent her spare time frequenting her favorite cities, hangouts, and haunts. Her obsession with finding the new, innovative, and quirky is the impetus behind this site. Leah lives with her two sons and husband in North San Diego County.
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