Detroit dining scores big with Corktown’s comeback
Take a tour through Detroit’s food scene, from Slows Bar BQ to the Detroit Seafood Market. (Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau)
Detroit’s hottest new restaurant, Katoi, is in an old auto mechanic shop, a boxy, whitewashed, cinder-block building that’s easy to miss.
No matter. Detroit’s food-savvy crowds have found Katoi. Most evenings, you’ll find them standing in a line that stretches out the door, happily waiting their turn for a meal of creative, Thai-inspired food in the city’s resurging Corktown neighborhood.
Inside, green and pink neon lights bounce off walls slathered with decades of coats of industrial paint. Guests chat excitedly with wait staff about the menu, the building and even the meaning of Katoi itself.
“It means ‘ladyboy,’” a waiter explains to the diners sitting near me. “We asked ourselves, ‘What do we think of when we think of Thailand?’ And it was, you know, ladyboys.”
I took in the unconventional table talk while digging into wok-charred chickpea tofu triangles, little nuggets that reminded me of fried polenta with a kick of chili sauce, and khao soi gai, curried noodles with chicken and coconut milk. It wasn’t long before my gregarious waitress arrived with another plate.
“You seem like someone who really likes food,” Alyssa offered, not knowing I was a writer. “Our kitchen messed up and made an extra order of spare ribs. Try them! They’re so good!” Crispy with a fish sauce caramel, topped with Thai basil, pickled rind and watermelon cubes, they proved to be the best dish of the evening.
Katoi sits at the center of a culinary hot spot in a city where keeping up with restaurant openings has become the newest sport. As up-and-coming as any neighborhood you’ll find in up-and-coming Detroit, Corktown has found its niche with creative restaurants and free-thinking restaurateurs not shy about amping up flavors.
Katoi is in an old auto mechanic shop in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.(Amy S. Eckert / Chicago Tribune)
Across the street from Katoi is Two James Spirits, Detroit’s first licensed distillery since Prohibition. Le Petit Zinc dishes up French inspiration, stuffing its paper-thin crepes and quiches with organic, locally sourced ingredients: savory ham, creamy brie and crisp spinach leaves. Batch Brewing Company opened last year, ranking as Detroit’s first nanobrewery. And Astro Coffee gives hipsters a place to hang between meals, serving rich pour-over coffee and organic baked goods.
If you want to eat and drink your way through Corktown’s most interesting establishments, you’d better pace yourself.
Old ‘hood, new food
While the dining scene in Corktown is decidedly young, the neighborhood isn’t. Bounded roughly by the Detroit River and a bulge of asphalt formed by Interstate 75 and the Lodge Freeway, Corktown ranks as Detroit’s oldest surviving neighborhood, founded by Irish immigrants in 1834.
The Detroit Tigers kept Corktown buzzing during the 20th century, with Tiger Stadium the hub around which fan-friendly restaurants and bars revolved beginning in 1912. In 2000, the Tigers’ relocation to downtown Detroit sent Corktown into a tailspin.
Many city-watchers credit the reversal of that downward spiral to a restaurant. Slows Bar BQ surprised people by opening in a depressed Corktown in 2005, just up the street from abandoned Tiger Stadium (whose green baseball diamond remains). Slows drew new attention to Corktown with mouthwatering briskets, ribs and chicken, all slow-roasted in a barrel-shaped smoker on a shady adjoining patio.
Slows was followed a few years later by Gold Cash Gold. The building’s evident history as a pawnshop garnered plenty of interest — management opted to retain an old sign promising “Money in 1 Min.” and exterior advertising, such as a giant red dollar bill symbol. But it was the food that really wowed Gold Cash Gold’s customers — plates of braised pork or pickle-brine fried chicken dished up alongside locally sourced spinach, fresh greens and asparagus.
Nothing breeds success like success, as they say, and soon followed an uptick of Corktown originals.
After a stint as general manager of Gold Cash Gold, Matt Buskard created his own restaurant. In 2015, Bobcat Bonnie’s opened with a menu Buskard describes as “eclectic seasonal,” incorporating everything from fried bologna sandwiches to Captain Crunch-crusted chicken fingers.
“I love the strong community values in Corktown,” says Buskard. “Every business works to support the other neighborhood businesses. We all cooperate to eliminate crime. We all push to promote the neighborhood’s creativity. I love that about Corktown.”
And while creative entrepreneurs helped foster this neighborhood’s food scene, Buskard thinks a combination of three elements is key to sustaining Corktown’s success: “a creative, hipster vibe; a food-loving crowd; and prices that blue-collar workers can afford.”
After the meal
While Corktown’s dining scene takes center stage, its boutique shopping is just as interesting, if markedly smaller.
Detroit Artifactry thrives here. The retailer specializes in repurposed industrial pieces and vintage Motor City finds: wall mirrors discolored with soft green and bronze patina; jewelry crafted of old coins and skeleton keys; memorabilia from Boblo Island, a now-defunct amusement park that was to Detroiters what Coney Island is to New Yorkers.
Nearby, across the street from the old Tiger Stadium, Erin Gavle sells found objects of a different sort, including vintage clothing and jewelry, at Eldorado General Store.
“I felt a real connection with this building as soon as I stepped into it,” she says of Eldorado’s home, once a Tigers souvenir shop. “I love the energy and the people that surround me in Corktown.”
Handpicked, pre-loved cowboy boots, fringed suede jackets and sequined handbags sit alongside vintage silver tea sets and bouquets of dried flowers, as if arranged for Instagram. Many of her finds bear little tags advertising where they were discovered: Brooklyn, N.Y.; Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.
“We still run into bureaucratic hurdles all the time,” says Gavle. “And there’s really no reliable public transportation in Detroit. But I wouldn’t be anyplace else. And over time, things will get better.”
David Trapani, general manager of Corktown’s newly opened Trumbull & Porter Hotel, hopes Detroit doesn’t lose too many of its quirks on its path to revitalization.
“I think Detroit’s grit is a big part of what makes this city interesting,” says Trapani. “We’ve tried hard to reflect the city’s edgy character in our building’s decor.”
Formerly a Holiday Inn popular with Detroit Tigers fans and visiting ballplayers, the hotel deteriorated into a flophouse. Trumbull & Porter opened this spring with a contemporary, minimalist vibe. Detroit-made art and Michigan-made furniture adorn bright white rooms. The hotel lobby features antique, Detroit-made Burroughs adding machines. And a towering painting by Corktown artist Don Kilpatrick titled “I Stay, Even When I Go” takes its sentiment — and its words — from much-loved Detroit poet David Blair.
The hotel’s third and fourth floors are complete, but renovations of the lower two floors, a hotel restaurant and an outdoor patio are underway. Trumbull & Porter is still a work in progress, like much of Corktown — and the larger city of Detroit.
Amy S. Eckert is a freelance writer.
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