Go to any major city, downtown, and find a bar. Most likely, it'll be on a corner, at the bottom of a larger building, fit in across from other bars and businesses. A thriving metropolis is a patchwork of bars, restaurants, and retail surrounded by people. Detroit is moving that way. In the spacious front windows of the Cornerstone Barrel House, Detroit's continued and continuing journey is framed: The new streetcar lines have been installed, and John Varvatos' store in the Wright-Kay Building attracts the well-heeled, while windows across the street display signs seeking tenants. The Cornerstone Barrel House seems interested in being a cornerstone of new Detroit, and they're in a good spot to do it.
Inside, the Barrel House is full of beautiful contrasts in dark wood and red bricks with bright white soaring ceilings. Those aforementioned windows run at least 10 feet from bottom to top and during the day let in a lush and comfortable light that reaches almost to the back of the dining room. It's well-lit at night, the slightly yellow glow warm and welcoming, the sort of upscale bar where you can still feel comfortable in a Tigers jersey. The bar, a darker mahogany than the rest of the room, is huge, and reinforces that this is a place that takes its drinking seriously. There's even a wrought-iron foot rail. Seriously. There's also a cool piece of art by the front, set on top of a barrel in the corner: a map of Michigan, made of big, industrial nuts; there's a long shank bolt as a support, and a short bolt in the southeast corner near Detroit.
At the end of the bar is what makes this place so intriguing: A tiny, old-fashioned bar kitchen. It can't be more than 5 feet wide, with a fryer and a flat-top grill, and a little refrigerated line for holding all the ingredients. Sure, there's a prep area in back where all the extra things are stored and organized, but everybody in this place is fed out of a kitchen that most dive bars limit to burgers and fried goods. The menu here, naturally, is much more diverse, and evidences the skills of the folks in the kitchen — they pull off a lot in a small space.
Before you eat, though, you're likely to want a drink, and there's a lot to choose from. The whiskey list is the center of the bar's offerings, encompassing around 40 bourbons, several ryes, a decent selection each of Scotches and Irish, and a few more styles just for fun. There's a real possibility of getting lost in the bourbons if that's your idiom: The list offers a chance to compare and contrast, to consider the merits of each combination of mash and barrel, and the bar staff is capable of directing the more neophyte bourbon drinker to a few they'll like. If you just like Jameson, though, it's there (and in Gold and Black bottles too) along with Johnnie and the like. Then there's the other half of the bar, with craft and mainstream brands intermingled, and some well-executed cocktails that range from the one you order for your mom who doesn't really drink to the classically bold and boozy. Beer too, in bottles and on six taps. A curated selection, friendly to a range of tastes.
The point is: It's a very good bar. Probably a second drink by now, and it's time to eat something for sure. How about the incredibly smooth, well-flavored potato pierogi soup? There is no actual pierogi, but it tastes just like the best one you've ever had from that little cart that one time, spoonful by spoonful. Bacon, of course, and onion, and potato, naturally; a little drizzle of olive oil brings the whole thing together, the slight fattiness that makes pierogi so devilishly good. The Barrel House salad is a nice starter as well, a perfect example of a simple plate being better than a complex one. It's a riff on a Greek salad almost, with onions and tomatoes and feta. Maybe it feels weird to eat a salad in a bar. Maybe you should get over that.
Meatballs are delicious, and go surprisingly well with the right beer, or wine if you prefer. The roasted red pepper and tomato sauce strikes a clean balance of sweetness from the peppers with acidity from the tomatoes, and complements the very flavorful beef meatball perfectly. Sopping up the extra sauce with the provided baguettes is encouraged and recommended. The mac and cheese is similarly devourable, a creamy-yet-still-sharp mix of smoked Gouda, mozzarella, and Parmesan. Yes, you can add meat to the mac: beef, pork, chicken, bacon. No, you don't have to unless you're into that — this is stuff that a connoisseur would like, finished with a bit of the ever-popular white truffle oil. The cheese clings to the noodles, just slightly stringy; feelings of warmth and safety cascade through you.
The "Fish N Chip" is a great plate. Atlantic cod, cut in perfectly square bricks, is battered with an ingenious mix that includes Better Made salt and vinegar potato chips and Atwater's Dirty Blonde, and served with remoulade and house fries — fingerling potato steak fries, a nice touch. It's not that usual dry, boring codfish, either: Juicy, dense, and flaking cleanly, it's sure to satisfy any fish-and-chips lover.
Perhaps you're feeling more like a sandwich. How about corned beef, sliced medium-thin, grilled and stacked on an English muffin, topped with a fried egg? They say it's cooked hard on the menu, but they will let the egg be a bit more easy if you ask nicely. Put some mustard on it, maybe ask for some onions. It's heavenly. Simple, well-executed, and satisfying. What more could you want?
Another drink, probably.
Or maybe the Italian, with meatballs, grilled Italian sausage, braised beef, and Parmesan, garnished with that tomato-pepper sauce. That's just a solid sandwich, the sort of thing that you're proud to eat for lunch. The beef is meltingly tender and deeply flavored, the sausage fatty punctuated with bright fennel; once again, well-executed.
All of that, remember, out of a tiny little kitchen tucked at the end of the bar. The Cornerstone Barrel House is doing something very cool downtown. It's a great stop before or after a game, an opera, a punk rock show, or the ballet. Make up an excuse. Head to the Cornerstone.