Wright & Co.
1500 Woodward Ave., Second Floor, Detroit
The dystopian, sci-fi thriller Blade Runner might not be the first thing that pops into your mind when stepping into downtown Detroit's Wright & Co., but a closer look reveals some parallels between the sci-fi noir film and the new upscale American gastropub. As owner David Kwiatkowski explains, the movie is a constant source of design inspiration for him with its "melding of the futuristic-industrial with the classic."
Indeed, Wright & Co. occupies the second floor of the recently renovated historic Wright-Kay building, constructed during Detroit's turn-of-the-century industrial boom, so there is inherent deco-future design, and the small plates restaurant is heavy on atmosphere.
Among the classic elements are the oak wainscoting, a 47-foot bar topped with Carrara marble, oxblood leather booths, and dark-stained floors. Then there are the industrial features in the walls, a tin, deco-style ceiling, huge industrial fans, and Tolix chairs. The antlers, grand DuMouchelle's chandelier in the turret, and replica of Ludolf Backhuysen's "Ships in Distress During a Heavy Storm" provide an eclectic feel, though Kwiatkowski exercises caution around that word: "It's slightly eclectic, but not in a junky way, which is usually associated with that word, so I guess one could call it upscale traditional-industrial."
So how did Kwiatkowski turn a "complete wreck" into a seamless deco-future-classic eatery? "The truth is that the space spoke to me," he says. "The physical beauty of the raw space was so impressive, and of course the building is so gorgeous, I knew that we had to go all-in on this one and make sure it was timeless and elegant. We definitely spent some extra money, but using vinyl on the boots or Corian on the bar tops just wasn't an option."
Light plays a huge role during the daytime and dusk, so the huge windows rounding the west and south walls dictated that the bar would be set up on the north wall and that the kitchen would go in the back. The vertical, tufted, oxblood booths were fashioned after a Parisian café in an old photograph Kwiatkowski owns, which he says demanded a very dark brown stain on the woodwork.
All the existing trim and wainscoting had to be removed and refurbished, and a local lumber mill reproduced exact replicas of those pieces that couldn't be saved. The bar and banquette pattern were based on the patterns of the wainscoting.
Another attention-grabber is the sparkling tin ceiling, which is a reproduction of an art deco pattern Kwiatkowski enjoys, and local fabricator Taru Lahti produced the metal walls covering the front entrance.
Finally, there's the bar. Kwiatkowski set out to attract a bar crowd, hence the banquette partitioning the 3,3000-square-foot restaurant to create separate bar and dining areas. The Carrara marble bartop is 4.75 inches thick at the bullnose, as Kwiatkowski shot for something substantial enough to where a 47-foot top didn't appear flimsy. The large "Ships in Distress During a Heavy Storm" reproduction by local artist Michelle Tanguay hangs above the bartenders preparing craft cocktails.
"Some people don't get why we have a ship in a storm above the bar, but I think it's sort of a metaphor for Detroit," Kwiatkowski says. "It's tumultuous, but also beautiful and hopeful. But hopefully we fare better than its subject, the Hollandia, which sank in the Straits of Gibraltar."
The Zenith at the Fisher
3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
The entrance to the Zenith, the Fisher Building's new-ish Mexican restaurant, is painted bright, and two of co-owner Michelle Jasper's favorite paintings adorn the wall by the hostess station. One is of the faces of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X blending together into one, and the other is of a man in a sweater vest standing in front of what appears to be distraught-looking families in a concentration camp.
It's a small taste of the visual trip to come.
Thirty years of Jasper collecting colorful '40s and '50s artwork, painting, memorabilia, figurines, pieces of mid-century modern furniture, and assorted oddities make for wild space, and describing the interior as busy might not be adequate — think of a pinball machine on multiball.
While it is among the most unusual interiors in town, Jasper says the approach is what comes to her naturally when she sees a blank canvas, and the style is what she loves, not a gimmick.
"I've had restaurants for 20 years, and I've always decorated them like this," she says. "Why wouldn't you decorate it? I've always liked weird things from the '40s and '50s, so that's how I decorate. It's strange because people always thought I was doing some kind of deliberate business ploy, but I buy what I like, assuming people would like something other than white on wall. I'm against white."
While most of the decorations are lighthearted and fun, there can be a creepy edge. Jasper received an education about a snake painting she picked up. Customers who asked to be seated away from it informed her it's a voodoo artifact, and they can't see snakes while they're eating.
Then there's the "Puts pussy in fine form" sign facing West Grand Boulevard. Some may be offended, horrified, or creeped-out, but Jasper explains she isn't worried: "People say sometimes that this place is kind of creepy, and I say, 'Yes, of course.'"
Jasper co-owns Zenith with her husband, and the couple lived in Boston, where they operated multiple eateries and bars throughout New England. But they fell in love with Detroit's architecture, and while on the hunt for a space to open, they came across Albert Kahn's Fisher Building and were struck by the "mind-bendingly beautiful, elegant, and crazy decor." And while the 16,000 square feet of space and seating for 225 is more than they anticipated, it's not a problem for a woman with decades of decorations.
And the extra space allowed Jasper to put in a tiki lounge, replete with original 1940s rattan furniture and a heavy-metal karaoke stage under construction.
The space is so unmistakably a Jasper creation that former patrons of her New England restaurants — unaware she had moved to Detroit and opened a new space — come in and say it reminds them of an old favorite restaurant in Boston.
"It's pretty much the same thing, only with higher ceilings and a little more brass and marble," she says. "They can definitely recognize my bent for weird pictures of dogs."
241 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale
When Sharon LaVoisne and Jeff King opened the popular Imperial Mexican restaurant on Woodward in Ferndale, the then-Los Angeles residents went for an open-air, communal feel — much like their favorite L.A. taquerías
But with their latest venture, Public House, LaVoisne says they fashioned the gourmet slider and sandwich eatery after another of their favorite spots — New York City's East Village, where she says the bars are divier, darker, and more intimate.
"We just wanted it to have that New York City punk rock feel," LaVoisne says. "When I walk into Public House, I feel like I just walked into a different city. I don't feel like I'm necessarily in Michigan. I feel like I walked into a little corner of New York."
If you're going to go for vintage New York City, the subway tile is a must, and the tilework on the walls and facade was designed by LaVoisne and installed by local craftsman Steve Ricozzi. Industrial light fixtures hanging down from the 20-foot ceiling were imported from England after being pulled from a derelict Polish factory. While the mirrors lining the wall might appear like they, too, were pulled out of an old factory, they were actually purchased new and intentionally beat up a bit by LaVoisne and King.
Dark-stained wood booths lining the walls and other woodwork throughout the space are done with reclaimed wood and, like the mirrors, are intentionally made to look like they've been there forever.
The open kitchen at the end of the bar provides a slightly more communal feel in what is an otherwise intimate setting. At the far end of the kitchen are the vintage bathrooms, which are worth noting for employees' old family photos and for customers regularly posting Public House washroom selfies to Instagram, complete with its own hash tag.
Out back is the new patio with a vintage, canned ham trailer that serves as a mini-bar with several handles, and Public House is in the process of installing large heaters and closing in the patio so it can continue to show old movies and Lions games projected onto its back wall during the colder months.
Records from 1970s punk legends like Lou Reed are spun on a record player at the bar, and the Marc Dancey painting of Keith Richards wearing a T-shirt asking "Who the fuck is Mick Jagger?" rounds out the edgy atmosphere.
LaVoisne says it's rebels like Richards, Patti Smith, and Steve McQueen who were her inspiration as she designed and pulled together the space. "They're people that come from a value system that doesn't fit in with the mainstream and had this salt-of-the-earth attitude with a rebellion to it," she says. "That's what we're going for."
Atwater in the Park
1175 Lakepointe St., Grosse Pointe Park
Several years ago, the Grace United Church in Grosse Pointe Park was a functioning place of worship, albeit one with a dwindling congregation.
The Cotton family of Grosse Pointe recently bought it for $2 million and eventually closed it. Last spring, the building reopened as Atwater in the Park, a German-style biergarten. The pulpit from which sermons were once delivered now serves as the hostess stand, and the pews have been repurposed into booths.
Brewing tanks and fermenters imported from Germany occupy what was once the altar, and the sanctuary is now the main dining area, seating 80 and featuring 40 handles. Classic stone flooring remains as it was when the building was a church, though repurposed mahogany wood was added in some areas. The kitchen, which serves such classic German fare as wurst, takes up the bulk of the remaining space, with the exception of a small room for private parties and a children's area.
Aside from the repurposing of the pulpit and pews and installation of the necessary infrastructure, very little had to be altered to turn the church into a beer garden, says Eric Djordjevic, President of the Epicurean Group, which partnered with Atwater Brewery to bring the project to fruition.
"When we walked in and looked at this place, we said, 'We have to make it happen.' It's such a unique footprint and such a unique opportunity and story," Djordjevic says. "The foundation of the building was so pure that there was very little manipulation to the space that we had to do. As far as the actual aesthetics, little changed. The bones of what the guest sees are the same — we didn't have to make a bunch of changes."
But what does the religious community think of an old church now functioning as a beer hall?
"There has not been one call, letter of protest, Facebook post — it's a family environment, and it's a great restaurant with remarkable food," Djordjevic says. "Right now we have five tables with high chairs. It's not so much a church turned into brewery, as it is a great brewery that's part of the community located in what was going to be an abandoned church."