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How Detroit’s food scene earned the national spotlight

Fashion plates

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For decades, Detroit's food scene was behind the times. With a few notable exceptions, the fine-dining crowd embraced barnlike buildings with generous parking, places serving meat and potatoes, surf and turf, and spaghetti and meatballs. Outside that realm, the metropolitan area was a bastion of Big Food, where national chains prevailed, selling food-service portions to indifferent diners who washed it all down with industrially brewed suds.

How times have changed. In 2015, the fine-dining experts at Zagat named Detroit as a "Next Food City," and The New York Times ran a serious travel piece on Detroit chefs that actually seemed to take everything from the Cass Corridor to coney dogs seriously. Now, even Chicago chefs are trying to get in on the red-hot action in Detroit.

What were the magical ingredients that made it come to life? Among them are a new attitude in today's kitchens. At the very best restaurants, the culture is chef-driven, in which the managers and moneymen are sympathetic to a chef's goals. And many of the best chefs regard one another as collaborators, not competitors, sharing ideas and swapping information, finding ways to work together, helping create a scene that's greater than the sum of its parts.

The diners are different too. The way customers have warmed up to small plates helps drive creativity. Suddenly, the way we dine has become an expression of allegiance to local products, rewarding artisanal eateries that emphasize local ingredients. And the action is in the central city, where younger customers are filling up the small- to mid-sized buildings that sat dormant for decades.

What you get on your plate is less Big Food and more small, slow, and local food. While the dishes are packed with flavor, the atmosphere is decidedly more casual: Your waiter is more likely to wear Converse than a cumberbund. And there are still the same gut-busting delicacies that seem ripe for new appreciation in the culinary limelight the area now finds itself in.

In many ways, despite intimidating-sounding words like gastropub or locavorism, it's a journey to the heart of comfort food, a return to fundamentals.

Now that's something everybody can dig into.

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