Kuzzo's Chicken & Waffles' arrival into Detroit's Avenue of Fashion should help seal the area's shift from retail capital of the city into a formidable dining destination. Midtown and Corktown may dominate the New Detroit restaurant narrative, but Kuzzo's is fit to contend with trendy eateries there and downtown. And it has plenty of help on the Avenue of Fashion.
Next door to its sleek, rich wood façade and signage sits the whimsical Good Cakes and Bakes. The bakery takes guests back to their childhoods, with their brightly hued, organic sweets and ice cream that complement the equally splashy interior. 1917 Bistro is across the street. Another neighborhood staple, it was a favorite for Sunday brunchers long before Kuzzo's made its mark in January. And down the street is Baker's Keyboard Lounge, America's oldest operating jazz club, which still attracts pop-up retail spaces and galleries.
When word got out two years ago that former Detroit Lion Ron Bartell, also a Detroit native, would set up Kuzzo's, the area was already filled with anticipation for what would come next for the district. The Avenue of Fashion, which sits on Livernois roughly between Seven and Eight Mile Roads, had long suffered, much like other urban shopping districts in Detroit and the rest of America.
It didn't take long for the lines to form once Kuzzo's opened its doors. The irresistible comfort food combo is, obviously, the main draw, and Kuzzo's is the latest in Detroit to try its hand at the dish. But it also offers up a host of other soul food staples. The early raves have held up and momentum has remained strong, which is a solid test of whether a restaurant is merely trendy or built for longevity.
Walking into the space, one is welcomed by a modern, minimalist aesthetic. The muted black, red, and gray walls are bedecked with large canvas paintings from local artists. A mix of booths and tables accommodates any size group.
The servers are friendly, attentive, yet authoritative, quick to answer questions about the menu, which is a tribute to their patience and knowledge amid the packed house. Even on a mid-weekday evening, things can get hectic — a mix of stroller-towing families, date nights, and buddies gathering at the spacious bar.
With roots in 1930s-era Harlem and Southern cooking, chicken and waffles really took off in the 1970s in Los Angeles with the advent of Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles in Hollywood. It's still celebrated as the mother of all chicken and waffles, and it's been long imitated.
Detroit was introduced to the concept primarily in 2003, with New Center Eatery on West Grand Boulevard., which lays claim as "Detroit's Original Home of Chicken and Waffles." They certainly weren't the last — you can find without much trouble, and you can find it just about any time of day. Because there really isn't a bad time to slather a serving in hot sauce and syrup.
While the New Center's price point, longevity, and location make it conducive to diners who work in nearby Cadillac Place and other buildings, Kuzzo's crowd is a bit more eclectic.
Drinks like sweet tea, Kool-Aid, and vodka-infused basil lemonades are served in mason jars, not in a hipster, ironic way, but in a style reminiscent of sitting out on the front porch on a hot summer's day.
Classic sides like mac 'n' cheese, collard greens, and candied yams remind you of home, rather than artisan-crafted twists.
Ten chicken and waffle combinations are at your beck and order, in addition to sandwiches, salads, and other items for anyone who wants to steer clear of the breakfast theme. But who are we kidding? We came here for the star of the show, which in our mind was the Big Red.
A large, spongy, light velvet cake waffle is topped with a frosting glaze and served with a cup of bourbon maple syrup. You can get those with three whole wings or tenders and choice of one side. It may be more dessert-waffle than New Center Eatery's more traditional buttery version, and it cane be overwhelming for those who don't fancy the dessert-for-dinner entree, but when mixed with perfectly crispy, seasoned chicken, the tried and true balance of savory and sweet works to perfection.
Meanwhile, on the side, the collard greens pop with smoky, porky richness, while the home-style potatoes are soft and airy, seasoned with Cajun spices that never did seem to overwhelm.
Kuzzo's isn't just another entry into the chicken and waffles arena, but hopefully also an addition to a fast revitalizing neighborhood. In a culinary scene that focuses largely (and deservedly) on the city center, down-home classics with a bit of sophistication is the kind of alternative we love to see in this revitalizing neighborhood.