Sweet Georgia Brown has it all: a stunning setting, exciting food, sophisticated wine, attentive service, live music and that elusive “buzz.” And as if that wasn’t enough — a river runs through it!
Walk in the front door and the entire room spreads out before you. The space is unbroken, but feels both exciting and intimate. Straight ahead is a raised, rounded platform that’s bisected by a meandering stream, covered with glass and flowing silently over beautiful rocks. On one side of the river is a gleaming grand piano; on the other side is the bar. Like the river, traffic flows around the bar-stage.
Intimacy is created by three distinct dining areas, arranged like towns along the river. Colors help to define each area: One side of the room is dark purple with olive green, the other side is lighter, featuring muted, mossy greens and lavenders. A third cluster of tables can be closed off with satin olive curtains.
The interior was designed by Roxane Whitter Thomas, owner of Whitter Interiors at the Michigan Design Center. Though she’s been a designer for 15 years, this is Thomas’ first restaurant. She has used rich fabrics, soft carpeting and extra-tall banquettes to create a luxurious feel. The street scene comes inside through windows that stretch across the front of the restaurant. Narrow beveled mirrors recently added in the entryway reflect and refract images. The tables are elegant, topped with white linen, napkins folded with a flourish and well-appointed place settings. The noise level is energetic, but you can still have a conversation.
Frank Taylor, who co-owns the restaurant with fast-food tycoon La-Van Hawkins, credits Thomas with the success of the design:
“When you walk into Sweet Georgia Brown, you have the feeling that, wow, this is very hip — it’s New York-ish, it’s Chicago. It all comes together here. It’s very hard to describe ‘buzz,’ but when you walk into a restaurant that has it, you feel it.”
Giving a tour of the restaurant, Taylor stoops to pick up two tiny scraps of paper. He nods toward a booth with a high, upholstered banquette set into a corner, vaguely reminiscent of a throne. “That’s booth 15,” says Taylor. “That’s La-Van’s booth.”
Executive Chef Jerry Nottage, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has created a menu that’s elegant but not intimidating, one more stunning than complex. Nottage and Taylor, who have worked as a team at several restaurants around the country, have a knack for understanding what people want and delivering it.
As the nameplate suggests, the menu features American food with a Southern flair. Sweet potatoes are fried, baked with pralines or served as a garnish of “hay” on a salad. (But sweet potato soup was taken off the menu.) Pecans can be found in salads, entrées and desserts. Fried green tomatoes are served as a salad with country ham. A mixed seafood cocktail features a whole crawfish. (How to eat crawfish in the middle of a well-heeled crowd with mirrors bouncing your image all over the room? We overheard one server instruct, “Bite the head off and suck out the meat.”) Peach cobbler, pecan pie and sweet potato torte are on the dessert list.
But “Southern” doesn’t describe appetizers such as escargot or smoked salmon carpaccio served with bagel chips. And it doesn’t describe entrées which include Chilean sea bass and roasted duck. One of the restaurant’s biggest hits is fried lobster tails, which are dipped in tempura batter, briefly fried and presented upright on the plate like two towers. (Here, tall is better — witness the plantain chips that pop out of the seafood cocktail like two long rabbit ears, or the branches of rosemary planted upright over your meat.) Grilled meats are dressed up with garnishes including caramelized shallots, lump crabmeat, sage marmalade, apple wine compote and fried onion straws. Dessert plates are drizzled with raspberry coulis and/or chocolate.
Taylor is a relative newcomer to Detroit, and perhaps that’s why he had the nerve to conceive of a project like Sweet Georgia Brown. Taylor says that he had “definitely heard” that opening a high-end restaurant in downtown Detroit was risky.
“But La-Van and I wanted to prove that it could be done.”
Somehow Sweet Georgia Brown has tapped into a market that eludes other high-end restaurants. It’s busy every night of the week; don’t even try coming for dinner on Friday or Saturday night without a reservation — ditto for Sunday brunch. It celebrates and captures the energy of Detroit’s African-American community, but both the staff and clientele are ethnically diverse.
Taylor says his goal was to create a restaurant “that I’d like to go to night after night, that has a great buzz to it. It’s the music, the food. It’s people from all areas, the Detroit area, the suburbs and all over. Everything comes together.”
Celebrities frequent Sweet Georgia Brown, but Taylor is just as concerned about the anonymous guest. Before every shift he conducts a meeting where servers are reminded to use vocabulary like “certainly,” “pleased” and “I’d be happy to.” They are instructed to “own” any problem that comes to their attention, whether it’s their customer or someone else’s.
On a recent holiday weekend, Greektown was hopping. Outside Sweet Georgia Brown, Frank Taylor was peering anxiously up and down the street as evening fell.
“We have 600 reservations tonight,” he confided, “and there’s nowhere to park.”
Taylor is a man who leaves no detail to chance.
“I’m going to take care of this,” he said.
She just got here yesterday,
Things are hot here now they say,
There’s a new gal in town.
Gals are jealous, there’s no doubt.
All the guys just rave about sweet, sweet Georgia Brown.
Sweet Georgia Brown is at 1045 Brush St. in Detroit (right next to Greektown). Open seven days a week. Call 313-965-1245.
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