In Hamtramck, a scrappy new kind of dining scene is being born. Of course, Hamtramck always had plenty of places to dine, given the ethnic eateries that city's immigrant communities keep alive, from Polish to Indian to Arabic. What's new in town are places that combine upscale flavors with laid-back atmosphere, often catering to diners who drive in for the experience. That appeal is coded in the DNA of places like Rock City Eatery and Revolver, both open one year. Rock City, the creation of restaurateur Nikita Sanches, features craft cocktails and such dishes as duck poutine. Revolver is a pop-up space hosting weekly dinners that can cost $50 plus tips and drinks, which buys you attention from some of the area's most prominent chefs. Even Campau Tower, an ancient greasy spoon that closed recently, has been resurrected by Sanches with a few upscale touches.
It's against this backdrop that Hamtramck's second fixed pop-up space opened last week. It's called Yemans Street, and it's in a sweet spot down the street from Revolver and across the street from longtime Polish fixtures Polish Village Cafe and Polonia. Visitors from far and wide already park in the large public lot between the two restaurants; now more visitors will have reason to cross the street to a refurbished old machine shop where Matt and Corrie Tinker have set up their dining space.
They invite us over the week before they open, and they're still busy getting ready. A snafu with their website has left potential diners unable to order. Though that's finally worked out, they still have to get DTE to connect a 160-foot gas line to a larger meter they now need. Matt says, "It's been hard work trying to get it done the last two months. And this stuff's just craziness. The owner was here, last Saturday, from Minneapolis and he knew what we were doing, but I guess he didn't know we were putting a full-blown kitchen in right then."
The owner, a percussionist who bought the space while playing with the DSO, is sympathetic. In fact, he put his fair share of work into the building too, installing wide-plank floors recovered from a barn in Maine. The building was obviously fortunate to fall into the hands of people who wanted to improve it, and now it's a pleasant, modern space inside.
The Tinkers are obviously proud of the work they've put in. Between them, they've put five months' worth of labor and money into this project, giving it a five-figure overhaul. We get a guided tour of the demonstration-quality kitchen in the rear, the I-beam-mounted meat hook, the front dining room with its 2,500-pound table (formerly a conference table at Michigan's Whirlpool headquarters) and black velvet paintings of Elvis Presley. This is where they want to hang local art, host live music, even have bands playing for groups of diners. They hope to host not just dinners but cooking classes, with flat-screen monitors to accommodate large classes. It's an ambitious plan.
Finally, we sit down with them and learn a bit about their stories. Corrie, 31, is a former waitress and bartender who knows the business, and they share a love of good food. Wearing work clothes and a beard, Matt, 36, may look like he works in a collision shop (he does), but he grew up in Louisiana, and its vigorous food culture obviously rubbed off on him.
"We both wanted to do like a restaurant our whole lives," Matt ways. "Without doing a full-blown restaurant at our first go at it, this was our best option. You know what I mean? You do the restaurant you gotta have a walk in cooler, you got food, waste, cost, the food comes in fresh daily. But with pop-ups, when the chefs come, they bring food that day of the dinner, fresh. And it goes. So that's why you have to purchase tickets online, 'cause we have to know exactly how many plates to make. We're not a full-blown seven-day-a-week restaurant where everything's getting tore up, you know? It's just three days a week, four hours, most dinners are two hours, 6 to 8 and 9 to 11. We're gonna see how it goes."
What pushed this couple over the edge into making the jump? Matt says, "We asked ourselves, 'What are we gonna do? Just sit here and think about it and in 10 years kick ourselves in the ass? What if we do it?' And that's how life is. Either you gotta take chances and you're gonna fail or your gonna succeed, but if you don't do either you'll never know."
The food is still almost a week off when we talk, but the dinner planned by Jay Gundy of Pleasant Ridge's Cork restaurant excites the imagination. Courses are to include grilled carrot soup, chicken roulade salad with shaved fennel and beet purée, scampi-style mussels, braised short ribs, and spiced apple cake with vanilla ice cream and toasted almonds. If they can keep this up, the room should be full several nights a week.
The Tinkers say they're lucky to be part of a dining scene that's tight-knit and supportive, and they've had fun staying on top of what's happening and meeting the folks driving it.
"Yeah, on the weekends we go to Woodbridge Pub, Green Dot. Everyplace that's new we go try it out and we frequent them so much that we know like half the staff in most of these places. These people want Detroit to succeed. And they want it to come out of bankruptcy and have all these new places. It's exciting. And there's a lot of work to be done." — mt