Rob McDonald suspects that it’s the corned beef that brings customers back. He may be right about that. But it’s the cheery vibe and bread pudding with Irish whiskey sauce that have me hooked on Eph McNally’s, a charming deli in Detroit’s Corktown.
The thriving establishment that McDonald co-owns with friend Tom Arndt is housed in a small brick building on the corner of Porter and Brooklyn. It’s a perfect addition to the Celtic district that has been making a comeback in recent years. Dilapidated Victorian homes which line the streets are being restored. Revived row houses also brighten up the neighborhood.
McDonald and Arndt, who consider themselves preservationists, have an affinity for old structures. They decided to open McNally’s in part because they didn’t trust others to maintain its old-school style.
“I didn’t want someone else to get it and screw it up or remodel it too much,” says McDonald. “It reminded me of the corner stores I remember as a kid, and I thought ‘Let’s give it a shot.’”
Before the two Young Turks, now in their mid-30s, came along, another deli occupied the dark brick building. “It was real bare-bones. No waitstaff. No music,” says McDonald about the former establishment.
He and Arndt began renting the space in 1996, and named their eatery after the building owner’s Irish grandfather, Ephram McNally, shortening it to Eph McNally’s.
“We tried to jazz it up a bit,” says McDonald.
McNally’s is an eclectic mix of hipster kitsch and days long gone. Purple-and-yellow walls support the tin ceiling. Beneath the black Formica-topped tables is a worn wood floor. Videos by Pat Benatar, the Bangles and Madonna boom from a midsized TV that sits atop an antiquated cooler, the kind you might dive into for an ice cream sandwich or Fudgesicle.
Another old-style fridge, plastered with bumper stickers, was used decades ago by the corner grocery that once operated in the building McNally’s now occupies, says McDonald. He and Arndt put the ancient icebox to use; it now divides the tiny kitchen from the tiny dining room. The friends are ingenious when it comes to resuscitating old finds. McNally’s is proof of this.
When the restaurant opened it had a built-in clientele. Workers from the nearby post office, factories and State Building regularly stopped off for lunch or ordered carryout. But those facilities have all since closed. The last to shutter its doors was the Michigan Plaza Building. Except for the State Police, hundreds of bureaucrats were transferred to the old General Motors Building in the New Center about a year ago.
“We were terrified,” says McDonald, who feared that the closure would put them out of business. But just the opposite happened. After a brief lull, the customer base shot up.
“It’s higher than it was, unbelievably so,” says McDonald. They now serve more than 100 people daily.
“We never expected that to happen,” he says.
McDonald attributes the increase in customers to the ample parking that became available when the state employees left the area.
“Now that street parking isn’t an issue, lots of people who work downtown can slip in and out easily,” he says. “There’s new people coming every day.”
The clientele is what you might expect: The majority are winter-worn Midwesterners in unpretentious attire. McNally’s also has its share of young hipsters and hippies, folks you might see at Avalon Bakery or Eastern Market. But it’s not easy to peg this crowd. Last week, Greg Mudge, who waits tables at McNally’s (he’s one of five staffers, including McDonald and Arndt), took an informal poll of customers, asking whether we should go to war with Iraq. The vote came down 22 against and 33 in favor of the war.
Shelves on the walls are lined with dozens of metal lunch boxes embossed with popular television shows of the 1970s, including “The Bionic Man,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “Scooby-Doo.” Mounted on the back wall are old board games, also based on embarrassingly bad TV. Among those displayed are “Baretta” and “Laverne and Shirley.”
A large framed poster of Farah Fawcett — the one coveted by my brother and most prepubescent boys of the 1970s — is prominently hung near the door entrance. But Farah’s feathers and buxom bod are no match for the passionate painting displayed on the opposite wall. A large colorful canvas of Picassolike faces dominates the deli. This happy assemblage was done by Detroit painter Jerome Ferretti. McNally’s regularly exhibits works by local artists, which are not for sale.
“He is working on another piece for us,” says McDonald.
Unique touches like this make you want to return to McNally’s. It’s the type of establishment you’d expect to find in Chicago and New York, and it’s one that Detroit desperately needs. Seated inside, with business booming around you, you feel as if you’ve been transported to a thriving metropolis. McDonald and Arndt expect that it’ll get even better this summer when they open the new outdoor patio, replete with an espresso bar.
“That will double our space,” says McDonald.
They also intend to open a tearoom in a Victorian home on Trumbull, three houses north of Tiger Stadium. The young entrepreneurs also have bought a commercial building on Michigan Avenue that sat empty for years. There they intend to open a full-scale restaurant, but it’s still in the beginning stages.
McDonald and Arndt have been in the restaurant business for years. They both worked at O’Leary’s Tea Room, which was adjacent to McNally’s before it closed a few years ago. They also spent a month in New York City eating “at every hole-in-the-wall dive we could find,” says McDonald. The trip was part of their research for McNally’s.
“We pretty much knew what we wanted,” says Arndt. “But we wanted to refine our vision.”
The menu is packed with deli favorites, like roast beef, hard salami, pastrami and, of course, oven-braised corned beef.
“It is the secret to our success,” says McDonald of the corned beef. “We sell tons of it.”
It is superb. Though, as I said, it’s the bread pudding that brings me back. But it goes fast. To ensure yourself a serving, get to McNally’s early. Just remember to save me some.
Eph McNally’s Delicatessen is at 1300 Porter St. in Detroit’s Corktown. Lunches only, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sunday. Call 313-963-8833.
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