Speaking of trends, are we noticing our upscale restaurants going a bit … casual? Lately, it seems restaurateurs aren't just concerned about how much diners pay for a meal, but how much they think they'll have to pay. Call it dressing down, if you will: The same talented staff, but a fresher, funkier take that's more fun, trying anything to be perceived as comfortable, casual and affordable.
What do these unlikely success stories have in common? They've deftly removed the things we associate with a big bill, even if we do end up spending a bit. Instead of formal tuxedos, the servers at downtown Detroit's high-end Roast (1128 Washington Blvd., Detroit; 313-961-2500) sport jeans and Chuck Taylors. A big success story of the last few years is Slows Bar BQ (2138 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-962-9828), the quality barbecue joint with the high-end bar and the low-rent name. Heck, over at the Whitney, they've even traded in their chamber quartets for DJs.
Or look outside Detroit, at the dramatic rethinking of Birmingham's Forté (201 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-594-7300), which had seen a serious decline in business. Last year, the management stripped away anything they thought would make diners think twice about coming in. And the changes went far beyond just lowering prices. They had their fine-dining chef exploit his knack for comfort foods with a twist, unstuffed their wine list, extended their hours, and even dispensed with valet parking for a year, eager to make the restaurant less intimidating and more accessible. In a market where business was down, trade at Forté, we're told, shot up 30 percent.
Compare these stories to the most recent blow to our upscale dining scene, the closing of Tribute. Though it was managed by the same restaurant group as Forté, Tribute didn't get an extreme makeover. True, the prices were lowered and the hours extended, but they didn't alter the fine-dining experience at all. Strangely, even after cutting its prices, Tribute's image remained just as exclusive, extravagant and expensive as ever, perhaps sealing its doom. It continued to ace Metro Times readers' poll for Best Restaurant to Blow Serious Dough — even after the changes took effect, not necessarily the plum designation of years past.
Confronted with examples like this, our local cuisine-slingers seem to be doing all they can to soothe consumer jitters. And some of the area's upscale restaurants are doing what might have been unthinkable just a decade ago: They're getting more casual and informal than ever, sometimes changing the theme entirely.
Take the recent format change at Five Lakes Grill, now Cinco Lagos (424 N. Main St., Milford; 248-684-7455). Chef-owner Brian Polcyn has the pedigree of the consummate fine-dining chef. He's spent almost the last 30 years in Detroit, working in restaurants with such legendary names as the now-closed Golden Mushroom and The Lark (6430 Farmington Rd., West Bloomfield; 248-661-4466). The successful restaurateur, who also runs Birmingham's successful Forest Grill (735 Forest Ave., Birmingham; 248-258-6107), made his name with Five Lakes. It had thrived for 14 years, anchoring a growing dining scene in Milford. This year, it even garnered a nomination for a prestigious James Beard award.
Unfortunately, Milford's connection with General Motors hit its restaurants hard. When the chips started to fall in 2006, Polcyn says, "I was the most expensive guy [in Milford]. So I had to re-evaluate what I was doing. In 2006, the raw cost was $12 a plate. I had to sell it for $25 just to meet the overhead. On a Tuesday night in this town, most people didn't want to spend that."
A few months ago, he transformed the restaurant completely, taking inspiration from his mother's Mexican heritage — and the comfort food he'd been raised on — turning Five Lakes Grill into Cinco Lagos, a Mexican restaurant. And the news is good: In the few months since it has opened, he has doubled his sales, just what he needed to keep his business going. Proudly, he calls himself a "one-man stimulus package."
"I'm keeping people employed, putting money in their pockets, keeping local businesses going."
But to Polcyn, a change, even a radical one, isn't about dumbing the restaurant down. "It doesn't mean you change the quality," he explains, "that you buy cheaper ingredients or compromise your integrity. It means you have to do what the customers demand. And if you don't adapt, you're dead."
Or take the story of Larco's, which has now become Big Beaver Tavern (645 Big Beaver Rd., Troy; 248-680-0066). After a successful run as an Italian restaurant in Troy since 1990, this July it closed for nine days, reopening in a sports tavern format, with burgers, fries, wide-screen televisions and poker and blackjack tables in the basement.
Co-owner Mark Larco says, "Basically, when I opened here in 1990, there were probably two or three restaurants on Big Beaver Road. Little by little, we became a really big success. But around 1999, they started expanding Somerset, and along with that expansion came restaurant after restaurant after restaurant, to the point where there's 20 Italian restaurants within a few miles." In grim humor, he reels off a list of six or seven major restaurants, adding, "I feel like I'm leaving somebody out but that's plenty to get the idea.
"So we start thinking, how we gonna compete with every Italian restaurant that comes along. Maybe we don't want to do that anymore. My three sons and my wife are involved in the business. When we thought how maybe we didn't want to be Larco's anymore, at different times we were appalled or shocked, but then after thinking about it we talked about some of the other places around town that were thriving. We decided, 'Why don't we do something like a tavern? We can still do a good blend of food styles, but the theme will be more affordable, laid-back and fun.' We've pretty much hit the marks we had hoped to hit, and we're having a good time too. The new concept, the new name, the new look — it just really re-energized us."
After cooking up their new business plan, Larco and his family spent a long Independence Day holiday hard at work, closing Larco's on July 3 and reopening as a tavern on July 13. The customers seem to enjoy the video games, bartop games and DJs, and the food quality remains high. They're selling 1,000 burgers a week, but they still serve the same 8-ounce filet mignon that they served as Larco's for the last 19 years.
Everything has been aimed to make the restaurant more approachable, with little extras designed to keep people there, even if the hoity-toity feel it's too hoi polloi. "If you're a stuffy, pretentious individual," Larco says, "this isn't going to be your kind of spot — but I've done that routine. That was a big reason I took the family name off the building. I wanted a fresh start."
Could a similar change have saved Tribute? Larco thinks it over. "Had Tribute changed the name of the place, and called it 'Larry's,' I'm sure a lot more people would have thought of it in terms of casual." Changing Tribute to Larry's? It sounds heretical, but Larco comes around to his point.
"You've got to get them in the door to see that you've changed the menu. If you took the Lark and put a hamburger menu in there, short of spending a lot of money on advertising, how would anybody know? But by changing the name, it's like a fresh start."
He adds with a laugh, "Desperation breeds a lot of great ideas."