Downtown Detroit is a maze of side roads and one-way streets that last for two blocks, and we can thank a fellow named Augustus Brevoort Woodward for that. Clifford Street is the logical looping extension out of downtown that grows out of John R's ending in Woodward, (it merges into Cass just south of Temple.) At 30 Clifford St., the end of Griswold, a building has stood for many years and worn many faces.
The oft-remodeled building, which for a time held an optometrist and a dry cleaner, is one of those uniquely strange architectural things that happens when angled streets converge. The front is wider than the back, by ever so much; Downtown Louie's makes the most of the slightly wedge-shaped building by dividing it into levels, a handsome bar, a few high-top tables, and seating for 30 or so. There's a large table that can be set for nine in the bar area that's properly trapezoidal like the building. If this were it for the space, Downtown Louie's would be a cool little hole in the wall ripe for locals to claim as their own — but a set of stairs upward reveal a back dining room with an additional slew of seating. There's an upstairs wine storage area, glass cabinets 10 feet above the bar; a single table set for two is placed on top of the front vestibule, creating an odd bi-level visual effect and throwing strange shadows in the afternoon. In the design, there's never a feeling of overcrowding, and always a notion that you're somewhere a little special.
Lunch at the bar is always a good bet. Start with a beverage. The beer selection is a slice across genres: There's some macro stuff on tap next to a tap from the Detroit Beer Co. The bottles list includes clear green bottles from Europe next to cloudy local delights. If we were anywhere but Michigan this would be a strictly superior beer list, but since we're in the best beer state, it's merely quite good. The cocktail menu is geared more toward popular cocktail culture than the craft cocktail boom: sure, there's some nicely peeled twists and fresh fruits and herbs included, but they're cocktails designed to be made quick and good, refreshing a full room of guests without a 20-minute delay. There's a decent smattering of high-end beverages behind the bar, enough to satisfy most drinkers on most days.
Let's talk about french fries for a moment. At Downtown Louie's, you'll notice something decidedly different about the fries. Maybe it's the whole garlic cloves, with an exterior that's crispy and brown with a decidedly roasty flavor and an interior that's still pungent and sharp, scattered among the fried potatoes; maybe it's the chopped rosemary tossed into the mix, infusing the starch with aromatic strength it otherwise lacks. Sure, white truffle garlic parm fries are delicious, but there are so many more ways to dress up a fry, and Louie's does them right.
The turkey burger here is one of the best we've tasted. It's tender and juicy, with sharp aged cheddar, caramelized onions, fig jam, and arugula, all on a wheaty and sturdy multigrain bun. We find it hard to be tempted away from this recurring choice, as it plays to the natural sweetness of turkey and handily reimagines a traditional (and typical) cranberry-sauce-and-stuffing flavor profile into a superlatively sweet and savory sandwich.
Blame whoever you like for the popularity of lamb burgers, whether it be Eastern European immigrants, or the far-reaching influences of the Middle Eastern restaurant, or even other restaurants that have paved the way. Louie's enters their signature take on the lamb burger in step with the style as established — it's dressed simply, with a yogurt-garlic spread and grilled Hungarian hot peppers sandwiched by a substantial rustic bun. There's nothing revolutionary about it, but it is flavorful and satisfying, a combination between pub food and street food.
There's a lot of immigrant food in Detroit when you look around for it. Downtown Louie's includes a lot of nods to this, whether in that lamb burger, or in their Albanian and Mediterranean salads, which are more inflected and stylized takes on the typical Greek salad flavor profiles. The Albanian salad takes the classic village salad and renders it simply, with tomato, cucumber, feta, and onion lightly dressed in red wine vinegar; the Mediterranean inflects a trendy roasted beet salad just so, a gourmet yet recognizable plate garnished with feta and olives. There's some skill at play at Louie's, and a sense of the universal nature of good food.
Too many places are too content with parroting the popular menu items from their competitors and serving it just good enough to stay open. Lunch and dinner in Detroit can be fraught with inadequately seasoned fries, poorly cooked burgers, and carelessly assembled plates of food. There are too many places where you can feel the malaise, the ennui, the desire to just get by. Louie's rises above, tucked snugly between Woodward and Washington Boulevard. They're serving food people recognize and crave, and doing it with intent and effort. It shows through across the menu, and in their efforts to constantly improve and provide a better experience of their hospitality.
A new chef is headed for Downtown Louie's, which may lead to updates to the menu and other improvements. There exists right now a solid base at Louie's — we didn't mention the well-executed wedge and hot chicken salads — and someone coming in with fresh enthusiasm and skill will surely focus the place on a higher level of success. We're excited to keep eating at Louie's.