It's quitting time at the office. You want a refined cocktail and a chill ambiance with soft lighting and sleek decor. And maybe some food, something that matches the beauty of the atmosphere and elegant cocktail offerings. Look no further than Standby, the newest downtown bar and restaurant to throw itself into the fray.
The place oozes cool. While metro Detroit has no shortage of speakeasystyle bars, many are situated in uncool storefronts on commercial strips. In other words, there's nothing clandestine about them. Standby was built with just that in mind. If not for all the hype it's gotten in the months leading to its opening, one would have to be in the know, tipped off as to its whereabouts, to know it was there. To find it, turn into the mural-laden Belt Alley from Gratiot, just off Broadway. Look for the weathered-looking, black wooden door, aside an abstract portrait against a brick wall, enter through a dark vestibule, and you're taken into a lair of sophistication.
You'll find compatriots aplenty when you walk in, as well as a team of expertly trained bartenders displaying their Matrix-like prowess while building your selection from the 50-plus designer cocktails. Sure, the sheer size and verbiage of some of the descriptions might be jarring, but the bartenders help diffuse any intimidation with charm and expertise.
At the center of Standby's success is the bar, which should be clear by now, and behind the impressive drink list is beverage and hospitality director Joe Robinson, better known as Joe Rob. While the role of bartender is stereotypically thought of as laid-back server and easy ear, Rob has made the craft into an enviable career. He made a name for himself at places like Roast, where he first met Standby partner chef Brendon Edwards (the creative duo are also partnered with David Goldman and developer and gallery owner Anthony Curis). He founded the consulting firm Bailout Productions, which throws posh pop-up cocktail events. And his drinks have been hailed by the likes of Esquire magazine.
Rob's barkeeps knowledge of shrubs, tinctures, and spirits is helpful when perusing the cocktail menu, so ask for some recommendations and background if you want. Helpful too is the organization of the drink list. It's organized by spirits (whiskey, agave, rum, gin, etc.), flavor profile, and even the type of glass it's served in. Say you're a tequila fan and all you know is you want something... fruity. The Fire Flower may just be your jam, with its tropical and citrus taste that comes from Flower Power Tequila, Ancho Reyes, ray honey, grapefruit, lime, ango, and soda. Maybe you're more of an adventurous whiskey kind of person. Then we recommend the Waka Flocka, made with Japanese Nikka Taketsuru coffee grain, wakame, lemon peppercorn, bitters, and lemon peel. The options are gorgeous, delightful, and semi-endless, no matter your taste.
As for food, Rob and Edwards want the cuisine to complement the drinks, and the other way around. The chef takes care to infuse a number of global influences into his self-described progressive American style.
In keeping with the growing trend of switching up the menu with the seasons, take note that Standby's offerings are subject to change (in fact, we're told the menu is to be updated this month). In general though, diners choose from a range of small snacks, appetizers, and entrees. For bar munchies, we became addicted to the duck-fat-fried almonds, as well as the light and crispy horchata-and-shrimp rice cakes accompanied with avocado and cilantro. For small plate sharing, the beef tartare, with black garlic and a soft-cooked egg, has a sumptuous kick to it and works smoothly with a spicy cocktail. We fell in love with the wilted, charred romaine that offers an intriguing smoky twist to the typical salad. The American Takoyaki, octopus with hot sauce, feta, and fennel pollen, also made for a light, yet satisfying snack. The winter squash Agnolotti, with fried sage, brown butter, and amaretti, practically melted in our mouths, with its sweet and savory, almost theater popcorn essence.
We could have easily made a meal out of the different cocktails and small bites, but we also dug into the more substantial main courses. The entrees varied from the expected to the more ambitious. The requisite cheeseburger is elevated with pork-belly bacon, two-year Widmer cheddar, and a haystack of thick-cut fries. Then there's the drunk guy's dream sandwich — a German doner given a Middle Eastern flair, with a sturdy roll, piled high with marinated pork, cucumber raita, tart cabbage, and fried onions. The Moroccan steak, with tabbouleh cous cous, yogurt, buttered leeks, and brandy-poached carrots are another, shall we say, standby that no Detroit menu can do without (though here, it offers more of an oomph than your typical steak).
What impressed us more were entrees that would otherwise seem out of place. The lacquered turkey leg had us thinking more Renaissance Festival than fine dining but we were pleasantly surprised. We reveled in the licorice essence of anise star that enhanced the savory flavor of the succulent meat. Paired with beer-braised cabbage, tavern potatoes, and fennel puree, it was a truly global experience set on one dish. The sturgeon too had us fooled in a good way. Instead of the expected flakiness of a typical white fish, Edwards' was sumptuously tender when Edwards wrapped it in a crispy and slightly fatty chicken skin, and topped it with confit gizzards, spinach, pickled mushrooms, and set pickled mushrooms, confit gizzards, spinach, and a tea-smoked crème fraiche.
We visited Standby on three occasions and also had a chance to preview the menu a few months in advance of the opening during a private event. If there's anything to be disappointed by, it's that we ran into multiple instances when we found a few of the popular dishes were not available. We would have liked to try the intriguing venison loin and crepinettes with ginger sweet potato, mushroom, braised mustard greens, and crispy onions, or the sardine salad, which we hear is a best-seller. Given how jam-packed the place has become in only a few short months, we can't say we're surprised by the shortages.
We suggest getting in early and taking a seat at the bar. Be dazzled by the showmanship of the bartenders and cocktails. And save room for the equally exciting cuisine.