News flash: Greater downtown is not the only area where Detroiters are making a go at opening up restaurants. Entrepreneurs all over the city are taking a crack at joining Detroit's culinary revitalization, serving the needs of people in their neighborhoods. They're doing so without competing for startup incubator grants. They're doing so without the backing of a certain real estate guru who's purchased vast quantities of downtown properties. And they're finding success without any of the food blogger fanfare or promotion.
Take Sweet Soul Bistro, situated on McNichols and Schaefer Highway. Owner Toya Green opened her lounge and restaurant in June, setting out to be the accessible corner spot, where locals could get dressed up, meet up with friends for cocktails, have a bite to eat, dance to live music, or take in a comedy show — all without having to travel to downtown or the suburbs. The idea was to create a lavishly decorated space, tucked away in a corner where some residents are more susceptible to local gang drama or police shakeups than posh nightlife. In its first few months in business, she's created a safe and upscale venue where couples, girlfriends, and west side Detroit hip-hop stars all peacefully intermingle.
Walk in and you're welcomed by a sleekly decorated lounge with muted lighting, neutral tones, cushy lounge seating and a modern, granite bar with mirrored walls. Everyone inside seemed to know each other, all at ease and enjoying a Saturday nightcap, oblivious to whatever drama might be outside. A corner bar and restaurant with an upscale twist.
As for food, Sweet Soul's menu riffs off traditional bar snacks while drawing from Detroit's Motown legacy. Instead of 50-cent wingdings, breaded mushroom caps, or greasy sliders, entrees are upgraded and presented on a thick butcher's board. On our first visit, we tried the Stevie Wonder Wonderful Wings, which have subtle hints of General Tso's flavor and just the right amount of heat. Crispy, but not fried to death, they made for the perfect late-night snack. Next, the Aretha Franklin Catfish Bites came dusted in sweet and spicy Cajun seasoning. These shareable offerings come in portions large enough to split with a dining guest but also small enough that you can devour one by yourself and not feel guilty.
Another hit among our party were the sliders. The patties — you can choose between beef, turkey, or chicken — come tucked in impressive pretzel rolls and are generously packed with flavor. So too was the Anita Baker Bacon Cheeseburger. Ordered medium rare, the outside of the patty has a strong, charred quality, while pink juiciness was locked firmly inside. Bacon strips were thick and firm, not flimsy, and the whole thing had a subtle garlicky quality.
Service was attentive and friendly, though servers maintained control of the place, even as guests' energy increased as the night wore on and the drinks kept pouring. Speaking of drinks, Sweet Soul's cocktails stayed at a reasonable price. We tried the Sweet Soul Apple Punch, featuring fresh-sliced green apples, peach Ciroc, Apple Pucker, Triple Sec, lime, shaken and poured over ice, the rim lined with sugar and garnished with Granny Smith apple slices. If you're looking for dessert, this serves as an excellent alternative, as it tastes like a candy apple in liquid form.
Sweet Soul is the second restaurant venture for Green. She also runs Toya's (14906 Schaefer), which opened in 2002 and is more of a bar concept. While Sweet Soul has been in operation since June, an official grand opening is set for Nov. 15.
When we talk about the city's so-called bustling restaurant scene, we often focus on three to four neighborhoods surrounding downtown. When we talk about the other communities in the city, they're often described as areas in crisis, besieged by abandonment and in dire need of assistance. With Sweet Soul Bistro, we're given a glimpse at a restaurant that strives to be the gold standard for what a neighborhood restaurant can aspire to — providing guests with a laid-back, yet upscale atmosphere without having to leave their own community. We're excited about its success so far and look forward to visiting other spots in the oft-overlooked neighborhoods that are serving as much-needed gathering spots for the locals.