Sandwiches and coffee at the new Rowland Cafe are first-rate, but of necessity they take a back seat to the setting. The café's small black tables and chairs sit in the middle of the magnificent arched mezzanine of the 1929 Guardian Building, an art deco splendor and National Historic Landmark that was reopened to the public in 2004.
The usual adjectives for design of the Guardian's sort are "eye-popping" and "jaw-dropping"; one architecture buff says that when people enter the lobby, "their eyes go up and their mouths go down." The outside is tangerine brick; the lobby is a riot of yellow, green, red and blue; and the mezzanine has a softer, though still dramatic, Southwestern feel, in geometric designs of muted turquoise, ochre, copper and burnt orange.
As you sip your espresso, you're overseen by a backlit Tiffany clock and a five-story mural centered on a stately female figure. She's surrounded by images of the industries that made Detroit great in its heyday, and the Guardian, completed just before the Crash, is emblematic of those times.
Café owners Shawn Santo and Kevin Borsay who are also partners in the Pure Detroit group, and thus major-league city boosters were recruited to the space by the building's new owners, the Sterling Group, in hopes of increasing traffic and showing the space off to as many people as possible. Sterling made a video, on view in the lobby, about the Guardian's design and history; redesigned the lighting to show off all of the lobby's gorgeous details; and offers daily tours by the building's doorman, including the opulent walnut boardroom and the gigantic basement vault from the building's days as a bank.
Santo and Borsay named the café after the Guardian's architect, Wirt Rowland (wirtrowland.org), who also worked on the former GM Building on Grand Boulevard and designed the Buhl Building and the Penobscot. "We no longer live in a leisurely age," Rowland said. "The impression must be immediate, strong and complete color has this vital power." He had complete creative control of the Guardian and appears to have spared no expense. He insisted on red marble from Africa and designed the building's furniture, doorknobs and china, using zigzags and signature notched arches that put 1930s visitors in mind of the Aztecs, or maybe Byzantium.
Santo and Borsay have assembled some of the area's best artisanal foodmakers as their suppliers, and they're careful to let customers know where each nosh comes from. Sandwiches are from Avalon Bakery and from Lunchtime. Avalon also supplies brioche, scones, biscotti and excellent zucchini and banana breads. Cookies are from Traffic Jam and Milano Bakery (at Mack Avenue and Russell Street). Beverages, on the other hand, are mostly from Italy, including fancy teas, San Pellegrino limonata and aranciata (fizzy lemon and orange sodas) and Illy coffee.
Sandwiches are on focaccia or baguettes. One excellent example is Michigan Cherry Chicken Salad, with big chunks of chicken, dried cherries and lots of red onion. "Roman's Garden Vegetarian" is also top-notch: Mushrooms, red onions and roasted red peppers are sautéed and teamed with provolone. Another vegetarian choice uses fresh mozzarella with tomatoes, but I thought it could stand more pesto. One problem the staff faces, since the sandwiches are made in advance, is how to keep the excellent breads from turning soggy.
Everything is served in or on real china, including handsome square white plates it would shame Wirt Rowland to use tawdry plastic throwaways. A terrific $1.55 "short" and foamy hot chocolate is generous and made with Ghirardelli, so it's not overly sweet.
Pastries will bust your diet, but not your wallet. A buttery brioche comes oozing with rich dark melted chocolate; turnovers are filled with apples or blueberries. TJ's cookies are the finest: chocolate chip, white chocolate chunk and macadamia nut, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter or lemon sugar. A crumbly scone or a shortbread cookie seems a little less dissolute, so feel free to try one of Milano's mocha confections, incorporating a layer of buttercream, along with it.
The owners want the Rowland to satisfy in ways other than just the visual and the gustatory. The café has been the setting for a film discussion, a fashion show, a book launch and a Wednesday lunchtime Latin jazz series. In December, the authors of American City, about Detroit architecture, signed books at the café; it's available at the Pure Detroit store inside the Guardian.
Recalling cafés she's visited in Toronto, London and Barcelona, Santo says of the Guardian, "To have a space like that incorporated into your daily life, it changes the complexion of how you live your life. It's not like walking into a building and walking into a cubicle."
If you appreciate art deco, or if you like architecture with a vision, or if you're a Detroit booster, or, hell, if you just work downtown, you should check out the Guardian and its café (guardianbuilding.com). For decades, when it was owned by MichCon, the building wasn't open to the public. The free tours now take place between 10 a.m. and noon. From the top floor, the view of downtown and our other beautiful buildings across two horizons is superb.
The café is open 7 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday through Friday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.