As you drive up or down Woodward Avenue between Royal Oak and Birmingham, it is difficult to ignore Mt. Chalet II, the oddly named, vaguely Swiss-looking structure just south of 14 Mile Road. Unless you are one of its regulars, however, you've probably subconsciously dismissed it as just another bar and grill on the Woodward strip.
That would be a mistake, as the schizophrenic Mt. Chalet is as much a full-service restaurant with pretensions of culinary respectability as it is a boisterous, smoky watering hole with sports featured round-the-clock on multiple screens.
Annette Berman, who took over the place in 1993, is herself unclear about its origins and ungainly name. Apparently, it all began on Six Mile Road in northwest Detroit more than four decades ago, and for a while there were two affiliated Mt. Chalets, one in the city and number II in Royal Oak. But even Freda, a venerable server who started working there 28 years ago, does not know from where that strange name, Mt. Chalet, came.
Wherever it came from, Mt. Chalet II offers interesting fare that transcends pub grub. That is a tribute, in part, to chef Jeff McArthur who used to work at the Midtown Café. It's not a fancy place the tables are bare and the napkins are paper but there are fancy touches such as white-wine glasses filled temporarily with ice to keep them chilled and food served on those large, square white-china platters so common these days in fashionable restaurants.
The generously proportioned appetizers, which are among the strengths of McArthur's kitchen, average around $8. This places them surprisingly close in price to the equally generously proportioned entrées, which, except for steak and the catch of the day, average around $11.
Mt. Chalet's unusual approach to the crispy and spicy shrimp-and-crab-cake appetizer flattens the cakes out to look like potato pancakes and bathes them gently in a lemon-chive sauce. Uniquely paper-thin as well is the roasted-chicken quesadilla constructed of andouille sausage, chicken bits, cheddar and jack cheese, peppers and black beans, served with a sprightly salsa, sour cream and, unfortunately, a salty guacamole.
The less original serving of OK flash-fried calamari, for its part, is enhanced by a sauce of roasted tomato and garlic butter. Other appetizers and firsts include what one might expect at a bar buffalo wings, an elaborately designed chicken nacho, spinach and artichoke dip, chili and several soups and salads.
At this point most bars would be satisfied to offer a few "mains" the usual burgers, grilled sandwiches, panini and call it a day. That is not the case with Mt. Chalet, although it does feature those prosaic options.
It is not unexpected that the suitably crusty "Grandmama's World Famous Mac & Cheese" is one of the most popular entrées, but it is surprising to find it sharing the menu with chicken marsala, which consists of lightly breaded, tender chicken that is somewhat overwhelmed by a heavy mushroom-wine sauce, and accompanied by nicely seasoned whipped potatoes and limp spinach. Wiener schnitzel, a savory-if-slightly-tough breaded pork cutlet with buttered cabbage, is another surprise, along with a rendition of rigatoni Bolognese for vegetarians.
Among other items that would be expected in such surroundings are a decent steak frites served with spinach and garlic aioli, fish and chips, and bangers and mash. For an extra $2.50, you can add a house or Caesar salad. Overall, chef McArthur seems to play it safe in terms of seasoning the entrées compared to his generally zestier appetizers.
Because of the size of his kitchen, he makes no attempt at baking, with Breadsmith providing his needs in that area; the lone dessert on the menu, also brought in from outside, is a chocolate cheesecake.
One dessert doesn't seem like much but it is counterbalanced by the nine beers on tap, including Guinness and Sam Adams, and the more than 25 bottled varieties. Mt. Chalet is especially proud to purvey Celis white, a Belgian-style beer that dates from 1453 and is now brewed under the authority of the Celis family in Austin, Texas.
Although this is a beer drinker's paradise, fanciers of the grape have not been completely forgotten. Aside from house wine by the glass, owner Berman offers five "premium" wines, such as Hess chardonnay, each priced at a modest $24 for a bottle.
Mt. Chalet is composed of just one small room that can seat perhaps 60 patrons at tables and another dozen at the bar. Patrolling such cozy quarters, the servers are always close to the tables, allowing them to be especially attentive and helpful.
And those who remember this emerging gastropub from a few years ago, it no longer offers its signature hot-roasted peanuts, which means the floors are not ankle-deep in shells.
Although we may never be able to clear up the mystery of its name, Mt. Chalet is as much an ambitious restaurant that deserves wider attention as it is a hangout for beer, TV sports and camaraderie. Moreover, considering both its longevity and precarious proximity to the famously jinxed restaurant venue across Woodward (Little Daddy's, Avenue Diner, WOW, 173 Grille, etc., etc.), Mt. Chalet has to have been doing something right all of these years.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to email@example.com.