by Mel Small
After reviewing the Town Tavern (MT, Aug. 1), the smashing new Royal Oak neighborhood bistro masquerading as a refitted 1930s bar and grill, I thought it would be instructive to take a look at Troy's 71-year-old Gathering Place, a genuine neighborhood bar and grill. It is not easy to find a pre-World War II eatery here or most anywhere, given the fact that 26 percent of restaurants nationwide fail in their first year alone. Indeed, my interest in the Gathering Place was also piqued by the disturbing news that, despite receiving stunning reviews, Southfield's cutting-edge Crush closed after only 10 months in business.
So how do you explain the staying power of the exceedingly plain Troy establishment at the corner of John R and Wattles?
People haven't been flocking to the Gathering Place because of the decor. Seating 130, it is composed of two rooms, one of which, the original tavern, includes the bar and a huge television screen, supplemented by four other TV sets sprinkled throughout the establishment. The walls are covered with beer placards and tavern ephemera, sports photos, plaques and trophies (they sponsor local teams), and in the interior room's "wall of history," vintage photographs and documents, including the original 1936 liquor license, are displayed. In a trifecta of mundane practicality, the formica tables are bare, the dishes are plastic, and the napkins are paper.
Nothing fancy here, including the way orders are taken and bills are calculated. Owner Danny DeWolf, who bought the place 26 years ago, has resisted computerization. This means that young and cheery servers like Devon Allent must work with pen and pencil, as did their great-grandparents in the 1930s. DeWolf does accept credit cards though.
His menu boasts that the tavern is a place "Where Friends Meet." Most of those friends come to sample the signature culinary item, deep-dish pizza. The small is $5.95, the large $9.95, and both prices include one item, such as pepperoni or Italian sausage or even pineapple. Characteristic of periodic daily specials is a large pizza, antipasto salad, and a 60 ounce-pitcher of beer or pop for $18.95.
The price is obviously right but what about the quality at a restaurant off most of our pizza radar? The unsung deep-dish competes quite well indeed, with a sturdy, nicely charred crust, a seamless blend of cheese and tomato and just the right measure of grease. Baked in a brick oven, the pies are in the same culinary ballpark as those turned out by several local chains.
The burgers are also commendable. The half-pound meat patty ($5.50) that is too large for the bun is thick and juicy and usually accurately prepared to order. A bonus is the large helping of add-on thin crispy fries ($1.50).
Savory dense house-made chili is available, while the melted-cheese topped onion soup is decent in its class. The Gathering Place also offers 16 sides, most of which are fried. The strangest among the usual suspects onion rings, potato skins with sour cream, buffalo wings and nachos are the pickles encased in a deep-fried batter.
You can balance your meal with one of several unpretentious salads, such as the iceberg-based antipasto ($7.95), which serves four adults easily, or chicken Monterey, featuring grilled or breaded chicken strips with warm Monterey jack, mushrooms and tomatoes.
More than 25 sandwiches and wraps round out the menu, which, aside from an ice cream bar, does not deal with dessert. The Caesar wrap ($6.25), stuffed with grilled chicken breast, lettuce, onion, tomato and a Parmesan Caesar dressing, is a pleasing combination, especially when compared to several of the drier rollups. Philly hoagies, kielbasa, Reubens, coney dogs and barbecue pork reflect the breadth of the sandwich fare.
As one would expect in a bar and grill, the Gathering Place features an array of drafts highlighted by the two-century-old Pabst Blue Ribbon ($3), the venerable brew that some working stiff in the '30s would have selected, as well as bottled beer from around the world. On Thursdays, or "Draft Day," 60-ounce pitchers go for $5.95, while five 12 ounce bottles in a bucket cost $9.75 on Wednesdays. There is not much call for wine in this beer-and-a-shot joint, but a liter of palatable pinot grigio will set you back only $12.95.
As is evident, one way to keep a restaurant open for 70 years is to turn out hefty portions of popular food and drink at relatively low prices. Another is to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere, so friendly and even wholesome, according to manager Steve Thomas, that during the '30s, many of the regulars consisted of parishioners who were coming and going from services at a nearby church.
Something tells me that when most of our trendy new bistros have been shuttered, reviewers will return to the Gathering Place to try to figure out, again, how it has been able to survive for so long in the very difficult restaurant business.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.