One of a kind


What makes a restaurant unique? It would have to start with a creative menu. Of course the setting should be attractive and favorable to digestion. It wouldn't hurt if beer were brewed on site. And wouldn't it be something if the restaurant also made bread and other baked goods daily, and made its own ice cream and cheese? Throw some livestock and crops out back and it could be a self-sustaining foodie settlement.

The marvel is that this restaurant — sans the farm — actually exists. On the corner of Second and Canfield in Detroit's Midtown, Traffic Jam and Snug, tenderly known to regulars as TJ's, has been serving the neighborhood and patrons of the various nearby sports and cultural institutions for more than 40 years. In the recent past, husband-and-wife partners Carolyn Howard and Scott Lowell have taken up the tradition. The two are committed to using the freshest and most local food available.

But before a morsel of food ever touches your lips, you're struck with the singularity of the surroundings. Thick 150-year-old timbers run horizontally through the dining areas. The floor bricks once walled criminals at the Jackson State Prison. Fascinating lamps hang in every corner and overhead — pre-Czarist Russian lamps, Victorian-era lamps and London street lamps that now serve as large planters. Lamps that light the rough-hewn wood-panel walls where a mish-mash of photographs, pottery and portraiture hangs.

One of the dining rooms boasts a charming central fireplace, just the thing to warm you on a frosty winter evening. In the milder months, enjoy the new patio constructed with reclaimed Corktown bricks. Or just belly up to the bar and take in a couple pints and a sporting event or award-winning Japanese animated feature film. There is a nook or cranny for everyone.

Naturally, the dining crowd is just as mixed as the decor. Delicate white-haired ladies wrapped in furs are about equal to nose rings and midriff. But you're likely to see someone just like you eating there, whoever you are.

Start your feast with a drink. Choose a specialty cocktail or a bottle from the large and diverse wine menu boasting around 130 wines, from a sub-$20 French Sauvignon Blanc to pricey Champagne for that special occasion. There are also several wine selections from the daily specials menu. Howard likes to balance the wine specials between white and red to offer around eight bottles mostly priced below $30. We recently snagged a $22 bottle of Bodegas Vinos Piñol Ludovicus, a red from southern Spain, which paired wholly with TJ's legendary sweet potato fries.

A fitting first course is the cheese platter, an assortment of TJ's mild and creamy cheeses with crackers, strawberries and a balanced hazelnut and fig compote. The hoppy Second Avenue Pilsner washes it down with ease. Do an upscale appetizer with the house smoked salmon served with apple and horseradish aioli, or downscale with breaded, deep-fried pickle spears.

Under the sandwich header you have choices ranging from fish to burrito to burger. One sandwich on special was roast beef with shaved onion and bleu cheese between slices of the house-made bread. It was tasty enough, though the sandwich as a whole might have benefited from a quick toasting of the bread.

The menu is exceptionally vegetarian-friendly. But not only vegetarians will love the Ms. Natural Crepe filled with spinach, sprouts, sour cream, onion, tomato and three cheeses. It's mammoth. A mere $10 buys you what must work out to two full portions. It's one of those rare dishes, an arrangement of simple, inexpensive ingredients that combine to create something compellingly delicious.

Meat eaters will delight in a tender and moist slice of Madras meatloaf garnished with a sweet but complex Cumberland sauce. Londontown fish and chips are appropriately crispy, lightly breaded, and a fine counterpart for the fruity, British-style West Canfield Pale Ale.

If there is any room for dessert you'll be faced with a whole host of choices. A double scoop of ice cream comes in seven flavors. The Carlotta Chocolatta ice cream cheesecake will have even the heartiest chocolate lover in a spin. Two kinds of bread pudding, fresh berries or a simple Boston cooler made with vanilla ice cream and Vernor's ginger ale that once was brewed only two blocks away. Or just have a coffee. A latte comes served in a cup that looks something like a mixing bowl with a handle.

From the painted Detroit Tigers, Degas and Van Gogh sidewalk squares outside the entrance to the finishing dessert of house made ice cream, Traffic Jam and Snug is a lot of things and altogether one of a kind.

Open 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.

Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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