by Todd Abrams
Growing up in the suburbs in the '80s, it was common to hear friends and neighbors insist that there was nothing to do in Detroit. This was a time when commerce along downtown Detroit's Woodward Avenue consisted of a wig shop, more or less. But despite the frequent negative national press, the past couple of decades have seen the promising renewal of a once-storied downtown.
Naturally, it's the new stadiums, casinos and office towers that receive the most attention. They are big and obvious and attract the crowds. Just as important are the myriad bars and restaurants ranging from the literal hole-in-the-wall fast food joint to places that are becoming attractions in their own right. Cliff Bell's, the newly restored art deco live jazz bar with an even more recently opened kitchen, unquestionably belongs in the latter category.
Stepping into Cliff Bell's is to arrive in another era. The eye is immediately drawn to a starburst pattern behind a stage generous enough for a big band to spread out but intimate enough for a trio, and six nights a week the stage features entertainment, ranging from intimate jazz combos to the over-the-top oddity of Torch With a Twist. The main area before the stage is separated into two spaces by thick vertical posts. One side is filled with round, candlelit tables, the other, a stunning curved bar. All this sits below massive barrel-vaulted ceilings. The atmosphere is so inviting and perfect that, with Michigan's new film industry, it seems only a matter of time before it becomes a set for a period movie.
All this ambience comes from pricey restoration work done in 2006 to make today's Cliff Bell's look like the Cliff Bell's of 1935. That and the way they mix a cocktail. Neither cheap nor fast, mixed drinks are crafted old-school, more for taste than ease of production, and we wonder why they don't go that one small step further and offer fresh-squeezed citrus for sour-based cocktails.
Good drinks aren't limited to cocktails. There are about a dozen beers on tap, a good mix of craft and mostly premium international brands. Another 50 beers are available in the bottle and range all the way from a cheap 12 ounces of Black Label to corked and caged 750-milliliter Trappist ale. The wine list is a bit more limited, though there are a couple intriguing selections, like a sparkling rosé from the Loire Valley in France. You can hardly go wrong on a Tuesday happy hour special, when all bottles of wine are half-off.
With everything from a standard fillet of beef tenderloin to cassoulet, the French-inspired eclectic food menu speaks for itself. Try the duck confit on a buttermilk biscuit with cranberry jam for a small plate reduction of Thanksgiving dinner. Hedonists will go for a chunk of tender braised pork belly (otherwise known as bacon when cured and smoked) that comes plated with a rich, spicy sweet cider sauce, roasted fingerling potatoes and a pinch of cracklings for good measure.
The lighter fare holds it own. The oysters are cold and fresh. A salad of sweet roasted beets is balanced with horseradish vinaigrette and pistachio crumbs. With a mild taste and texture somewhere between lake perch and chicken, frog legs are lightly breaded and seasoned and come in a bucket with tartar sauce for dipping.
Twice we heard our dining companions claim "best dish ever," once for the thick, meaty fried calamari, truly memorable for an appetizer that most every restaurant does nowadays, and then from a South Carolina native for the classic coastal Southern dish of shrimp and grits, the grits deeply creamy, the shrimp spiked with small pepper rings for texture and heat. The oxtail soup was the only the thing we weren't taken with, being so thick and rich that it was like eating a bowl of sauce.
There are just as many interesting dishes we didn't try: wild mushroom omelet on corncake, mushroom ragout, fried brussels sprouts with bacon and balsamic, mussels steamed with fennel and caramelized garlic, fisherman's stew. With Cliff Bell's current happy hour special of half-off food 5-8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, this is one of Detroit's best food values going today.
This block of Park Avenue is less the idyllic setting than the street name might evoke. Directly across from Cliff Bell's stylish facade is a too-common shell of a long-vacant building. But the nearby grit only serves to punctuate the elegance and verve of this bar and restaurant that speaks both of the city's past and of its future. At the very least, those looking for something to do in Detroit will surely find one cool evening here.
Open Mondays 7 p.m.-2 a.m., Tuesday-Saturday 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; smoking permitted. Hot Club of Detroit and others perform this week. See cliffbells.com.
Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.