Detroit’s Lively Culinary Scene Is Powered by a Good Food Movement

detroit dream cafe
detroit dream cafe
Chef Anya’s father serving up pepper sauce to guests. Photo by Kit n’ Kin, AMC Dream Cafe 2018.

Coney dogs and squared pizza may come to mind when many New Yorkers think of Detroit-style food, but the culinary scene is just as varied as the history of the city itself. For starters, there’s traditional tacos in southwest, Jamaican fare on the northwest side, vegan soul food in West Village and Bangladesh-style pizza in Hamtramck, a small city within Detroit. There are also new restaurants opening at a steady pace, and some are gaining accolades, too. Pop-ups are frequent, allowing up-and-coming chefs to experiment with their menus and test their business model.

Behind the scenes of much of this buzzing activity is a movement to create a food system that is equitable, sustainable and community driven, and this past June, Detroit locals created a temporary restaurant known as the Dream Café as an experiment in practicing food production and service based on these values.

Held for four days in the city’s Midtown neighborhood, Dream Café was a collaboration between the 20th-annual Allied Media Conference (AMC)—a gathering that explores the intersections of media and communications, art, technology, education and social justice—and FoodLab Detroit, a nonprofit incubator for individual food businesses. For breakfast and lunch services, the event featured several local black-owned establishments while, in the evenings, chefs from around the country—including New York, Philadelphia and North Florida—hosted ticketed dining events. Bringing it back home, chefs included ingredients from the city’s black-owned urban farms in every meal.

Although Detroit is still a city that is over 80 percent African American, much of the food narrative is still centered on white chefs and restaurateurs. The Dream Café provided a counter narrative by focusing on people of color, including urban farmers, local chefs, ally restaurateurs and food sovereignty organizers.

detroit dream cafe
Bringing it back home, chefs included ingredients from the city’s black-owned urban farms in every meal. Above: “Street Fruit Salad”—cucumber, radish, salted berry sauce by 3leches.

An experience of the Dream Café’s caliber permitted a horizontal exchange of skills, resources and mutual inspiration between Detroit’s local chefs and national chefs, says Ora Wise, AMC’s culinary director and co-owner of Harvest & Revel, a Brooklyn-based catering company.

Anya Peters of Kit an’ Kin, a New York Caribbean–inspired pop-up, participated in a collaborative dinner called “Matriarchy in the Kitchen.” Held out of FOLK Detroit, a woman-owned café and coffee shop that features all-day brunch, the dinner honored matriarchal ancestors and the ties between Caribbean and Southern cuisine with dishes including green seasoned fried chicken and Cajun jambalaya. “Detroit is very community based,” says Peters. “It’s experienced-based dining, and you’re able to feel the love in it.”

Jerome Brown—one half of Detroit Soul, a soul food eatery and one of the six Dream Café businesses—makes note of the growing occurrence of food businesses sharing space. “We’re using each other’s restaurants and that’s different,” he says, “I own a brick-and-mortar, but I’m not there every day. Now, I can lease the space out to someone else on those days.”

For customers, it introduces them to even more types of cuisines and the city’s up-and-coming chefs. Molly Mitchell, owner of Rose’s Fine Food, a diner that offers breakfast and lunch, opened her space this summer to another Dream Café participant, Simple Goodness Detroit.

“We’re calling [this trend] a restaurant residency,” Mitchell says. “It’s shifting the idea of a restaurant to more of a practice space where you can launch what you’re doing and expose yourself to a wider audience with less risk. I just think there’s a lot of power in that kind of collaboration.”

Kimberly Chou standing beside a field of mixed greens at D-town Farm.

Dream Café participants are moving forward in the spirit of cooperation that was kindled from the experience. The event brought an economic boost to the city: Local businesses generated $9,000 from breakfast and lunch service, and the ticketed dinners brought in even more. Wise is working with conference organizers to strategize on how to build on the Dream Café for next year, saying that Detroit and New York chefs are already brainstorming about future collaborations. Locally, the chefs have been inspired to continue building relationships with the local farmers and themselves.

“The Dream Café was based on a model of responding to the existing and ongoing vision and work of activists, chefs, farmers and food entrepreneurs in Detroit,” Wise says. “ [We’re] plugging into that and figuring out ways to mobilize more resources, create more opportunities and expand the circle of impact and allies.”

Looking for places to dine during your stay in Detroit? Here are some recommendations:

To eat:

Flowers of Vietnam
4430 Vernor Hwy.
Based in Southwest, Flowers of Vietnam reopened this past January after closing for renovations in March 2017. The Vietnamese eatery, led by chef George Azar, was named one of the “Best Restaurants in America 2017” by GQ magazine. Check out the caramel chicken wings.

FOLK Detroit
1948, 1701 Trumbull Ave., Suite B

Based in Corktown, this café and coffee shop offers all-day brunch. Owned by Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes, FOLK is the sibling to neighboring café-market the Farmer’s Hand and is recognized for providing employees with pay higher than minimum wage and benefits. The seasonal menu includes ricotta toast with bourbon vanilla blackberry jam and floral dukkah.

2015 Michigan Ave.
Located in the city’s Corktown neighborhood, Ima features an Asian-influenced menu of udon noodles and rice bowls. Led by chef Mike Ransom, the restaurant was named Eater Detroit’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year. A popular option includes the unagi-don rice bowl.

Lady of the House
1426 Bagley St.
A James Beard Award semi-finalist, chef Kate Williams’s modern American restaurant and bar is another Corktown favorite. The restaurant has a strong commitment to sourcing from small, local farms and using “ugly food” to reduce wasting the produce that farmers may not be able to sell. The dishes are shareable but the portion sizes are hearty, like the lamb ham with caper horseradish butter and fermented honey.

To drink:

Astro Coffee
2124 Michigan Ave.
A Corktown neighborhood café that offers organic and natural products and coffee.

The Griot Lounge
66 E. Forest Ave.
Kick back with a drink at this intimate listening lounge and bar in Midtown. Choose from the menu of gourmet specialty drinks while vinyl’s spin the best in blues, jazz and R&B music in the background.

The Villages Beir & Weingarten
1420 Van Dyke St.
An outdoor community gathering place in the West Village neighborhood that serves beer and wine for a cause. The space is open on weekends May—October and features live art and music, food trucks and Sunday brunch.