Detroit to us who live here means Metro Detroit, inclusive of the suburbs and townships within a couple hours’ drive. Maybe it even means Michigan, considering the wine-producing culture in our state’s northwestern and southwestern reaches. As someone who’s been lucky enough to travel quite a bit, I’m always very happy to come back to what dependably feels like “the real world,” the Midwestern pulse of America.
I’ve had the privilege and delight to have earned a living as a full-time beverage professional in Detroit since 1977, working in all aspects of the industry, from classic cocktail bars to fine dining to delis and premium grocery. Perhaps doing this in Detroit seems improbable. Trying to learn the job, there may not have been a template, but, frankly, that was the case everywhere in the US at the time. But the job taught me—a comfortable route in a city driven by work ethic and common sense, and one with unparalleled cultural, ethnic, religious, and racial diversity. It’s true that the opportunities to meet other beverage professionals doing credible, inspiring work were slim. But 10 years in, after entering a sommelier competition in NYC, a sweet realization dawned: the professional methodology gained from experience, with no mentors, in Detroit restaurants could bear examination on a national scale. A testimony to this city’s authenticity, depth, and grit.
Today, it’s simply a thrill to see so many stylish beverage programs being developed in Metro Detroit. The surprise is the sheer number of truly creative venues that are popping up, especially downtown, with beverage programs as spunky and forward thinking as any in the nation. Gone are the days when that half-hour drive downtown seemed a psychologically impassable barrier to many living in the well-heeled suburbs.
Detroit’s enjoying a warm moment in the sun. Is it a surprise, this surge in restaurant and corresponding sommelier activity that has led to national recognition? Not really. It’s been a long time coming, long but inevitable in a town that keeps enduring and resurging. Is it heartwarming, energizing, delightful? You bet. Selfishly, as a career veteran, to be in a position to lend an ear, a cautionary word, or to simply say to someone going for a credential, if I can do it, so can you—well, what could feel better than that?
Come visit us so that we can take care of you, pour you a glass of our favorite wine, offer a pint of great Michigan beer, mix you a perfectly balanced cocktail, and make you feel at home. Detroit—this is what we do.
- Madeline Triffon, MS
Featured here are Gerry Baker, Beverage/FOH Director at The Mulefoot Gastropub in Imlay City; Justin King, Owner/GM of Bridge Street Social in DeWitt, Kathleen Hawkins (Kat), GM at Wright & Company in Detroit; Joseph Allerton, Wine Director/GM at Roast in Detroit; Rachel Van Til, Wine Director/Manager at Mabel Gray in Hazel Park; and Michael Descamps (Mick), Wine Director at Red Wagon Shoppe in Rochester Hills & Troy.
Interviews compiled and edited by Stacy Ladenburger, GuildSomm Editor and proud Michigan native.
How long have you lived in Detroit, and what’s your perspective on its transformations throughout recent years?
Gerry: I’ve lived here my whole life, and the positivity through the tough times was amazing. There was never any doubt that the city would bounce back.
Justin: I’ve spent a few years in Detroit and Ann Arbor and have watched some compelling things happen from a beverage perspective. At my previous gig, I was at The Stand in Birmingham, and California was always number one with a bullet. Restaurants downtown are swinging the pendulum aggressively, and I’m excited to see what transpires over the next few years.
Kat: I am Detroit born and raised. It is exciting to be a part of a positive movement in Detroit. We see guests that are coming downtown for things other than sporting events for the first time ever, so it is very important to be an ambassador of the positivity in the city.
Joseph: I have lived in downtown Detroit or very close to it for most of the last two decades. I have seen the city transform from a sketchy sort of ghost town to the rebirth we are experiencing today. In the next five years, I believe we are going to see even more drastic changes to restore the city. Hopefully, Detroit can grow with this demand in a healthy and sustainable way.
Rachel: I moved to Detroit a little over a year ago, so I’m new to the area. When I lived in Traverse City, four hours north of Detroit, I knew so many restaurateurs and beverage professionals who had left Detroit over the last decade. It’s a very new thing for sommeliers to stay instead of hitting a plateau and moving to larger markets.
Mick: I was born in Detroit proper nearly 40 years ago and have lived and worked in the city or suburbs for my entire career. For much of my life, the function of urban sprawl has driven attention away from the city, focusing growth toward suburban areas. Consequently, there have been pockets of development in certain areas only, without a lot of connectivity between them. Over the past several years, there has been significant attention paid in investing in Downtown, Midtown, and Corktown, and there is a real feeling of cooperation and excitement in the industry.
What are the current wine and beverage trends in Detroit?
Kat: Cocktail culture is taking the scene by storm. The cocktail bars have really been the place to be for the last three years or so. Every new restaurant has some kind of craft cocktail program with focus on fresh ingredients, consistency, and exciting spirits. As far as wine trends, there has been a huge spotlight on smaller producers, unique styles, and things that are off the beaten path. We are consistently seeing more and more by the glass programs with international selections being the focus.
Rachel: The beer and cocktail scenes in Detroit have had more attention on them than wine programs have for the last few years, and perhaps rightfully so. Wine continues to be seen as something from the past to millennials, I think—perhaps a little less personal than ordering a cocktail, and certainly more complicated than ordering a beer. I would also say that there is a small but important group of people championing natural wine. Wines that are fermented with native yeasts and grown organically or biodynamically connect with people who drink a lot of beer or are tired of wine being spoken about in luxury terms. Many of the sommeliers I know are interested in the full spectrum of wines, from classic and iconic to niche and esoteric, but it is much more difficult to run a classic program in the city right now.
Mick: The Metro Detroit market has seen an influx over the past few years of high-quality producers—of beer, wine, and liquor—that have previously not been available for purchase. To this end, there has been a zeal of buyers and sommeliers alike to utilize and celebrate these products.
How does the Detroit restaurant scene compare to other large markets? How has it changed over the last five to ten years?
Gerry: We’re still in our infancy, so everyone is still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. We lack diversity when you compare us to a city like Chicago. There are a lot of places doing similar things. It’ll still take a few years, but we’re heading in the right direction. Five or ten years ago, Metro Detroit was littered with chain restaurants whose lists were dominated by mass-produced supermarket wines. These will never go away, but the balance has shifted over the past few years. More entrepreneurs with a focus on quality food are popping up every day. Wine, for the most part, is still an afterthought, but our cocktail and beer programs can compete with any city in the country.
Justin: The food scene here is invigorating. I love what’s happening. I do think we have some catching up to do on the beverage side.
Joseph: The Detroit restaurant scene is a newly blossoming one. While there were always decent restaurants in the suburbs and a few elevated ones, too, 10 years ago, there was almost no reason to dine in downtown Detroit. Now, more unique, world-class restaurants are opening in Detroit, particularly in the downtown area. Patrons are also becoming more educated and adventurous. [But] Detroit still has a long way to go before it can be compared to the glorious restaurant scenes you will find in Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and so on.
Mick: Detroit has a lot in common with other notable markets in the Midwest, albeit on a smaller scale. Like Chicago, this is a city that has long embraced meat and has celebrated the steakhouse. And like other larger markets, Detroit has a diverse cultural makeup, allowing for a wealth of fantastic global cuisine options.
What is the wine industry community like in Detroit?
Gerry: We’re a small community, but very close. We’re always willing to help one another and provide guidance and share opinions when needed.
Justin: No one is really a dedicated floor sommelier; we’re all wearing a few hats to keep the lights on and the ship tight. Our goals are similar: excel at hospitality, and be champions of all things beverage that feel right and feel real.
Kat: There are the folks who have been doing this forever, and then there are a few of us in the middle (I identify as someone “in the middle”), but now there is a huge crop of people who are interested in wine and education, and it is our job to foster that. The people who mentor me are incredible forces of hospitality, generosity, and leadership. Their kindness over the last six or seven years is what really contributed to the passion that I have for this business.
Rachel: It goes without saying that Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon sets the standard for hospitality, service, and knowledge in Detroit. Most sommeliers in restaurants are pretty young, so we lean on each other as we continue to figure out what our clientele want to drink, as well as team up to have access to things otherwise difficult to bring into the Michigan market. I am very grateful that we have more camaraderie than competition.
What’s the value of certification in your market today?
Gerry: Honestly, it doesn’t have the value I wish it would, but that’s slowly changing. As the industry continues to grow, restaurants will need new ways to set themselves apart from one another. As our restaurant group continues to grow, we plan on having a Certified Sommelier at every location. Hopefully, we can set a precedent and others will follow.
Joseph: Certification is actually pretty valuable in our market and has always been beneficial to my career. With just the Intro Certification in 2006, I was lucky enough to become employed as a wine director. Shortly after, I passed the Certified Exam, and that made a big difference as well. Without the guidance I have received from the Court of Master Sommeliers, I would not be where I am today. I feel quite fortunate that I discovered such an organization at the age of 21.
Rachel: I personally think certification is more important in a smaller market, as there are fewer established standards. Importantly, and I think this stems partially from Madeline’s influence as well as that of Advanced Sommeliers Michelle DeHayes and Mick Descamps, the people I know who are involved with the CMS emphasize service as much as they do theoretical knowledge.
Mick: Certification, whatever the discipline, is important and is valuable; however, it certainly is not a requirement to getting a buying position or in landing a great job. Passion is what I value most when assessing talent.
Does your program feature any local beers, wines, or spirits?
Gerry: Our beer and spirits program are almost exclusively local, and the guests love it. Guests have yet to truly warm up to Michigan wine. We rotate them in and out of our list, but only a few stick.
Justin: We are big fans of Mawby, Shady Lane, 2 Lads, Brys Estate, and Bowers Harbor. We have a wealth of great breweries in Michigan that shouldn’t be missed. We’re keen on Jolly Pumpkin, Founders, Short’s, New Holland—it’s a long list of quality brew from the mitten. Journeyman Distillery is doing wonderful stuff right now. It’s our favorite Michigan distillery.
Kat: For spirits, from New Holland, we feature Beer Barrel Bourbon, Zeppelin Whiskey, and Knickerbocker Barrel Gin. We have Long Road Distillers' Wheat Whiskey and Aquavit. From Two James, we have gin, vodka, and their Catcher’s Rye. The beer and cider list here rotates frequently, and currently, there is representation from New Holland, Founders, Greenbush, Blake’s Hard Cider, Tandem Ciders, Uncle John’s Cider Mill, Leelanau Brewing, and Dark Horse.
Rachel: [For our liquor selection], we work with Valentine, New Holland, and Two James primarily. The Michigan beer scene is more established. I would consider Leelanau Brewing and Jolly Pumpkin the two most innovative Michigan breweries we work with, but there are lots of great options that we carry, including beers from Founders, Brewery Vivant, Bell’s, and Dark Horse. Wine is the easy part. We currently have wines from Mawby, Bowers Harbor, Left Foot Charley, 2 Lads, Mari Vineyards, Black Star Farms, and Nathaniel Rose.
Describe your clientele. What are the unique challenges in your market?
Joseph: Our clientele is very diverse due to our location and the diversity in the products we offer. We are fortunate to be located in the historic Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit. This provides us with international business travelers, patrons from the suburbs, and Detroit locals. This market is still very underdeveloped in many ways, and that is challenging at times. The fact that residential development is lacking in Detroit makes it difficult to find good employees and to keep the restaurant full seven days a week.
Rachel: Mabel Gray is in a little neighborhood called Hazel Park. The neighborhood itself is pretty blue collar, and I love that locals as well as wealthy diners and the hip-artistic from downtown all balance out a dining room blaring Tupac on most Friday evenings.
The biggest challenge I face is not being able to please everyone. Our wine program is tiny, and I get complaints that it is too expensive, not expensive enough, too small, not classic enough, not focused on natural wines as much as it should be. The good news is that, while I may not have much in the way of cult Cabernet, that same diner is going to be more perplexed that we do not serve Caesar salads or have a filet. If they come back a second time, guests know what to expect and that I am happy to offer corkage for things that do not make sense for me to stock consistently.
Mick: Because our stores are more geared toward specialty in their makeup, we tend to cater toward a clientele that is looking for what cannot be purchased at most places. A constant challenge is trying to acquire the difficult-to-track-down items for our guests, everything from Grand Cru Burgundy from very small producers to micro-production Napa Valley Cabernet. This always keeps me on my toes.
What’s the most popular category of wine on your list?
Gerry: We’re a meat-centric restaurant, so red wine dominates. Cabernet still leads the pack but we sell a good amount of Syrah.
Justin: Our biggest categories are Pinot Noir and Piedmont. Our guests have taken to West Coast producers like Cotiere, Failla, Hirsch, Phelps Creek, Adelsheim. We’ve been selling quite a bit of Barbera and Dolcetto. Perhaps surprisingly, we are also selling a healthy amount of Greek wine. My heart sings when a guest falls in love with one of these wines.
Kat: We are selling a ton of Spanish wine, and I feel as though Portuguese selections will be gaining steam as well. Spanish wine is so versatile and comes in such a range of flavors and price points that it has been a natural choice for a menu that changes as often as ours.
Joseph: California wines are still very popular in our market, especially Napa Cabs at our restaurant because of all the dry-aged steaks and chops.
Rachel: The most popular thing we offer is Champagne. We do force people’s hands when they order tasting menus with pairings, often beginning with bubbles or pouring half glasses if reservations are running behind. After a year of doing this, people increasingly ask for Champagne unsolicited.
Mick: The most popular category in the stores is domestic Cabernet Sauvignon, which is not a surprise. We have a fairly diverse guest base beyond this, though, with a healthy demand for Burgundy and Bordeaux, for Italy, for Spain, and for the Southern Hemisphere and beyond.
Other than your own, what are some of the best wine and cocktail programs in Detroit?
Gerry: Bridge Street Social’s wine list is admirably aggressive with both pricing and the amount of wines by the glass. Roast has great track record of dependability. If I can’t decide between cocktails and wine, Wright & Co. is usually where I end up.
Kat: For wine, Mabel Gray, Mulefoot Gastropub, Bridge Street Social, Motor City Wine, and Roast. For cocktails, Sugar House, Standby, Chartreuse, The Oakland, Roast, and Grey Ghost.
Joseph: My favorite wine programs in Detroit are Vertical, Wright & Co., and Selden Standard. My favorite cocktail programs are Standby, Grey Ghost, and Sugar House.
Which specific restaurants or dining experiences would you recommend to a food and drink lover as being quintessentially Detroit?
Justin: A perfect night can be achieved by going to three of these five locations: Wright & Co., Mulefoot Gastropub, Roast, Selden Standard, Sugar House. Bonus round: don’t forget about Lafayette Coney. I promise this is relevant to your interests. And if you want late night jazz, please go to Cliff Bell’s. It’s an experience.
Kat: One must get a Coney dog when visiting Detroit. Lafayette Coney Island is the place to see when you are ready for the Coney experience. We also have a really amazing Polish community in Hamtramck—go to Polish Village.
Joseph: The first thing that comes to mind is Lafayette Coney Island, which claims to be the first Coney Island restaurant in Detroit. They do have the best Coney dogs, and the hospitality experience is very authentic and memorable. Another place worth mentioning is Jolly Pumpkin’s beer hall-style location in downtown Detroit.
Rachel: The dream is, of course, to find a member to invite you to the Detroit Athletic Club to order a Last Word. I’m not sure anything is more old-school Detroit than that. Loui’s Pizza is, in my opinion, the best Detroit pizza, and make sure you eat a Coney while you’re here. I’m not taking sides as to where you get one, but please, get a Coney. And if you find yourself at Honest John’s around 2 am, you know you’re nearing local status.
Mick: Cadieux Café: at how many other places in the country can you sip on Stella while eating Moules et frites and then play feather bowling all under one roof? American Coney Island for downtown Detroit's best Coney dog. Roma Café for homey Italian food, and Joe Muer for excellent steak and seafood backed by thoughtful service.
What do you think is next for Detroit’s food and beverage scene? What would you like to see happen?
Gerry: Over the past few years, beer and cocktails have dominated the imagination of the guest. I feel like wine will have its time soon. I would like to see more restaurants put an emphasis on service. It’s not just the food; it’s the whole guest experience.
Justin: I’m intrigued to see to what level we can show some dexterity in our wine lists without thinking we have to be the polar opposite of the old guard. Good wine is good wine. Often enough, wine lists feel like a game of Battleship against an opponent you’ve never met. It doesn’t have to be like that.
Kat: Hopefully, there is a resurgence in fine dining. I am a glutton for the three-hour, coursed out, perfectly paired meal. If there were a few true fine dining spots with the whole show, I would be really into that, both personally and professionally.
Joseph: As much as I enjoy comfort food and the decadence of steaks and chops, I look forward to a cleaner food trend at some point.
What should the uninformed know about the glorious state of Michigan?
Justin: There’s quite a bit to fall in love with in Michigan. First, stop gawking at ruin porn. Next, there are some wonderfully passionate, hospitable folks in many different roles in this industry. Seek them out, and they will bend over backwards to make your experience a memorable one.
Kat: Michigan is a diverse state full of amazing natural resources. We have beer country, wine country, and the opportunity to live in vibrant cities like Detroit or Grand Rapids or in more rural areas with forests and lakes. If you have never been here, I encourage you to come and visit. We have an immense amount of pride that we love to share with guests.
Joseph: I think one of the most common misconceptions about Detroit is that the city is very dangerous. Sure, there are dangerous parts of our city—just like any major city. However, downtown Detroit is very safe these days.
Additionally, we are credited for the birth of Techno music.
Rachel: The wineries in Michigan are putting out increasingly great wines. Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas are both beautiful to visit, and the food scene up north is great. Make sure you check out Trattoria Stella, where Amanda Danielson has a great Italian list as well as local wine selections.
Mick: Michigan is not Canada—we have all four seasons here. This is a great state filled with loyal, hard-working people. We have lots of water; we love our local sports teams; we have an unfortunate habit of adding s to the end of words (like, “I work at Ford’s”).
Detroit is our largest city and once rivaled Chicago in size and grandeur. With all the good happening these days, that may happen once again.
Clockwise from top left: Rachel Van Til, Gerry Baker, Joseph Allerton, Mick Descamps, Justin King, MS Madeline Triffon, and Kat Hawkins.
The downtown area is going to find great growth with the opening of the new Pistons/Red Wings arena opening this upcoming season (Little Caesars Arena, kill me with that name). Further, the wine scene is Northern Michigan is growing in both production and quality. I can't complain about the late harvest Rieslings from Traverse City
Also, Red Coat Tavern, in Royal Oak, has one of the best burgers I've had. Great write-up on an underrated metropolis.