There’s been a lot of history in this building, yet there’s a lot still to be made.
Southeast Michigan’s own Chef Kate Williams, of Royal Oak’s Rodin, Wolfgang Puck/Chicago and Copenhagen’s world-renowned Relae restaurant has partnered with beverage guru and mixologist Paul Fradeneck to resurrect an Old-World-style, nose-to-tail eating experience in a space that has been resurrected of late. The result is… Republic
Republic might sound like an odd name for a restaurant until you learn it’s housed on the ground floor of a historic, castle-like building (located on 1942 West Grand River at Cass) named The Grand Army of the Republic Building when the cornerstone was dedicated in 1899.
The GAR, as it is more often called, served as a club, meeting place and home for Detroit’s Civil War veterans until the mid-30s, when only a handful of veterans were still living. The building was then given to the City of Detroit but was still occasionally used by the GAR Memorial Association until the early 70s.
It was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
Here’s where the name comes in…
When the city finally decided it was time to sell the building, it was discovered that the deed contained a clause that stated the land (gifted from General Lewis Cass) belonged to the city on the condition that it forever be a home to a Civil War memorial and a marketplace.
After the building changed hands from the city to Ilitch Holdings to Detroit-based media company Mindfield USA (the current owners), a multi-million renovation was undertaken that resulted in satisfying all of the deed’s requirements. The building now has new office space, a Civil War memorial, and its required marketplaces in the form of retail shops and two restaurants. They include the soon-to-open Parks & Rec Diner (on its eastern side) and the now open and appropriately named Republic (on its west).
I spent an evening at Republic exactly two weeks from the day it opened on a cold day in mid-February.
As I approached from the west, the GAR, located on 1942 Grand River, almost appeared to be standing guard over the larger, more imposing downtown buildings of Detroit directly behind it. Still, you’re not actually in the central part of downtown quite yet, you’re at its western fringe, where empty lots and small decrepit buildings await redevelopment, including the new Red Wings stadium district just blocks away.
Passing through Republic’s small, corner-entrance vestibule, you’re greeted in an almost neighborly sort of way. All of this is perfectly in keeping with its comfortably casual, stylish décor of tonal grays, periwinkle blue, and black and white with splashes of appropriate colors throughout.
But it was the bar that instantly caught my eye, so I decided to hang out there, especially because Paul, Republic’s beverage manager, really loves whisky. Therefore, I love Paul.
The bar’s large (and growing) selection of bourbons and whiskies is flanked by an equally impressive assortment of vodkas, gins, rums and all of the liquid toys an imaginative bartender loves to play with. And when you see Republic’s imaginative signature cocktail list, you’ll know in an instant Paul and his staff, attired in worn jeans, checkered shirts, bibbed aprons and faded plaids, are always dressed to play.
The food (and of course) Chef Kate are really the draw here, so with a background of cocktail shakers ringing out like castanets, I studied the menu, printed quite simply on ivory-colored paper. From first-hand experience, I know that writing a restaurant’s inaugural menu is a daunting task. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, as they say. Moreover, if people are what they eat, a restaurant is what it puts on the menu, especially the first one.
Having said that, I’m not so sure which is becoming harder for chefs these days, choosing those first dishes or choosing the menu’s category headings? Appetizers are now more fashionably called smalls, bites, shared, beginnings, littles, firsts, samplers, preludes, lites, and here at Republic, spreads. Likewise, entrees (remember those?) might be mains, substantials, principles, bigs, or primaries. At Republic, they’re Feasts.
Folks, you can’t tell the dishes without a program. Republic’s menu contained 11 Spreads (appetizers) and 5 Feasts (entrees), covering all the food groups and then some. Each item featured a bullet point beneath, suggesting a beer, wine or liquor to accompany it.
The Spreads selections included a Seared Beef Tartare, a Duck Confit and preparations of Rabbit, Bone Marrow and Lamb, all of which you VERY seldom see as (dare I use the word) appetizers. This section is also the only place you will see any vegetarian items on Republic’s “meat-centric” menu, with a Roasted Carrot Salad, a Baked Potato Chowder (both Vegan) and 2 other salads.
Of the 11 choices, I chose the Ploughman’s Plate, primarily because I heard that charcuterie (the preparation of sausages and cold meats) is one of Chef Kate’s passions. The 2 wood blocks of the platter contained slices of wonderfully flavored terrine, cured meats, a delicious homemade mustard, homemade pickles, a shrimp butter and (for the lack of a better term) a creamy beef fat butter. Served with toasted Artisan bread, it was indeed a spread that could be shared by two and definitely in her wheelhouse. I also thoroughly enjoyed the chef’s Duck Confit Salad.
As mentioned, the “Feasts” AKA (Entrees) are a more-limited selection with 5, including a Dry Aged Steak, Duck Pastrami, Whole Trout, Roasted Chicken (Serves 4) and something they call Butcher’s Revenge, which is actually a multi-meat burger featuring pork. The featured beverage beneath? *Enjoy with a can of Stroh’s and a shot of Old Forrester Whiskey. There’s Paul, playing once again.
All in all, Republic is a fabulous addition to the Detroit dining scene. Paired with the soon-to-come Parks & Rec, this will be a hot culinary corner of the city.
As for the rest, here’s my box score. *(5 being highest/best where numbers are listed)
Menu Intimidation Factor: MIF 3.0
The dish titles are all explained quite well. BTW, they’ll tell you what a Butcher’s Revenge and what a Ploughman’s Plate is even before you ask, likewise what Beef Tallow Fries are… Hint: if you loved the taste of the “original” McDonald’s fries before health-conscious America ripped them, well, they’re back. At Republic, this TRULY is a Happy Meal!
Dress : 3.0
Pretty much anything tasteful goes, jeans to tuxes (prom dresses are optional). Don’t try too hard. There’s no reason you have to dress any better than the help. Having said that, they dress casual hip. It’s a Farmer meets Farmington Hills look.
The Crowd: 4.5
Where do all these trendy foodie professionals come from anyway? They certainly can’t come from the neighborhood. There’s no neighborhood here.
For all of you who feel there is no easy access parking in Detroit, THIS is your day to celebrate. Acres of lots ring Republic, some seemingly stretching to the horizon. On a clear day, you might actually be able to see Livonia. If you get there early, there’s about 2 dozen parking spaces right on the street surrounding the building itself. The lots run $2 to $5 bucks.
Bang for the Buck: 4
On the one hand, it’s a wonderful space well worth the price of being there. On the other hand, the price of being there is $9 to $18 appetizers and $27 to $40 entrees. The drink prices are very reasonable, however, with many good wines available by the glass. In the end, if your tab is a bit pricey, have another drink.
Food Stuff: 4.5
In a word, the food is terrific, and I’d expect it will remain so as seasonal menus evolve. This isn’t the restaurant to take someone who enjoys the chains or their club. You’re in a farm-to-table environment here. Every ingredient matters to everyone you’re paying your hard-earned money to. Enjoy it. Soak it in. Just please don’t ask for ketchup or A1. It would be like spraying graffiti on the Mona Lisa.
Energy, Vibe, & the Cool-Wow Factor: 4.0
While Republic is flanked left and right with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows on either side of its entrance, it’s not a fish-bowl feeling.
Come warmer weather, especially when Parks & Rec opens, the GAR will be a walk-to destination from the Fox, Filmore, Comerica and the soon-to-come district. Make friends with Republic now, so they’ll remember you later when it’s one of the hottest dining tickets in town.
Republic, at 1942 W. Grand River, Detroit, MI 48226, does take reservations by phone at 313-446-8360, or you can go online and reserve a table. It’s currently open for dinner only, Tuesday thru Thursday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. The Rosa Parks Central Transit Station (People Mover / Bus) is 3 blocks away, but I honestly don’t see that being too convenient for a majority of the clientele. The website is still a work in progress, but you can see more interior pics, more info, and make your reservations from there. The addy is: www.republictaverndetroit.com/
They accept all the usual plastic (AMEX, MC & Visa) and are wheelchair accessible, but the menu and intimacy of the dining rooms probably wouldn’t suit young children. Lastly, if you have a group of 6 or more, I’d highly recommend you book well in advance, so they can accommodate you properly.