A Tale of Two Restaurants and a Castle in Detroit
When Chef Allie Lyttle first came to work at Parks & Rec Diner a little over a year ago, not much was happening in the area surrounding the GAR Building, which occupies a block triangulated by Cass, Grand River and West Adams Avenue.
“We were definitely still in a part of ‘downtown’ that was not developed yet,” says Lyttle. But things have changed in that short time. Between the new Beacon Park, the Little Caesar’s Arena district and parking lots and development going up all around the building, the area is starting to see some solid foot traffic.
“It’s been really amazing to see the influx of infrastructure we’ve gotten lately,” says Lyttle. “And the building itself is beautiful. I mean, how many people get to say they work in a castle?”
That castle is the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR. building, built in 1899 to honor the more than 90,000 Michigan residents who fought in the Civil War. The structure is in the Richardsonian Romanesque-Revival architectural style, featuring two turrets, heavy stone blocks, arches and circular windows.
After Civil War veterans passed away, the building was deeded to the city in 1939, where it served as headquarters for the Parks & Recreation Department. In 1982, the city vacated the building and it fell into dereliction.
Then, in 2006, the city requested proposals to redevelop the building. The call was heeded by marketing executives Sean Emery and Tom and David Carleton of Mindfield, a Detroit-based media production company, who had a vision.
The original deed restriction for the land, which was given to the city by the Cass family more than a century earlier, required the building to be used as a “public market” which, during the building’s tenure as a Civil War vet hangout, was met by including storefronts. The new renovators are honoring the restriction with two ground-floor restaurants: Parks & Rec Diner and Republic, both of which opened in 2015.
The combination of Parks & Rec Diner, which serves breakfast and lunch, and Republic, which serves dinner, makes for a day-long bevy of options for locally sourced, New American Cuisine–style options that are being discovered by city-dwellers and suburbanites alike.
“At first, it was local Detroiters, for the most part, or people that were in the Detroit food scene,” says Republic Chef Matt Currie. “Now we’re starting to get a lot more people who are going to sporting events or a musical event, and they are taking time and exploring a little bit more. We’re getting people who want to find good food and are OK with trusting us and trying us out.”
Lyttle chafes a bit at the “New American” label, though she concedes it’s as good a descriptor as any for Parks & Rec’s quirky brunch-focused menu.
“People ask ‘What’s your favorite type of food to cook?’” and I always say, ‘In season and well seasoned,’ because I think if that’s what you focus on, if you highlight the best possible products you can get at the time, then you’re going to have the best possible result,” she says.
Lyttle likes to change up menu items about every three months. But some items are constants.
“Biscuits and gravy is always going to be on the menu,” she says. “That is just a core of what we do. You always have a pancake and a French toast. They’ll change, but always that. Always the build-your-own options, the hash and the omelet. And I don’t think I’m ever taking off the bologna sandwich because it’s one of my favorite things.”
Republic’s cuisine also changes every few months, and, like Parks & Rec’s, emphasizes local produce. “We make our own pasta in-house for a beef heart bolognese, which was probably the most popular item on this past menu. It was a really, really beautiful dish,” says Currie. “We source local beef heart from Michigan State, and we had some tomatoes that we canned last summer that we used for the base.”
Canning and preserving are staples in Currie’s kitchen. The summer was spent buying berries and produce and then canning them. “When the wintertime comes, we have a bountiful amount of produce to go to instead of just being limited to beets and potatoes,” he says.
And in the fall, expect a return of Republic’s charcuterie program. “We buy a whole hog and break it down and hang everything in our charcuterie cabinet and cure it,” says Currie. “Summer is a big time for us to get stocked up on that for the fall.”
And as the menus change, the clientele grows. Republic is filled for dinner regularly, and the brunch wait at Parks & Rec on weekends can mimic those in big cities like New York and Chicago, much to Lyttle’s amazement.
“Monday through Friday we’re very fortunate that we have a lot of local business people and people that live in the city, so that’s really nice,” she says. “On the weekends it’s definitely suburbanites. I wish we could figure out how to get them to come down on a Tuesday. That would be great, but if they want to wait 45 minutes on a Saturday, I’m not gonna argue.”