In the Kitchen

Townhouse Restaurant Redefines Corner Bistro Cuisine

By Nina Misuraca Ignaczak / Photography By Marvin Shaouni | March 15, 2016
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Chef Michael Barrera
Chef Michael Barrera

Wrapped tightly around the corner of Martin and Pierce streets in downtown Birmingham, Townhouse is the quintessential corner bistro. The tiny venue features cozy seating at woodblock tables, a small bar replete with an encyclopedic “libations library” and a bistro-inspired menu featuring favorites like smoked wings, mac & cheese and the famous build-it-yourself Townhouse Burger. In the summertime, floor-to-ceiling windows open up to patio seating.

Since 2013, Michael Barrera has lent his vision and hard work to building this enterprise. But if he weren’t doing that, this would be a place where he’d like to hang out. “We just provide a really cool corner bistro feel, not in the classic sense of a French bistro, but with a refined American food style,” says Barrera. “You can sit, have a drink, a couple of small bites and just enjoy the scene.”

With the 2015 launch of a new, much larger Townhouse venue in Detroit, Barrera is busy tending to the new restaurant while working to preserve the unique character of the Birmingham spot. He says that means honing in on the corner bistro feel while redefining the classic bistro menu with an emphasis on locally sourced food.

“This is a corner bistro in the heart of a beautiful suburb,” says Barrera. “We want to accentuate that. And we also want to change people’s perceptions on what a traditional dish should look like.” For example, Barrera and his chef de cuisine, Ryan Prentiss, are working on crafting a Michigan shrimp cocktail, sourced from locally farmed shrimp. Don’t expect the classic three-bite jumbo shrimp swimming in a sea of red cocktail sauce. “It’s going to be presented in a different manner—more vibrant and whimsical,” Barrera says.

Barrera also plans on ramping up his local sourcing program this spring with RecoveryPark, an urban farm on Detroit’s east side focused on employing veterans and people returning from incarceration or rehabilitation. “We’re going to be sourcing a lot of produce from them, which we’re really excited about,” says Barrera. “

"One of the advantages of working with RecoveryPark is that they’re willing to grow a lot of things on custom order.”

Townhouse Birmingham also sources spirits locally including whiskey from Detroit’s Two James Distillery and vodka from Ferndale’s Valentine Distillery. The bar proudly features a selection of Michigan craft beer. 

townhouse bartender
crew at townhouse restaurant

Barrera plans to spend more time in southeast Michigan’s farmers’ markets this year to gain inspiration for specials. “Whether it be for an appetizer or an entrée, at farmers’ markets we can gain access to what’s readily available,” he says. “To me, that’s one of the coolest parts about being a chef—going to see everything in front of you. I can sit on the phone all day and call and order what I need, but when I can go and see all the produce, that’s when the creation actually starts.”

Barrera is quick to credit his team with Townhouse’s success. That team includes Prentiss, sous-chefs Curtis Townsend and Ovidio Martinez, chef de partie Ben Zemach and general manager Erin Zupicich. “What makes our team great is the mutual respect and camaraderie we have with each other,” he says. “I am blessed every day to be able to work with such a dedicated and talented crew.”

Barrera’s career in food began when he was 14 years old, washing dishes in an Old Country Buffet in Saginaw. Barrera attended several colleges before landing at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia, where he also worked for the Starr Restaurant Group with stints as a line cook and sous-chef at Philadelphia’s Continental Restaurant and Martini Bar. From there, he worked at the Beverly Hills Grill and as executive chef of Birmingham’s Streetside Seafood.

"I’ve literally performed almost every job in this industry other than owning my own place at this point,” he says.

But he’s quick to note that he has no desire to own his own place. That’s because he wants to maintain a sense of balance in his life and be there for his wife and two young boys. “The job that I have now in this industry warrants a ton of time. Owning a restaurant warrants all of your time and I have two children,” he says. “People struggle with that in this industry because they’re just so in love with being in the kitchen. I love it too, but my family deserves time as well. If I don’t have that, I don’t see myself being successful in the kitchen.”

Barrera is excited about the future of metro Detroit’s restaurant scene, and he expects to see a lot of growth and opportunity for young chefs in the next five years in both the city and the suburbs.

“I think you will see at least five times more restaurants with more chefs opening up spaces and more people investing in property,” he says. “The restaurant industry boom is a vital part of what can happen in Detroit. But I don’t think people should forget about what’s happening in the suburbs. Let’s not forget that restaurants around here have been successful and continually successful for the past 20 years. There’s a reason for that. A lot of good chefs cut their chops in the suburbs.”

Find out more at Townhouse Birmingham

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