Friday, October 22, 2010

Seriously Guys, This Whole Phil Cooley/Slows Thing

So the New York Times covered Slows again. Which you know because it was re-posted on Facebook twelve dozen times if once. What was most interesting about all this re-posting was the reactions it drew -- some were thrilled and got all gushy over Phil Cooley (part-owner) and/or the restaurant itself, which many throughout metro Detroit claim is their absolute favorite.

With that also came the voices of dissent, the weary sighs of "Slows AGAIN?" and those adamant in their claims that Slows is NOT in fact the best restaurant in Detroit.

Guess what? It's not.

But that's not the point.

Does Slows have the best food? In my opinion, no. When I do go there it's typically just to drink, and even then that's none too frequent -- I love the beer list (big focus on Michigan craft brews; hi I'm Nicole and I drink a lot of beer), but the consistently large crowds and long waits tend to be a deterrent to me.

So okay, they don't have the best food -- hell, if you asked Phil Cooley HIMSELF if he thought his restaurant was The Best he'd probably say no. But that doesn't matter -- people like it. People like it enough to wait in lines up to three hours long on weekends just to get a seat. People like it enough to drive from the farthest reaches of the suburbs just to wait in that three-hour line. People like it enough to warrant THREE different articles in the New York Times and another in the New York Post, as well as a national nod from Bon Appetit as one of the top 10 new BBQ eateries in the country.

How did Slows become as popular as it is? Beats me. "Phil caught lightning in a bottle with that place," one of his good friends once said to me.

But sometimes a restaurant opens in a place and time and causes a ripple effect that is so much bigger than itself. Sometimes that particular establishment comes to MEAN something in its community; it comes to REPRESENT something greater -- not just a restaurant but a symbol. That place then shapes the community around it, creating a new identity for the community and ushering in a new beginning for that particular place at that particular time.

Slows is that place for Detroit.

The article mentioned that it would be difficult to find a business owner in the city who has not been somehow touched by Phil Cooley. That sounds a bit sweeping and maybe even over-grandiose, but if we're talking specifically about NEW business owners who started out sometime within the last 5 years it's sure as hell true. Go ahead; find me one.

A lot of people complained about the portrayal of Phil as the posterboy for the city. You know what? We sure as hell could do worse than him. He's smart, funny, attractive, successful, and above all else humble--why wouldn't we want this person representing us? If not him, then who? I'd rather choke on a Yardbird than see some of the other smarmy, self-serving, self-congratulatory types who would LOVE nothing more than to be given that opportunity be in that position, those who claw so desperately for their piece of the All Eyes on Detroit pie. Give me one Phil Cooley over a thousand of those types and plaster his face on billboards all over the country that simply say " = Detroit."

The article speaks of his commitment to the community, his charity work, the various efforts he makes to help others succeed. Now I don't make it my business to stalk the guy as some seem to, but being yet another grape on this Detroit vine I do hear things. I couldn't possibly try to recount the various Good Deeds of Phil Cooley, but I can say this: he cares more about this city than anyone else I've ever met, and he means it. His brand of boosterism is utterly sincere, and it's also quiet. One thing you won't see Phil Cooley do is post links on his Facebook page to any and every article written that happens to say "Detroit!", nor will his status updates read "Gee willikers Detroit is super-cool! *wide-eyed blink*" Homeboy doesn't even HAVE a Facebook page (honestly -- does he really need one?). And he's certainly not running around time waving his arms around and jumping in front of every camera and microphone he sees cross his path. If you could accuse him of anything it would be being too much of an idealist. A journalist friend once asked me if Phil were "actually crazy enough to want to do something with the train station." My answer: he just may be.

There are worse things to be.

And despite all of this national attention, Phil remains steadfastly humble. Everyone else around him seems to know he's Phil Cooley except for him. I remember, during the short-lived days of the Mercury Coffee Bar, reading another blogger recounting an experience at the MCB where Phil himself was out on the floor sweeping and mopping. At a recent dinner party for over 100 people, Phil was out there serving food right along with the proles. For as much as people seem to elevate, even idolize, even idolatrize him, Phil is still just Phil.

I've commented privately to a select number of friends whom I can say such things to that if I did not live in the city, I would think there were exactly three restaurants here: Slows, Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes, and Supino Pizzeria. And that's it. These are the places that seem to receive the most attention, but you know what? Every single one of these business owners is an absolute stand-up fucking human and if these are the people who are representing my city then all I have to say is thank GOD.

But above them all stands Phil, and Slows. Slows: the restaurant that has become synonymous with Detroit and vice-versa. Is it the only restaurant here? Is it the BEST restaurant here? No and no. But it's not like this is the first time Detroit has been misrepresented in national media--and hell, even our OWN media is often guilty of lazy piggyback journalism. And this is the ONLY restaurant in the city--really even state--that has consistently attracted the attention of publications across the country over the past few years, and it is always represented in a positive way which means FINALLY after all of our grousing that Detroit ITSELF is being represented in a positive way. And bad thing?

Sometimes a restaurant opens and it comes to mean more to the communtiy than simply being a place to eat. Sometimes it becomes bigger than itself.

Phil Cooley didn't ask to be the posterchild of Detroit, but he is. And he's doing the best that he can with it. Detroit needs a hero, it's very own White Knight. Our politicians and community leaders have failed us. So why not an energetic, youthful idealist who owns a really freakin' popular restaurant? We could do worse, guys.

If this were high school (and my GOD does it ever feel like it sometimes, but I digress), Phil Cooley would be the most popular guy in school. In fact his popularity would ECLIPSE the popularity of all others. He'd be the most popular guy in high school even YEARS after he graduated, after he went off to college and moved away. He'd be so popular he'd be mythic. Everyone in this city wants to be connected to Phil Cooley. Everyone here wants to claim him as their personal friend. Everyone simply wants to be in his orbit, or even just be seen near him.

I call him "Prince Phil" but I do it in jest. He may or may not find it funny but he's too fucking kind to say otherwise, so he usually just smiles politely and volleys the comment off to someone else. But I'd vote this guy for fucking President. Detroit is lucky to have him here, being as passionate and sincere as he is, regardless of whether the ribs at his restaurant are any good or not.

I love to snark on things just as much as the next guy, and yes, I AM that person who reads the latest New York Times feature in a flurry of Facebook re-posts and thinks "Slows AGAIN?" But after thinking long and hard about this over the last day I realized, Detroit could do a lot worse.