Monday, March 5, 2012

[EID Preview] Vinsetta Garage

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

Theme restaurants are, by their very nature, horrendously gimmicky. Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Rainforest Cafe ... conjure if you will the image of waddling Midwesterners herding their hordes of bratletts through these endlessly replicable themed eateries, taking pictures next to chintzy displays then stopping by the gift shop to stock up on T-shirts and shot glasses to commemorate the experience (after dropping a minimum of $25 per person on oversized portions of mediocre fried food). These places are horrid.

Thankfully Vinsetta Garage will not be a theme restaurant.

The historic Vinsetta Garage on Woodward in Berkley was built in 1919 and served as an auto repair shop with hot-rodder appeal for 91 years. It was owned by the Kurta family until 1989; the family even used to live in a tiny apartment within the building (their kids could often be found running around the garage as if it were their personal play area). Jack Marwil, who purchased the garage from the Kurtas, decided to close it in 2010 following the death of his wife when he was no longer able to run the shop himself. Marwil then sold the building to its third owner in nearly 100 years: K.C. Crain.

The name "Crain" should be familiar to you. Perhaps you've heard of Crain Communications? Who put out Crain's Detroit and some 30-odd other publications throughout the country? Well, K.C. is the Vice President and Group Publisher. K.C.'s affiliation with the auto industry runs deep. As publisher of Crain's, K.C. also oversees its sister publication AutoWeek. As a car enthusiast himself, AutoWeek is one of his pet projects. It just launched a highly interactive website in September that already has about 2.5 million readers per month, and the brand also has a strong film and video production component. K.C. is already so entrenched in the auto industry that purchasing a historic old garage with the intention of doing something with it (though it would be several months before he figured out what exactly) just seemed like a natural fit.

K.C. purchased Vinsetta Garage at the urgent prompting of GM, which at the time wanted to overhaul it into an aftermarket parts shop. When the GM deal fell through, he wasn't quite sure what to do next. So he did what any media-savvy publisher would do: he created a TV show.

AutoWeek's Vinsetta Garagewhich airs Tuesday nights at 8:30 p.m. on the Velocity Network, is a show about cars and the love of cars. While the show itself is not filmed inside Vinsetta Garage (though it does make an appearance), the name of this historic old garage lends to the show that sense of automotive enthusiasm that the garage, and the Motor City itself, is known for. Each episode has a different focus on anything and everything to do with car culture - travel, technology, food trucks, and events like the Woodward Dream Cruise and NAIAS.

Meanwhile, in the far northwest corner of Oakland County (aka "the Shire"), Clarkston's Curt Catallo had seen the listing for the 5,400 sq.ft. building and immediately thought to himself that it would be a great space for a restaurant. Three days later, the listing was removed. Curt just hoped that whoever bought it hadn't had the same idea.

Curt is the owner of Clarkston Union Bar + Kitchen and the Free Press's 2011 Restaurant of the Year Union Woodshop, two restaurants that despite their far-flung location from the major population centers of metro Detroit still garner huge attention and acclaim, with wait times of up to two hours on weekends. (Basically it's NoSlo ... Northern Slows.) The Woodshop recently expanded with an upstairs waiting-room-cum-dude-lounge serving craft cocktails and cheap drinks for customers to relax as they wait for a table, but chances are if you've heard either of these restaurants' names come up in the news lately it's because of their recent featured spots on the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives."

In addition to being a restaurateur, Curt also has a long history in the car industry, which is also how he knew K.C. "The automotive circle is a tight one; you can't help but run in the same pack." Curt worked for AutoWeek for five years in the beginning of his advertising and marketing career before joining BBDO and overseeing their Chrysler account, then finally splitting off to form Union Adworks which currently handles a variety of design and applications work for Chrysler and Mopar (Chrysler's parts division).

So K.C. had a building ... and Curt had an idea.

"I had heard the rumor from some friends at Chrysler that K.C. had bought the building," Curt explains. As it happened, Curt had to go down to the Crain's office for a meeting with AutoWeek, where K.C. was talking about using the space as a studio for filming segments of the TV show. Curt told K.C., "the one thing about Detroit right now is that there are plenty of studios. [My wife] Ann and I always thought it would be a great restaurant." That day they drove from the Crain's office on Gratiot in Detroit's Eastern Market and up Woodward to the garage to look at the space. "I've had the keys ever since!"

After restoring an old abandoned church in 1995 into what is now the Clarkston Union and transforming his own upscale Clarkston Cafe into the more accessible, more affordable Woodshop, Curt is certainly no stranger to reinvention. Inside the old garage - which still had its car bays, air hose reels and tire rack - Curt saw a prime location for another comfortable but upscale American eatery, the style of cooking that has been the defining characteristic of his restaurants. "It's kind of a blank canvas for the craftsmen to do their trade," Curt explains. "We're just replacing the tools of the trade. It's still a stage and still about craft, it's just a different service we're providing. It's almost like a continuation of what [the garage] was born to do in a weird way."

Renovation work on Vinsetta Garage is well under way. The space has been gutted and the kitchen build-out has begun. But for Curt and K.C. both it was very important to preserve the history of the garage and allow it to maintain its structural and aesthetic integrity. “We are preserving a place that is important to the community in a different kind of way,” Curt explains.

The restaurant will pay homage to the building's history, both as a reflection of K.C.'s and Curt's automotive passion as well as their passion for historic preservation. This is not a car restaurant. There will be no neon signage out front, and nothing mentioning "restaurant." "This is not a 'theme' restaurant, it's a real restaurant," Curt says. It is a restaurant inside of a garage, but that's about as much of a theme as you'll find here. "We're basically just replacing wrenches with spatulas."

They are keeping as much of the original structure as possible - the exposed brick walls, the weathered concrete floors, the high wooden beams, the glass block windows. "All of it, all you see, is all natural and all original," says Curt. "We would rather preserve than build new." Curt and his wife Ann Stevenson are both very passionate about preservation and have always made that an integral part of their business ethic. "Our design philosophy on this one was kind of one of radical preservation. The space is going to be so honest it will tie directly to the food and craft."

Inside Vinsetta Garage is a smaller room set off to the side (which once served as the Kurta family apartment) which will serve as a secondary dining room. In it there is only one table: a massive old milliner's table that they acquired through Detroit's Senate Resale which is really just one massively long, sturdy flank of wood. Salvaged items like this have a warmth and character that can't be replicated in contemporary new designs, and the table itself reflects the character of the space overall. Honesty, integrity and sustainability are the most important considerations for them in design and execution.

Making yet another automotive reference, Curt says that he wants the restaurant to have "sort of a barn show effect" ... basically describing it as when a person goes to look at a car and sees nothing but the exterior of the weathered old barn it was stored in, only to have the barn doors open and see a beautifully restored car inside - the grand, gasp-worthy reveal of something totally unexpected.

The kitchen itself will be open and the bar will wrap around it, so that those sitting at the bar will be able to watch the kitchen staff at work. Curt describes the kitchen as the "new theatre," and diners want to be able to see what goes on behind the scenes. 

The Woodshop's Executive Chef Aaron Cozadd will be overseeing the kitchen at Vinsetta Garage. While the menu will still reflect the upscale American comfort food the Clarkston restaurants are known for, they will not be merely recreating the same concept a second time here in Berkley. There will be a wood-fired pizza oven and some smoked meats, but it won't be a replica of the Woodshop. "We don't want  to repeat ourselves and just make it the same thing all over again," Curt says. "We want to let the space dictate the food." He adds, "Besides, we don't want Aaron to get bored!" Another signature of theirs that will be carried over is their commitment to craft beer; they will have at least 22 beers on tap with an emphasis on Michigan craft brews. (K.C. jokes with Curt, "And only three of those are allowed to be Badass," referencing Curt's partnership with metro Detroit's own American Badass Kid Rock and his Badass beer.)

Vinsetta Garage will be open by May 1. This is an exclusive sneak peak of the construction process.

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.