|Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.|
The Howell Theatre is a historic structure, built in 1927, and an iconic landmark in downtown Howell. The Root owner Ed Mamou has purchased the entire building, including the apartments above, and will be renovating the whole structure (including those apartments, for super-fans of the Root who might want to have the restaurant as their de facto lobby). "We're going to dump a ton of money into downtown Howell," says Executive Chef James Rigato, who grew up in Howell right across the street from the theatre. "You could see the marquee from my bedroom window!"
Howell is another one of those adorable Michigan downtowns that is the very picture of picturesque. Much like the Root's original location in White Lake, a location that certainly fell under some scrutiny when they first opened, the Howell restaurant will likely raise some eyebrows. Why not Detroit, Ann Arbor, Royal Oak, Birmingham -- the social and cultural centers of southeastern Michigan where all the other restaurants are?
Because that's where all the other restaurants are.
The Root's success in the far-flung northern suburb of White Lake has demonstrated that destination dining WILL bring people out of their normal comfort zones and even act as a catalyst for further development in an area that could really benefit from that extra bit of attention.
"Downtown Howell reminds me of Clarkston or Milford before [restaurants like the Clarkston Union or Five Lakes Grill] opened," says James, referring to their small town Main Street charm and all-local clientele. "This is a restaurant that will make a splash and hopefully bring more businesses to the area."
He sees a lot of similarities between Howell and White Lake, and a lot of opportunity to repeat the same success they've had with the White Lake location. "There's people with money ... it's not this tiny shithole town." (Which isn't to say that only people with money are welcome; rather that the outsider perception of these being "redneck" rural cities is simply, egregiously, wrong.)
Also, being a Michigan chef using Michigan products is James's biggest passion and the thing he is most proud of and most excited about as a chef. Being in cities like White Lake and Howell, which are surrounded by farmland, enables him to be close to the source of much of his product. "We basically open restaurants where food comes from."
James has some big plans for the new restaurant. He wants this to be a multi-faceted dining experience -- catering, banquets, a "really cool bar" that offers more of the nightlight experience. While plans are still very much in the early stages, he's even considering keeping the projector and throwing kung fu dance parties. And he definitely plans on keeping the "badass" marquee.
In keeping with that movie theme, James says, "This is basically Terminator 2. We've got the big cameras and the big budget now." The Root Howell will be a bigger, better, flashier version of the original.
The theatre will continue operation for the next two or three months, and then renovation work will begin. James expects the project will take nine months to a year, though that is of course an estimate -- they'll know more once they actually dig into the structure itself and see how much work really needs to be done.
Earlier this month James was a finalist for Food and Wine's "Best New Chef: Great Lakes" for 2013. (Though he did not win, he was the only chef from Michigan even nominated.) Since opening in May 2011, the Root has been named Restaurant of the Year by the Detroit Free Press, and most recently filmed a full-length episode for a new show premiering this year on the Cooking Channel.