Monday, March 24, 2008

Goodbye, New Hella's

Originally published in D-Tales here.

Yesterday was the final day of operation for Greektown mainstay New Hella's (at least, as we know it).

After 107 years in business, the restaurant around which Greektown was built (not to mention the restaurant that inspired the opening of their own competitors), has finally closed its doors. Why? Well, there is much speculation on that, but after sifting through the rumors for useful information, it sounds like it simply comes down to one thing: owner Gus Anton is old.

He's 80. He's been doing this since birth. He's tired. He's old.

But being old doesn't mean he's dumb. This from the rumor mill: Hella's was actually sold off for quite a chunk of change, and was already operating under the new ownership as of this weekend.

Apparently the location will remain a restaurant, though whether or not it remains a Greek restaurant is still unknown.

Either way, it is still sad to see the old owners, and original family, step down. New Hella's is a bit of Detroit history, and helped shape the popular Greektown area of downtown proper, providing a central zone of business and pleasure for Greek immigrants, and introducing Detroiters to authentic Greek cuisine. Still, sometimes progress requires change (a little bit of "out with the old"), so let's hope the new owners can make this spot as legendary as the old ones did.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Remembering Twingo's

The other night I was out at Tuesday Nights Doggystyle at the Park Bar and got into a discussion about Detroit's favorite former Euro Cafe, Twingo's.

Ah, what a great spot that was. The vibe was just so terribly, terribly eclectic, and the food was fantastic. It appealed to both the artsy Midtowners and suburban food snobs alike. With Depeche Mode on the speakers, local art adorning the walls, and a menu to rival any big-city bistro, Twingo's just had a vibe that was unique unto itself and Detroit. Oh, and the Steak Au Poivre with gorgonzola butter? Tres magnifique.

I thought the prices were very reasonable for the caliber and quality of the restaurant, though that was the subject of some debate. Comparable to places like Union Street in pricing, only far superior in quality and presentation, and with a French-heavy wine list with few selections topping $30.00, the Twingo's experience was a real value, and a great way to endcap an evening at the Theatre.

And people loved it. Twingo's was all the rage when it was open before...then it closed. And it was sad. Then it reopened! New management, a remodel, and still a great what happened to close it down once again, and apparently once and for all?

John Lopez is what happened. He's the guy who was hired on to manage Atlas Global Bistro a few years back and almost got them closed down. (Two years later and they're still paying up back taxes that went unpaid during his tenure there.) Then Twingo's reopened, and hired him on--purportedly he's a great ideas guy, but not so great with the whole "business" aspect. Not too long later and Twingo's closed its doors, and why? Back-owed taxes. Either Lopez isn't aware that these are things that need to get paid and he, as the general manager, needs to make sure they get paid, or he just doesn't like to pay them. (Incidentally, this is the same reason the Buzz Bar closed--and has still not reopened.) Regardless, John Lopez seems to have the Midas Touch of Death for any restaurant that takes him in. I feel bad for the next sucker who hires him based on his "impressive" resume without doing a thorough background check--it's not just his bad luck that keeps getting restaurants closed around him. I mean really, at one point does it stop being everyone else and start being you, John?

[SIDEBAR: Agave was another one of Lopez's great ideas--and I'm not being facetious, it really was great, and apparently their closure had little to do with his management...some pissing contest with the landlord, or something. It would be great to see that place reopen. Lopez really is a great ideas guy...just not so good at making like a manager.]

The loss of Twingo's saddened me deeply. This really was one of Detroit's dining gems. I suppose we can only hope for a third-time's-the-charm scenario, but from what I understand it isn't very likely. I guess I'll have to find somewhere else that makes a panna cotta with Faygo sauce. *Sigh*

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Plaka Cafe: Still Open, Still Disgusting

Originally published in D-Tales here.

$1.5 million dollars in tax evasion later, and the Plaka Cafe is still open. Now, who knows how long this will last--the owners could go the route of La Shish and flee the country with a few mil. (Actually, they can't--they've already been arraigned and are currently out on bail--and I GAR-RON-TEE you they can't leave the country, much less the state.) When the feds raided the place in December of 2006, they found more than $700,000 in cash stashed away inside the restaurant. Further investigation yielded a decade's worth of unfiled taxes. If owners Thomas Karadimas and Constantinos Karadimas are found guilty of all pending charges, this will turn out to be the largest case of tax evasion in Michigan's history (take THAT, La Shish!).

Late-night drunken diners, fear not: Plaka Cafe remains open at this time, though one can always speculate if it will remain so if both owners end up in the clink. After an evening of heavy boozing, one can still hit up this 24-hour coney island for some of the best worst food in Detroit.

No, really, the food here is actually quite nasty, but since it is really one of the only late-night options in the city, they maintain a very steady client base of hungry drunks.

(WHY you wouldn't just hit up White Castle is beyond me. There's one on Michigan Ave., not too far west of downtown proper. If you're in Midtown, there's McDonald's. And don't give me that "I don't want to drive anywhere" crap--how the hell else are you getting home to the 'burbs?)

From the rumor mill: apparently Plaka, much like many of the other spots in Greektown, has rumored Greek mob ties...I know, I know, I've been flinging around a lot of mob accusations lately, but apparently if there's one thing that our culturally diverse metropolitan area is good at, it's crime syndicates and terrorist affiliations. I can't make this shit up, people. No wonder our local FBI branch needs a new building...

Also from the rumor mill: apparently there was a Blind Pig upstairs? As in, drinking in a public place illegally after hours and witnessing all sorts of illegal dealings in the form of gambling, drugs, and perhaps even prositution? I wanna see; I wanna see!!!!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Zaccaro's Still Set to Open

Originally published in D-Tales here.

After some general hullabaloo over liquor licensing for retail sales and some very technical blah blah blah legalese, Zaccaro's Market is still set to open this month. March 31st is the date (yes, that's also the Tigers Home Opener, so plan accordingly), and as far as owner Cindy Warner has been instructed, this date is solid. The licensing needed to sell beer and wine on the premises should be in place, and all will be well in the world of gourmet grocery shopping in the D.

As noted before, there will be an impressive selection of imported meats and cheeses, a full-scale bakery, a center kitchen area at which cooking classes will be offered, pre-made meals prepared by executive chefs, and more to tickle your culinary delights.

After some fear that the opening would be held up indefinitely, it appears that everything is finally in place...I'll see you at the cheese counter!

Monday, March 3, 2008

La Shish No More

Originally published in D-Tales here; edited for content.

Popular Middle Eastern restaurant chain La Shish closed its doors yesterday. 11 metro Detroit locations, the Dearborn headquarters, and 305 employees were affected by this decision. After nearly 3 years of bad publicity and whispered ties to Hezbollah (defined by the American government as a Lebanese terrorist group), the chain finally went under due to nearly $12 million dollars in owed taxes.

When the feds raided the home and headquarters of owner Talal Chahine in April 2005 seeking evidence of tax fraud, Chahine fled the country with $20 million skimmed from the business to dodge his indictment, sticking his wife, Elfat Al Aouar, to face both the tax evasion charges as well as her own charge of immigration fraud (turns out that the marriage wasn't one based on love and committment--and I guess when you marry someone to help them get a green card, it's morally acceptable to bail on them when you're slapped with some serious federal offenses).

Since then, the restaurant chain has been at the center of some serious rumor-mongering, with the purported Hezbollah ties causing the most gasps. Just last week, El Auoar was sentenced to 90 days in jail for immigration fraud, to be served consecutively with an 18-month sentence for tax evasion. Her citizenship was, naturally, revoked. Ah, the things we'll do for love. Or, the things we'll do for a green card when your husband flees the country and leaves you standing there with a dumbfounded expression on your face as the feds raid your home.


Getting back on topic (I'm a big fan of the digressive rant), it's a shame La Shish had to close. This restaurant chain popularized Middle Eastern cuisine for the non-Middle Easterners of metro Detroit, and was quickly becoming a staple in the diet of many metro Detroiters (in the Free Press article, a woman is interviewed bemoaning her loss, saying "Now what am I going to eat?", and I know many others who will say the same). It was just one more thing that made our metro area more of a cultural melting it's just one more thing to give Detroit a bad rep.

I will miss the Fatoush, though.