Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The London Chop House Returns; So What Should We Expect?

The London Chop House is one of the most storied establishments of Old Detroit, perhaps second only to the J.L. Hudson's building in its infamy. People still tell stories about it to this day -- nearly anyone with any interest in Detroit history and/or dining culture can tell you that this was the place Chef Jimmy Schmidt cut his teeth before opening the Rattlesnake Club, or that this place was so popular that the Caucus Club was opened merely to contain its spillover (with another interesting sidestory that the Caucus Club was where Barbara Streisand got her start -- true, if only down to the actual letter of the phrasing). It was one of the top-ranked restaurants in the country from the 1950s into the '80s, collecting top honors from a variety of publications as well as a James Beard Award along the way. It was a revelation in painstakingly detailed tuxedoed service at a time when this kind of service was still very much in vogue, far exceeding other establishments in its committment to its customer experience.

When a guest made a reservation, he would arrive to find his table with books of
matches and a reserved sign all imprinted with his name, as well as a card with
a coin in a slot reimbursing him for his phone call. Alpha types jostled for
table #1, while regulars glowed with the knowledge that their suavely jacketed
waiter had remembered how many ice cubes they liked in their
(Famous in its Day)

The Chop House was a hallmark of Detroit's former grandeur, the very embodiment of wealth, power, and prestige that local industry afforded high-powered businessmen. To look at some of the old menus now reveals a steakhouse that is mostly unremarkable save for comparisons to anything other than a steakhouse, but this was the kind of place where the food played second string behind the concertmasters that were image, image, image. The London Chop House meant money, and diners may just as well have eaten their hundreds pan-seared with garlic and white wine for the privilege of being seen in a place imbued with such illustriousness.

But that Detroit is gone.

I'll spare you the hand-wringing over That Which Once Was; that time has passed and most of us who "reminisce" about it today weren't even alive to see it. The London Chop House is the preferred go-to reference point of how great Detroit once was, much as Slows is the contemporary go-to reference point of how great it can be once again. (Conversely it is also an fitting analogy of how far Detroit hath fallen; read this piece on its imminent closing, printed three years before it actually shut its doors, in the New York Times.) Anyone who has spent any length of time writing about food and/or history in this town has spilled their fair share of Internet ink waxing nostalgic on the Chop House (self included). So the news that leaked last week -- news that may have been a bit overlooked in the course of all the holiday hubbub -- that the London Chop House would be reopening after nearly 20 years was met with surprising quiet.

Or maybe it isn't so surprising. At a time when every new high-profile venture in Detroit is met with much fanfare and the usual suspects doing backflips months in advance of its opening on the Craig Fahle Show, the re-opening of the London Chop House has been shrouded in secrecy. The few who do know any significant details about it -- whether garnered by legitimate means or through the grapevine of legitimate hearsay -- aren't at liberty to talk about it.

Here's what CAN be said: the restaurant that is opening is under the ownership of the Gatzaros family, local restaurateurs responsible for the Fishbone's chain as well as the fairly-new Wah-Hoo (an upscale Chinese restaurant in the Central Business District). It is being called the London Chop House & Cigar Bar. It will be located at 155 Congress St. in the lower level of the Murphy Building, the same location as before.

Aside from its name and location, any other similarities between the old Chop House and this doppleganger have yet to be revealed. The owners are extremely tight-lipped about it (like, legal action tight-lipped ... like, this might be my third law suit threat tight-lipped), and while it is supposedly scheduled to open in about a month there is almost no information available about it.

The secrecy may serve it well: sometimes the best way to build interest in something is to say absolutely nothing about it. But this lack of buzz early on may also not bode well for the new business: it is possible to be so secretive that no one knows about it, and thus no one cares. Perhaps they want to test the waters and get their feet wet before striking up the band and setting off the fireworks -- a prudent move for such a high-profile venture. Or should I say re-venture. The Gatzaros family have a solid enough track record with their successful chain of Creole-styled seafood restaurants (whether you think Fishbone's is a particularly good chain of restaurants I'll leave up to you), though this would be their first foray into true fine dining. If, indeed, that is the track they're pursuing, which is merely assumed by the namesake.

The question I'm left asking is: why? In my cautious and hesitant nature (some would say sarcastic ... some would say worse), I can't help but wonder if this reincarnation is less about living up to the former incarnation's glory and more about simply capitalizing on it. But let's just say the efforts are sincere: can it live up to the reputation of THE London Chop House? ***THE*** London Chop House. It would be like Rome trying to call itself the Holy Roman Empire again. Only, you know, on a much smaller scale.

The truth is, it can't be what the London Chop House once was. That ship sailed with the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. That level of impossibly proper service is not just a thing of the past here; it's a thing of the past everywhere. Where fine dining establishments once tried to out-grandiose each other, now they struggle to downplay their own fine dining nature to appeal to a wider clientele. "Sure, plates may be $30 on average and that's without any sides, apps, or dessert, but we're TOTALLY a place for the Every Man, just look how bright our walls are!" They call themselves "bistros" and design their spaces to look like renovated lofts with exposed brick and pipes. Very specific cultural shifts have occurred since the time that kind of dining with the burgundy leather wingback chairs in the cigar lounge and middle-aged male waiters with white gloves and 1965 Rothschild wine on a business lunch was popular; such visible flauntings of excess are no longer desired or admired (you can spend the same amount of money on your total bill, so long as you're wearing jeans and your server is more chummy than formal). The Chop House was very much a symbol of its time and place ... neither of which exist anymore.

Reopening the London Chop House is akin to trying to resuscitate the former glory of Detroit. But Detroit has changed. The world has changed. Spew all the pro-Detroit rhetoric you want--Slows is not the London Chop House nor is it meant to be. There are a lot of great things about Detroit, not the least of which being self-made opportunities for people who, say, got an English degree and then floundered for a few years and then decided "Oh, hey, I want to write about food now" and actually get away with it. I'm not complaining over here.

But to have the bravado to re-open an INSTITUTION (in the true sense of the word) such as the Chop House--that's going to be a very difficult scale to balance. On one hand you'll have the inevitable detractors who will eagerly proclaim that it isn't "the same;" on the other hand you're faced with the quintessential impossibility of making it so. There is also the added burden that anything reopening under the same name with the same expectation of standards will only tarnish the memory of the original place by not living up to them, forever tainting that image, image, image. Perhaps the secrecy is due to the fact that they haven't quite figured out the balance themselves yet. Or maybe it will just be so mind-blowingly awesome that we just have to wait and see.

And so I guess we wait and see.