Detroit, the next Brooklyn? An oasis for the independent farm-to-table restaurateur? The craft beer mecca? Forget about it, it's all about the Buddy's. Before Detroit experienced its latest, aughts-era, hipster-driven renaissance there was Buddy's. Before Dan Gilbert kicked you out of your $500-a-month, 3,000-square-foot downtown loft to make way for his Quicken Loan drones, there was Buddy's. And before tattooing your wrist with a pepperoni-adorned triangular slice of pie became the new, new thing, it was Buddy's all the way, baby.
"There are not too many restaurants here that can say they've been around for going on 70 years," Buddy's Pizza vice president of operations, Wesley Pikula, tells Eater Detroit.
Pikula should know. He's been in the Buddy's business for nearly 40 years, back when Six Mile and Conant had kids running up the street playing stick ball. Back when you had three or four other Detroit square pizza competitors in the same neighborhood. Back when living on the city's east side meant you were enjoying your little piece of the American Dream.
Fast forward to now this pocket of Detroit known to some as NoHam has changed drastically. The makeup of the neighborhood is altered, the result of decades of abandonment and an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants who know little of Buddy's storied history.
But it's that history that put Detroit on the pizza map. Buddy's was founded in 1936, first as a blind pig—a speakeasy—and then 10 years later as the birthplace of the Detroit-style pizza.
Some might say the square pie was formed in a moment of culinary genius, but the story behind the myth is really much more utilitarian in nature. Prepared in blue steel rectangular-shaped pans previously used to store nuts and bolts in a nearby factory, these served as the first and only vessels for Buddy's pizzas. The blue steel never rusts and, much like a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, they're never washed, only wiped-off, leaving behind the charred and cheesy remnants of past pizzas that make Buddy's crust extra special.
"There's really nothing magical about it. The beauty is really in the simplicity," Pikula said. Although Buddy's is often credited with creating the Detroit-style pizza, Pikula says it's really just a rendition of your traditional Sicilian-style pie made with dough prepared fresh every day, dotted with pepperoni, topped with cheese, and then tomato sauce—the opposite of how any other pizzeria compiles it.
Buddy's continues to collect accolades from the likes of GQ, The Food Network, Thrillist, and all of the local Detroit papers, and its original recipe has inspired a number of spin-offs including Little Caesar's, Jets, Happy's Pizza, and even Via 313 in Austin, founded by, who else, a group of Detroiters.
So what's with all the hype over Detroit pizza as of late? It's not like Buddy's was just discovered. In fact, the national media got its first real taste of Buddy's back in 1980 during the Republican National Convention held at the Joe Louis Arena. Back then your only options at the convention were Buddy's and Stroh's beer. Delivery drivers spent that entire night shuffling the pizzas from the ovens on Conant to downtown. The only form of social media at the time was perhaps a guestbook filled with comments from all of the press club members who couldn't get enough Buddy's.
Pikula likes to think that the fascination with this Detroit classic comes from the renewed interest in Detroit as a great American city.
"The local folklore is now starting to get national recognition," Pikula says. Could it be that part of Detroit's resurgence can be found in its storied pizza legacy? The guys at Buddy's seem to think so.