It was just shy of two years ago when Eater first spoke with chefs John Vermiglio and Joe Giacomino about their plans to open a restaurant in Detroit. Both were alums of Chicago restaurants who had risen through the ranks to hold top positions within Matthias Merges’ restaurant group but eventually turned their eyes to a more personal joint project in the Motor City. For Vermiglio it marked a return to his Michigan roots, while Giacomino made the move after spending less than two days on the ground in Detroit. The pair were joined by two metro Detroit-based partners — John’s twin brother David Vermiglio and bartending wizard Will Lee.
Their restaurant, Grey Ghost, debuted in Brush Park in July 2016 to positive response and has since developed a following as a spot not just for a splashy night out for metro Detroiters but as a neighborhood watering hole. A year later, the group is consulting on Axle Brewing Co.’s Livernois Tap, while still reveling at the perfect timing of their entrance into the Detroit dining landscape. Below, John, Joe, and Will chat about their first year at Grey Ghost including the surprising menu hits, those uncomfortable metal stools customers hate, and why so many Chicago chefs are coming to Detroit.
How has the restaurant evolved in the past year?
John Vermiglio: We've certainly gotten to know our diner. For us here we want to appeal to the broadest spectrum of people that we could so something for the person who's just coming in for a quick snack and a beer and a person just coming in for their anniversary dinner who'll spend $400 and walk out of here, roll out of here really, often into an Uber. So we planned for that but obviously this was all of us coming together for the first time. We're all assimilating to a new city more or less. I mean Will's been around here for a while but for us to figure out what people wanted took a while. And we've had some dishes that we put out there that was like crickets, when you're like, “and this is our special for this evening.”
Joe Giacomino: “What you don't like sweetbreads?” We struggled. We tried three different times. We've been learning what things are popular and what things move and we like to tweak with like wording on things and which words are more appealing than others. Like squid versus calamari. Nobody's buying squid but everyone buys calamari. And it's different everywhere you go and so we've had a little bit of a feeling out with that.
JV: So you've seen that evolution. We've grown up, if you will, we graduated from our college days of Ikea plates...
JG: And the cheapest chairs we could find. We opened this thing on a shoestring budget and so we literally, every single plate in the restaurant that we opened with was from Ikea. It was like $800. We knew all these things were temporary but at some point in time we just had to get the doors open. We listened to our guests. We liked our bar stools and everybody hated them so we bought new bar stools that were much more comfortable.
Those metal ones that everyone complains about?
JG: Yeah, we thought they were alright but people hated them and so they were gone.
JV: Someone said it was a Medieval torture device.
What would you say are some of your biggest accomplishments from the year?
JV: I think the biggest accomplishment is that there are still people coming in and eating our food and drinking our drinks and receiving the service. We've got regulars that are here frequently — like multiple times a week frequently — and that's what we set out to achieve and so far and away that's our greatest accomplishment is that we've been able to have a destination-style restaurant that also appeals to a neighborhood.
I know Grey Ghost was really slammed with customers for a while there. Did things ever even out at all for you? Has it become more consistent?
JV: It's consistent now but it's because it's laid its own consistency. It's not because we saw this huge dip. We just kind of maintained. We've gotten more efficient for certain.
JG: I just got finished saying to my Chef de Cuisine last night, “Remember when we were like making bologna for that night like every day?'“And I looked at the stack of bologna that was like the proper amount and was like, “This is much better.” We're incredibly humbled by how many people still come into this place at year end because if you've been in this industry long enough, you're just waiting for the day when that stops and so far it's like incredibly humbling that that still happens.
WL: The repeat customers, that says more than any other award, trophy, or anything because someone coming back and ordering the same dish, same drink over again — you don't need to say anything else.
What have been the dishes that have really resonated with customers?
JV: Fried bologna. That will be with us for ever.
JG: Our octopus corndog is kind of a new one but people are flocking for it. That was one that we put on and were like, “Hmm. We'll see how this goes.”
JV: It was a gamble.
JG: And we have a lot of people that where people are like, “I saw this on Instagram. I have to have it.”
JV: Our cheeseburger for sure.
JG: So basically the simplest stuff.
JV: [Laughs] The fried bologna, cheeseburger — so that's all we can really do well apparently. No but those are probably our top three.
As far as the bar goes, anything that's standing out as a fan favorite?
WL: Grandma's Garden. Vodka will always pay the bills. Just like the fried bologna, they go hand in hand.
JG: Oh yeah, fried bologna and Grandma's Garden, that's about 60 percent of our guests.
JV: Which is cool. It gives us some freedom on other parts of the menu to play around and have some fun.
WL: Fried bologna forever.
JV: We'll be making bologna on a waffle forever. That's what you shoot for though right? I paid all that money for my education and all this experience and we're going down — think about it though: there are some chefs with some legendary dishes out there that our tremendous and then we're going down in history for bologna.
JG: I think about like, “Aww man, I went to Heston Blumenthal’s for Meat Fruit and it's like foie gras but it looks like an apricot.” It blows your mind and I'm like, “We fry bologna and put it on a waffle.”
JV: Oysters and Pearls from Thomas Keller. Bologna on a waffle. I mean are we saying that they're at that level of those chefs? No. But forever as a chef people are asking 'What's your signature dish? What's your signature dish?' And I'm just like never answering because I don't know. I make new things all the time so I don't really have a signature dish.
JG: People really decide for us.
JV: Detroit has spoken and fried bologna it is.
JG: We embrace it.
There have been a lot of chefs moving here from Chicago. Speaking as chefs moving back to Detroit or who have moved to Detroit from Chicago, what are some of the things that are driving that trend?
JV: I think what's driving it — which is not just unique to Detroit but also to smaller towns — is chefs are done paying a fortune for their apartment and working at this restaurant that only the best of the best can eat at and after a while that takes a toll. You see all kinds of depression issues and mental issues and all this stuff that's becoming a huge, huge thing. I mean not that working in a big city is to blame for that. I survived 11 years, but I think that the allure of a smaller city is attractive and then when you look at smaller cities, which Detroit isn't land wise but population wise, I don't think it gets any better than Detroit. This is incredible what's happening here and honestly 50 percent of the population of Chicago is from Michigan.
JG: There are so many chefs that I know that are maybe not from Detroit but are from Michigan and it's insane and it makes a ton of sense. Another thing is, for us we looked at it like we loved being in Chicago and working there but to open a restaurant there the saturation level of restuarants is so high that to make it you're amongst so many other things. Whereas, I did a 36-hour visit before I moved here and that was it. I was here and there was this energy and I think at the time we went to Selden Standard and there was like this three-hour wait at this part of day [afternoon] and I said, “Is there anywhere else I can walk?” And he said, “No not really.” And I said, “We should open a restaurant here. Like, there's people standing here waiting but there's nowhere else to go.”
JV: There's a bar right across the street...
JG: Yeah but it just seemed like there were people who want good restaurants and didn't have enough. So it's a classic supply and demand situation. And you look at Chicago and there's so many people but also so many restaurants, so when it came down to doing it on our own it just felt right to make that move and we're super pumped to be here.
What did you discover from moving back here in terms of differences in the industry?
JV: I think the biggest difference is you are getting a different diner with a different palate, which is awesome. Like I said, we want to be open to a broad spectrum of tastes so we do have everything across the board. You know you're not coming in here for a six-course tasting menu. That's not happening.
JG: We will do one though.
JV: That's an incredible treat for us for sure but that's certainly a difference between here and a city like Chicago. And in the most positive way, the best scenario — the industry here is so damn hospitable. It's unbelievable. It's so incredible how tight knit it is and how much everyone knows each other, embraces each other.
JG: We were blown away.
JV: It's just different. Just part of that Michigan charm, man. Detroiters are incredible people. They're super proud and super friendly. I mean we're still borrowing ice from people. We've borrowed ice from half the restaurants in the city.
How are you borrowing ice from people?
JG: The machines just can't keep up. We load up the back of the pickup truck with coolers and just go empty someone's bin, like 'Thanks!' I feel like a couple people have cut us off at this point like 'You've borrowed enough.'
JV: So the struggle is still real here at the Grey Ghost. We haven't figured it all out. It's the warmest welcome you could ask for.
How did you navigate having a less-than-a-year-old restaurant and also helping to open a separate restaurant, Axle Brewing Co. Livernois Tap?
JG: Well, it starts with being foolish. [Laughs]
JV: A phenomenal team here is what made that a reality. We got a chance to bring some folks with us and having those guys in place made it real.
JG: Just knowing that they have our back at all times and if I can't be here for a couple hours a day or John can't be here for a couple hours out of the day, we don't even have to think twice about whether they've got it under control. It's incredible luxury to have.
What are your goals for Grey Ghost going into year two?
WL: Restaurant of the Year.
JV: Second place is out dude, done! Done with second place. No, I just want to keep doing what we're doing. I want to keep being a restaurant that people feel welcomed in. That they're excited to be at for the most part. Couple of haters out there on Yelp. Always will be. But to be able to continue to do that, continue to push ourselves to keep trying new things, selling new things, doing new things, and bringing our staff up to that level is our number one quest for sure.
We might try working on something else. We don't want to get bored. But I think that's the goal. We've got this stadium opening up and that is going to bring a lot of people on our doorstep here so we want to make sure that we are prepared.
What are some of the things you're doing to prepare for that?
JV: We're working diligently on our relationship with the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Pistons.
WL: Pretty much we're “yes” people. We like to please.
JV: Hopefully our reputation will help carry people in here and if that does not work we have an A-frame chalkboard that has LED lights around it. So we'll have that on the sidewalk and if they see a chalkboard with lights around it and don't come in... That's the ultimate sign for a restaurant. You don't need a sign. You just need an A-frame chalkboard that says “Oysters.”
Do you have an overall goal for your restaurant group?
JV: I mean we want to see it grow, for sure. We have endless ideas of what we would like to do and what would be fulfilling I think but I think the biggest thing for us is growing intelligently. Until we feel like we've mastered this one and guiding them along as a consultant over at Axle, then we'll move to the next one.