It was a rough end to the week for the people behind Empire Kitchen & Cocktails, the self-styled “American-syle bistro and bar” in Brush Park that received a relatively rare scathing review on July 12 by the Detroit Free Press. Owner Michael Abrams tells Eater he was caught off guard by Kurlyandchik’s take on the restaurant. “I guess I was pretty taken aback. It was a pretty brutal article, pretty brutal review,” he says.
Critic Mark Kurlyandchik took aim at Empire’s style, characterizing it as “paint-by-numbers restaurant concept” that was a “hollow echo” of similar trendy restaurants that have penetrated every corner of the downtown core in the past few years. Not only that, but the critic also largely despised the food.
Abrams is a lifelong restaurateur who owns 31 Five Guys restaurants, and previously operated ran sports bar chain Snooker’s Pool & Pub as well as Southfield-based restaurants McVee’s and Mr. Joe’s. He opened Empire with partners Brian Adelman, David Pittaway, and chef Aaron Lowen, in May. He says in his 20 years of running restaurants, he’s had never received a formal review by the Free Press.
“I’ve opened 44 restaurants of which 39 are still up and running, and I’m very proud of this restaurant and we worked really hard and getting this restaurant to where it is,” he says. “The fact that it’s cookie cutter — well , you know what, that’s my fault, because that’s all really I was capable of doing.”
Abrams had told Eater in May around the opening that Empire “might be unique in the fact that we’re not trying to be unique” and Kurlyandchik later referenced the quote in his review. Abrams says using the quote made the review “a little bit more personal than it needed to be,” but again emphasized that he had no designs to make an original restaurant. “Well, it’s true. I had no intention of trying to recreate the wheel,” he says. “I thought there was a need for a neighborhood place in the Brush Park area that was, you know, I hate to use the term ‘approachable’ again, but you know, I’m going to use the word ‘approachable’ for lack of better terms.” He adds: “[Kurlyandchik] would probably call it, you know, ‘cookie cutter’ or ‘weak,’ but that’s where our menu is. But I think our food is very good.”
In the review, the critic writes that the gentrification of the Brush Park area feels more intense when sipping $13 cocktails on the patio at Empire “a stone’s throw from a homeless shelter.” Abrams say he was focused on opening a place for people living in luxury apartment building the Scott. “It’s a concept that was unique to us. I thought we would be very useful in an apartment building with 200 units that people who come to a couple of times a week. That’s why we have burgers. That’s why we have pizzas. That’s why we have a very small menu, but a wide range of different things.”
Abrams felt that it was unfair of Kurlyandchik to call out his restaurant for gentrification, when the critic had previously praised nearby high-end New American steakhouse and small plates spot Grey Ghost. “When you mentioned the homeless shelter or the soup kitchen across the way, well Grey Ghost is in the same location as we are that he (Kurlyandchik) boasts about. And I think Grey Ghost is a great restaurant, but like I said, I’m not a chef, [it] wasn’t in my abilities to do those kinds of things,” he says. Abrams disagrees that his restaurant is part of a larger trend in Detroit dining. “Comments about just coming down to make money — that wasn’t our goal. My goal was to be part of something. I was born and raised in the city,” Abrams says. “I wanted to be part of something that was going on that I felt I would be missing out on if I didn’t do it.”
Abrams also says that the corner space along Woodward Avenue located in a newly completed building, in a neighborhood buzzing with new development was what drew him to pick Empire’s address. “All the building around us. It’s a great spot,” he says. “Do I have to be a location like Mabel Gray or Selden Standard? No I don’t.”
For his part, Kurlyandchik has stood by the review. “I think that Detroit is ready for some, perhaps, brutal honesty. That the scene is ready and that frankly there’s a lot of big money in this,” the critic told WDET on July 13. “I don’t want every review to be a negative review. I don’t want to be a shock-and-awe critic. I think it’s more helpful usually to point people to the good places in town [...] I think it’s also important when necessary or when I feel it’s necessary to comment and to keep people on their toes.”
Despite the criticism, Abrams says he and his partners aren’t planning to make any changes to the format or menu. “I think our pizzas are great. I think our burgers are great. I’ve been selling burgers my whole life now. Mr. Joe’s, Five Guys, I owned all the Snooker’s prior — all we sold was burgers. I’ve never sold a bad burger. I certainly think our burger here is great. I couldn’t disagree more in terms of quality of food,” he says. He adds that Empire has relatively good reviews on crowdsourced platforms including 4.7 stars on Google Reviews and 4 stars on Yelp. “No, I’m still committed to the direction we’re taking. We were wanting to be a place that people want to [be] comfortable going to.”
Abrams does admit though that he may encourage some innovation on the menu going forward. “Maybe we’re going try to be a little more creative, but that is not going to become our direction.”
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