Even the biggest restaurant openings in Detroit still manage to run into hiccups from time to time that delay the opening. Such was the case with Highlands last week — a trifecta of restaurants and bars from the McClain Camarota Hospitality group perched at the top of the GM Renaissance Center. With plans initially to open last Thursday to the public, the restaurant group hit the breaks ever so slightly to allow for some test runs and the final touches to be put on the space. All of that hard work will be on display with the opening tonight on the 71st floor.
“I think if this was on the first floor, we probably would have been open a year ago,” says Shawn McClain of the project he has been developing with partners Holly McClain, Sarah Camarota, and Richard Camarota for three years. The restaurant group is no stranger to big projects, having opened three major restaurants in Las Vegas. Setting aside the recent challenges with liquor deliveries in Michigan, as individuals working in Detroit without the well-oiled machine of casino developers, it was even more challenging to push Highlands to the finish line.
For McClain, opening in Detroit made sense. A resident of Grosse Ile, he’s familiar with the landmark restaurants that have cycled through the 71st and 72nd floor of the RenCen including its most recent occupant Coach Insignia. With Highlands, the partners aimed to create a more welcoming, everyday space, minus the white tablecloths that still took advantage of the stunning 360 views of the Detroit River and downtown skylines. The partners started off by breaking up the space. Coach Insignia fused both floors into one big room, but Highlands has separated them into two floors. The team worked with Rockwell Group on the interior design.
To get to the Highlands customers head to the third level of the RenCen near one of the entrances to the Marriott and take an glass elevator to the 71 floor. From there, step out into High Bar, an inviting rectangular lounge decorated with brass and green with velvety chairs and sofas for sipping scotch with a view.
The bar area seats around 40 customers with 15 seats at the bar and is flanked by 21 scotch lockers reserved for clients with a Detroit Whiskey Club membership. High Bar, whose menu is being developed by Tony Abou-Ganim, will focus on whiskeys from around the world. There will also be a range of cocktails such as the Brass Rail with rum, Benedictine, lemon, and orange bitters and the Pomme & Circumstance with Laird’s Applejack, apple cider, lemon, and ginger syrup with ginger beer. A handful of TVs are available for customers wanting to tune into major athletic events.
To the right, past a bookcase is Hearth 71, a slightly more casual anecdote to the more upscale steakhouse with open-fire cooking and lots of beer. Diners can find options here like avocado and almond chopped salad, mushroom bucatini, fried walleye, and half-chicken with honey butter biscuits. For dessert there are warm chocolate chip cookies, milkshakes, and mini waffle cones with pistachio, vanilla, and spearmint ice cream. “We want it to be warm, inviting, daily — a great place for happy hour,” McClain says of the atmosphere.
Back to the left past High Bar, customers reach Highlands. four bays of booths and banquettes follow the curve of the RenCen towards downtown Detroit’s skyline with an open kitchen at the center of the space and three dry-aging cases. These dry-aging systems are more for show than for function; McClain notes that the restaurant’s anticipated volume would far exceed what could be reasonably stored in those meat lockers, but the staff does plan to occasionally feature specials dry-aged on the premises.
Chef Scott Garthwaite, an alum from the McClain Camarota Hospitality group, moved to Detroit to take the lead in the kitchen. His menu includes options like oysters with horseradish granita, tequila-lime, tobacco, and cucumber; wagyu beef tartare with smoked egg yolk and marrow toast; and 28-ounce dry-aged wagyu ribeye. The beverage options lean towards wines — especially reds. Bottles are kept in a custom display with air circulation to maintain cellar temperatures. Highlands Steakhouse will occasionally offer large-format, 12-lite bottles on tap for by-the-glass pours. The menu is rounded out by desserts and confections like scotch macarons and honey-chocolate truffles.
Farther off to the right of Highlands is a flexible semi-private dining space and a 16-seat conference room-style private dining area. One level up, Highlands is putting the final touches on a large, 8,500-square-foot events space occupying the entire circumference of the 72nd floor. Fit for weddings and other parties, the venue is capable of handling up to 220 people at a seated event and nearly 300 for a strolling event.
Highlands opens officially for service tonight and will be ramping up operations in the coming weeks. Take a tour of the restaurant and take a peek at the menus below.
The Highlands is located on the 71st floor of the GM RenCen (go to the third level of the building and near the Marriott and take the elevator up); Open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sundays until December 29.
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