Detroit is a city that’s blessed with numerous examples of well-preserved turn-of-the-century architecture and resilient dining establishments that have retained their classic character. A few iconic restaurants have even found new life in Detroit after careful reconstruction that returned them to their original splendor. Karl’s fits none of these categories, but it’ll easily fool you. The new all-day restaurant and bar set to open on Thursday, August 29 at the Siren Hotel, somehow feels like it’s always been part of the Wurlitzer Building — a time capsule just waiting to be discovered.
The latest downtown project from chef Kate Williams, partner Matt Wang, and hotel developers ASH NYC is a convincing reimagining of an old-fashioned luncheonette counter. Visitors to the Siren can finally take the lobby’s grand staircase up the to second floor and find a roughly 80-seat diner serving freshly baked cinnamon rolls, french omelettes, and spaghetti and meatballs. Occasionally, the People Mover will rumble by on its track next to the window.
It’s easy to forget that just a few years ago the Wurlitzer Building was literally crumbling onto surrounding roofs. The iconic building, which once housed the instrument maker Wurlitzer Company, has undergone four years of renovations adding several floors of hotel rooms, multiple bars, a cafe, a flower shop, and a barbershop to the property. Karl’s is one of the final pieces of the project. It occupies a room that was previously completely stripped back to the studs. Only the wood floors, now painted with a checker pattern are original to the space.
The opening marks Williams third food and beverage project in two years. The chef debuted Lady of the House in Corktown in September 2017 and followed it up with Candy Bar at the Siren in March 2018. The Karl’s name is a reference to A. Karl’s Kercheval Home Bakery, a shop that Williams’ great great grandfather Anton Karl once owned and operated on Detroit’s east side. Located in a now non-existent building near Marrow in West Village, the business closed sometime after the Great Depression. Karl’s is Williams’ interpretation of what that family business might have been like if it had survived to 2019. “We wanted this to be as if Karl’s never closed and it just evolved over generations,” Williams says.
Williams foremost wanted to open a bakery and then became inspired by the family history of baking in developing the menu and feel for the restaurant. She interviewed her mother and her aunts to try to get a sense of what they grew up eating. Like many Detroiters, Williams’ mother fondly recalled going to the old Hudson’s Department Store with Williams’ grandmother and ordering the Maurice salad. She ordered it so often that the restaurant eventually gave her the recipe. Other items like grilled cheese sandwiches reflect Williams’ own memories of what her grandmother used to prepare for her grandchildren when they visited the cottage.
Williams’ says the space reflects a era of upscale department stores and train car dining — an atmosphere where she could picture her grandmother getting dressed up to go out. “There’s a club sandwich, there’s a ham sandwich, but it felt like, for her, that would be something glamorous,” she says.
ASH NYC took the lead on the design for the space, which seamlessly incorporates the charms of 1940s lunch counters with diner aesthetics and 1970s-era dive bars. ASH’s chief creative officer Will Cooper tells Eater that the group worked off archival photos and also looked to existing spaces for inspiration such as Lexington Candy Shop in New York and Lamy’s Diner at the Henry Ford Museum. The walls are a combination of cream colored laminate and chrome, a callback to old-school diner floors. Dark brown pegboard lining the top of the walls helps give the restaurant its lived-in look. The board is decorated with Williams’ family photos as well as vintage momentos including old newspapers and Detroit sports memorabilia.
Williams worked with design firm Lafayette American to create a paper placemat for Karl’s, inspired by the ones used at the Guernsey cafe in Northville where she worked her first job. Each table is outfitted with Karl’s golf pencils, so customers can fill out the crossword puzzles and connect the dots.
Karl’s partners tapped chef Brennan Calnin, opening chef at Townhouse, and pastry chef Jessica Chaney, a Grey Ghost alum, to take the lead in the kitchen at Karl’s. Lunch and dinner will be served all day with breakfast running from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Diners can find items like a wedge salad dressed up with deviled eggs, crumbled bacon, creamy blue cheese dressing, and everything bagel spice alongside plates of spaghetti and meatballs made with an all-poultry blend of duck and chicken. “The best chicken salad around,” is made using Lady of the House’s recipe roasted chicken, while the ham sandwich features the restaurant’s Parisian ham. The German breakfast rolls come stuffed with farmer’s cheese and topped with butter and poppyseeds.
From the bar, look out for classic cocktails like daiquiris, Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and martinis made with gin from Lady of the House’s collaboration with Detroit City Distillery. There’s also sections devoted to boilermakers, boozy milkshakes made with Guernsey ice cream, wine, and beer.
In the evenings, Karl’s will host live music from local artists and DJs starting out with DJ Andrey Douthard of Paramita Sound, a former West Village record store and wine bar reopening in the Siren Hotel this fall. Customers can also feed quarters into the restored 1957 Wurlitzer jukebox that ASH NYC found at Bob’s Jukebox Emporium on Detroit’s east side. The console is outfitted with an older set of 45s as well as some provided by Third Man Records, Paramita Sound, and elsewhere. “The music is something that was really important to me because not just because it’s the Wurlitzer Building, but because it’s so Detroit,” Williams says.
Karl’s will open seven days a week with full-service dining and does not take reservations. Take a peek at the menu below ahead of the opening.
Karl’s is located on the second floor of the Siren Hotel at 1509 Broadway St.; open 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday (Kitchen is open until midnight). Walk-ins only. Website.
Update: This story has been updated to reflect the opening date for Karl’s.