Briarwood is blooming with offshoots. Side by side, Bravo! Cucina Italiana and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro opened in December in what had been a parking lot just east of Macy’s. While not the very tippy top of fine dining, these chain eateries are the fanciest restaurants Briarwood has ever seen, with white tablecloths and entrees clustered around the $20 mark.
It seems to indicate that Briarwood is stepping up its game, but to take on whom? Since a similar, though more down-market, restaurant development is eating up parking at the nearby Meijer, it was tempting to theorize that it might relate to the introduction of Costco into the local ecosystem a few years ago. Briarwood used to be the star attraction in the area. Now, Costco is just as likely to be the main draw, but there’s one thing Costco doesn’t have and that’s a nice place to eat.
That suggestion is firmly deflected by Denise Murray, Briarwood’s marketing director. The new competition and the new restaurants are “two completely independent situations,” she says. “The land was always plotted to have two restaurants there.” Murray says that mall developer Al Taubman’s original plans also allow for similar add-ons to Briarwood’s other anchor stores, though she won’t say if there are specific plans in progress.
The anchor stores all own their own buildings plus some adjacent parking. In this case, Macy’s sold some of its parking lot back to Briarwood to lease to the restaurants. That fits with an ongoing cost-cutting program at the fashion retailer, which has apparently decided that it can make do with less parking in exchange for some cash and lively new neighbors.
Downtown’s restaurants, of course, brought the city back to life after mall-based chains killed its traditional retail base. Bravo and P.F. Chang occupy a middle ground between those worlds. While working the same mid-priced sit-down segment as Ann Arbor’s independent eateries, both are part of large chains that specialize in mall locations, typically flanking entrances to big anchor stores.
The Ohio-based Bravo Brio Restaurant Group runs two Italian restaurant chains. Bravo! Cucina Italiana, says manager William Kirby, is the southern Italian one, while Brio Tuscan Grille is northern Italian. (Brio is also slightly more expensive. As CFO Jim O’Connor put it, frankly and succinctly, in the Columbus Dispatch, “If you see a Nordstrom’s, you’re likely to see a Brio. If you see a Macy’s, you’re more likely to see a Bravo.”)
Kirby, originally from Grass Lake, is an Air Force vet who started out as a server in the Lansing Bravo after the first Gulf War. “I was a little older than most of the servers, so I got promoted up,” and up. He’s trained servers at twenty-three Bravos around the country and could have managed one of his own before now but held out for one in the area. “This company is awesome about promoting within the company. If you’re interested, they’ll make it happen,” he says. He’s equally enthusiastic about the location. “We love big restaurants opening around us. People walk back and forth between here and P.F. Chang’s checking the wait time. Macy’s and [nearby] California Pizza Kitchen say they have not had sales like this in years.”
As for the food: “Pasta is selling big time here–obviously. But people miss out on the awesome pork chops that are marinated twenty-four hours. I would compare the steak to Ruth’s Chris,” the upmarket steakhouse chain, which is opening a location in the old Dream Nite Club on S. Fourth downtown.
The corporate website oddly describes Bravo’s ambiance as “classic Italian food in a Roman-ruin decor,” but actually everything is quite new and clean. Probably the website meant national-monument-size decor: the light fixtures are the size of bathtubs.
Arizona-based P.F. Chang’s China Bistro has more than 200 locations around the country. The company is more reticent than Bravo Brio about engaging with the press–permission for the local manager to do an interview never came through.
Visually, Chang’s is even more striking than Bravo: its entrance is guarded by eleven-foot-tall horses, and inside there are life-size replicas of the famous Xian terra cotta warriors. A lot of the menu is familiar-sounding Chinese takeout staples, amplified by a few dollars, but it also dabbles in fusion, like the $24.95 oolong Chilean sea bass. The French-accented “beef a la Sichuan” costs $14.95.
Bravo! Cucina Italiana, 760 Briarwood Cir. 747-6200. Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. www.bravoitalian.com
P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, 720 Briarwood Cir., 780-3900. Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. www.pfchangs.com