On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I took my home-for-the-holidays son and his vegetarian girlfriend to Sunday brunch at Detroit Street Filling Station. Located in the old Argiero’s, it opened in August as an upscale outgrowth of the successful vegan Lunch Room, still in operation a block away in Kerrytown. Because my last meal out with “the kids” had been a culinary and visual stunner at a vegetarian Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District, I was hoping this brunch would represent Ann Arbor well. We were not disappointed.
Sunlight flooded the big-windowed multi-room space, cheekily decorated with bright colors, painted spoons, and tangled hose sculptures on the walls. Retro cool jazz and linen napkins set a refined mood. My guests both liked their creative entrees, chosen from a menu of world cuisine made vegan. In Eleanor’s innovative “carrot lox” bagel platter, barely softened ribbons from the thick part of carrots had been marinated to taste slightly briny, then seated on a bagel with giant capers, red onion, and a creamy cashew “cheese” spread. Max had the “Benedict” special: two big and crispy fritters made from black-eyed peas, stacked with arugula and lemony mock-hollandaise sauce squiggles on an English muffin. On a lark, I ordered the “Irish Breakfast” of grilled tomato and mushrooms, baked beans, tofu scramble, and chewy seitan sausage. It succeeded as a less greasy version of those omnipresent British morning meals. I was glad we ordered a delicious pecan sticky bun as well, and I didn’t miss dairy until settling for alt-cream with my Mighty Good coffee.
After taking a peek at the dinner menu, I looked forward to coming back to try the Cauliflower Truffle Mac and the Marinated Asian Vegetable Salad, which was what I had at that memorable San Francisco meal. But this was not to be …
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, a press release popped up in the Observer’s email. The subject line: “Detroit Street Filling Station Announces a New Direction: Casual Dining and Creating Community.”
The release explained that the restaurant forthwith would have a simplified fast-casual menu, the same at lunch and dinner. White linen was out, whereas “music, art, poetry, bingo, book clubs, and meetups are all part of the new idea.” Intriguingly–and unexpectedly, for a restaurant press release–it added that “at the heart of the change is a commitment to our project: The Youth Justice Fund …the mission of which is to assist returning citizens, sentenced as youth to a term of imprisonment, with services and resources necessary to ensure human dignity and full participation in their communities.” In addition to hiring recently released young adults, they’d help support them by donating to their nonprofit 10 percent of Tuesday evening sales and 10 percent of all sales, on any day, of BBQ Tofu Sliders.
The tofu sliders are a Lunch Room classic, dating back to the business’s origins seven years ago as a food cart in Mark’s Carts. It read as if a talisman was being brought back to anchor the Filling Station’s streamlined menu and expanded mission.
And it wasn’t just the white linen and truffle bakes that were gone. Also out, according to social media posts on the Filling Station Facebook page, were eight cooks, servers, and managers. The same day the press release went out, one of them wrote (in part): “I’ve done nothing but uptalk this place and work hard to be a part of the vision it was creating, and yesterday a huge chunk of the staff was told that we no longer had jobs with nothing but a brief email.”
Within days, co-owners Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo posted a response, saying (in part): “While Detroit Street Filling Station had some great nights and guests enjoyed incredible food and service, the sales were not enough to pay the bills … we had to make a decision: pull the plug and try something new, or face the loss of our entire business and the livelihoods of our other 70 employees.”
On the first Saturday evening in December, I enlisted a small group of friends to try the new menu. The response to most everything was positive: the “loaded nacho” appetizer of tater tots drenched in cashew “queso” sauce and topped with jackfruit “carnitas,” for example, and a lovely winter salad of greens, citrus wedges, walnuts, spiced roasted chickpeas, and the perfect light citrus and cumin vinaigrette to hold it all together. The BBQ tofu was fine, whether served in a platter with greens and rice or as the heralded sliders with add-on avocado slices, recommended by our server, providing welcome condiment creaminess. Cuban and pizza panini sandwiches were filling, and a peppery pho-style tofu ramen bowl should be a warming winter favorite. We weren’t out for cocktails but saw plenty of bright fruit-colored ones making their way to other tables.
Engelbert was pouring water refills and looking rather weary when she came to our table. We were just finishing our meals, and she urged us to try the desserts, made in the Lunch Room’s own bakery in Huron Towers. We found both the Tres Leches cake with rum, and an unusual sesame-seed jammy thumbprint cookie with thin streaks of chocolate, to be standouts.
Her face lit up when she talked about the Youth Justice Fund and the possibilities of the Filling Station as an offline social center–unlike the Lunch Room, she explained, the larger new space can take reservations and accommodate large groups. She’s hoping to see those large groups show up regularly for a “Wired Wednesdays” bluegrass jam starting in January. Their house band, Wire in the Wood, will host and bring in guest musicians.
“Joel and I began as community organizers,” she said. (She’s worked on countless environmental, peace, and social justice campaigns, while Panozzo’s been involved in environmental and LGBT issues and is a fervent bicycling activist.) “This feels like going back to what we are about.”
I left thinking about what hard work it is running restaurants, and how there are multiple chapters and viewpoints in most stories. Vegan fine dining turned out to be a hard sell, even in Ann Arbor. But plant-based cuisine always seems future focused, and supporting social justice is timeless.
Detroit Street Filling Station
300 Detroit St.
Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. (brunch). Closed Mon.
Soup and appetizers $4-$8,
sandwiches and salads $6-$10,
entrees $8-$12, desserts $1.75-$7.