Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, Hazel Park has been ordained metro Detroit's next hip neighborhood
This is in no small part because of Chef James Rigato, whether he likes it or not.
Earlier this year, when Rigato announced his plans to open his second restaurant Mabel Gray
inside a vacant diner in Hazel Park, the buzz from local media, industry folks, and Instagram-happy "foodies" was instantaneous. Just last year, Rigato was named Food & Wine's
"People's Best New Chef" for the Great Lakes region and was also a contestant on Top Chef
Season 12, a little cooking show you might have heard of.
With one hugely successful restaurant already under his belt – the Root, located in the unlikeliest of strip malls in White Lake, which was named "Restaurant of the Year" by the Detroit Free Press
in 2012 – Rigato was ready to do something totally different in a totally different location serving a totally different demographic. His search started and ended in Hazel Park.
"Hazel Park?" wondered many at first. But then, the idea caught on – after all, Ferndale can only have so many gastropubs and beer/cocktail bars, and Hazel Park is right on the other side of I-75, just as easily accessible by freeway as the much more retail-robust cities of Ferndale and Royal Oak. The rent there is cheap, as is the housing. The city itself, as well as the Hazel Park DDA, is very business-friendly, and eager to assist anyone interested in opening a business in town. The real question is, why wouldn't
Hazel Park become the Next Big Thing?
We can certainly credit Rigato with making Hazel Park seem "cool," or at least getting people to talk about it without referring to it as "Hazeltucky." But, to paraphrase LL Cool J in a way Rigato would surely appreciate, don't call it a comeback – Hazel Park has been here for years.
"Hazel Park is the next Hazel Park," he says. "It's not Ferndale. I don't want it to be Ferndale. It's different. Ferndale doesn't have Loui's Pizza or Pi's Thai or the racetrack. There's so much Hazel Park has now. I'm not [the Pied Piper]; I just joined the party. Basically Hazel Park was having a backyard party and I showed up with a keg."
He says Hazel Park isn't so much the "up and coming" – implying there wasn't anything worthwhile there previously – as it is "under construction." A couple of months after Rigato announced he and business partner Ed Mamou would be opening Mabel Gray, Cellarman's
– a microbrewery, cidery, and meadery – announced they would be opening right around the corner. As it happens, the two ventures unfolded completely independently of each other, but it certainly seems fortuitous and gives further weight to the new Hazel Park cool narrative.
Rigato has quickly become the city's biggest cheerleader and actively wants
his industry friends to open up cool spots in his new neighborhood. "This isn't just about me. It's not just about Mabel Gray. I really believe in this area. If one of my friends comes into this area, yeah that's competition, but that's what makes the food [culture] happen."
Before even knowing how easy the City of Hazel Park was to work with, Rigato had his sights set on it. Though he grew up in Howell, he lived at John R and 11 Mile Rd. for several years and was always hanging out in Hazel Park. He loved the bowling alley, Loui's Pizza
, and the local bike shop. The quiet residential community with numerous parks and green spaces was perfect for BMX biking. But his favorite thing was the near-total lack of corporate presence.
"It's all independent businesses and residents," says Rigato. "It's just one of those towns. I have [industry friends] asking me, 'What if I open a cocktail bar? Or coffee bar?' Anything would open in this town. A dive bar, a sports bar, a kombucha-only brewery – it will work. This area is open-minded. Hazel Park has a totally DIY grit."
When we spoke for this story, Rigato had just been to the annual Hazel Park Art Fair
and found it was nothing like other "art fairs" he's been to. "It was so cool! There wasn't anything corporate or mainstream, no Thomas Kinkade-looking [garbage]. The city is so in tune [with the] artistic community trying to make the city cool. These guys are really supportive of the art movement. They're supportive of our hippie restaurant coming in; they're not just trying to get an Applebee's because it will be busy and pay a lot of taxes."
Rigato is currently working on the finishing touches of Mabel Gray, making sure he gets everything right. The Ron and Roman
-designed space is a collision of the old and new, Rigato explains: there is a neon orange wall and a white banquette against the original walls scraped down to the concrete and plaster; a stainless steel chef's counter with white mosaic tile that ends at the existing "beat-up old brown tile" that clearly marks the space's former incarnation as a diner. Beautiful walnut tables are matched with old public school desk chairs from Reclaim Detroit
. "Mabel Gray and the Root have nothing in common with design," says Rigato. "You can't even tell they're related."
Once finished, the restaurant will seat around 45 people. It will be open for dinner service Tuesday through Saturday, with brunch to come later on Saturday and Sunday. Rigato plans on making Sunday an industry night where he can invite guest chefs in, maybe do culinary "battles" with his other chef friends that might involve one cover charge with drinks and multiple preparations of one animal included – just "fun, beer-drinking industry nights." To him, this is another opportunity to foster chef collaboration and local food community building. "This is a 'we' thing, not a 'me' thing," he says of the restaurant and the local food scene he works hard to promote.
The space will also be available to rent out for private parties and he'll also do cooking classes. As of right now, he's targeting pre-opening practice runs at the end of September.
As for the food, don’t expect a "menu" – the menu will be small, hyper-local, hyper-seasonal, and will change frequently based on availability. By way of explaining, he says, "I'll buy a couple of whole salmon that we'll have for a couple of days and then it will be gone."
Somewhat fatigued by so-called "farm-to-table" restaurants that are anything but, he says, "You want to know about a menu? Let's go get a beer and have a philosophical conversation. It's like asking a farmer, 'What's your favorite thing to grow?' Well, what season is it? Is it raining a lot? Dry? Too hot? Too cold?" He says he isn’t just going to take the Root's menu and serve it to a smaller audience. "I could
do that, but why? That's not doing good for anyone. The Root has its audience."
That said, you can expect the same staunchly local, seasonal, and from-scratch ethos he demonstrates at the Root. He says there will be "structure" to the menu and describes it as "hand-made, farm-aggressive, limited option dining." There will be an ever-evolving chef's tasting menu with beverage pairings from sommelier Rachel Van Til, whom Rigato moved down from Trattoria Stella in Traverse City to join his team. Also joining him in the kitchen is sous chef Sam Stanisz, who came with him from the Root. The rest of the staff will be small, but service is, as ever for him, a top priority.
"If you care about food and beverage from the sourcing to the entertainment of dining, that's the point. It will kind of be like hanging out at my house. [Mabel Gray is] way more of a jam band than a cover band."