Re-Opening the London Chop House: Genius Move or Wishful Thinking?

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By Nicole Rupersburg

It’s Saturday night, Sweetest Day no less, and I walk into the London Chop House without reservations. It’s fully booked for the evening, but the staff happily accommodates me and my dining partner. It helps there’s a no-show.

It’s no exaggeration to say the Mad Men-era restaurant that opened nine months ago (after being shuttered for about 20 years) continues to glow.

The lights are dim. The red leather booths, red leather banquettes and cherry-stained wood-paneled walls are visible in the pools of light created by flickering candles and glittering chandeliers. The expansive oak bar is polished to mirror perfection. And an attractive blonde singer in a black sequin dress croons hits from the Great American Songbook on the elevated stage.

It took more than a few pennies to revive the restaurant that was once a place for the famed and wealthy to be seen. The owner, Nico Gatzaros, son of Ted Gatzaros, the well-known local developer and restaurateur, refuses to say just how much. But we’re told it cost roughly $2 million to renovate.

It’s far too early to tell if the investment is an act of business genius, a grab at a piece of nostalgia or simply wishful thinking. Is the reopening of such an iconic institution a testament to Detroit’s so-called renaissance, or an extremely expensive attempt to will the rhetoric into reality? So far, the place seems to be attracting some of the customers it was once famous for – metro Detroit’s elite.

“Right now we’ve got all the Kwame lawyers coming in,” says a Chop House employee who wishes to remain anonymous.

“The mayor, lawyers from the courthouse ... it’s living up to its original clientele.” He notes that lunches are especially busy when the courts get out and all the lawyers come in with their clients. Local luminaries like Diana Lewis and Carman Harlan have also been spotted. And even on Sweetest Day, the place was largely populated with wealthy regulars whom Gatzaros walked around greeting.

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The London Chop House is emblematic of a city that lives in its past as much as its present. Opened in 1938, it had an impressive 53-year run before closing in 1991.

This restaurant was a product of an era of wealth, power and prestige. This was a gathering place for celebrities and dignitaries, from Frank Sinatra and the New York Yankees to Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca. Once, according to the New York Times,  actor Zero Mostel jumped on top of a table and announced about the founder Les Gruber: ''Mr. Gruber, your chopped herring is a poem!''

It was a place where “Booth One” was considered to be one of the best places to be seen between Chicago and Philadelphia. In other words, it was a time far removed from the Detroit of 2010, when Gatzaros first began renovation.

“We believe in Detroit,” says Gatzaros, an alum of Grosse Pointe South High School, who is 42. His family also owns the Fishbones restaurants and Wah-Hoo, a Chinese place downtown. His father was instrumental in expanding Greektown 35 years ago and bringing casinos to the city in the 1990s.

“My family has always believed in Detroit. We’ve been down here trying to do the same thing that’s taking off now,” Nico Gatzaros said.

The idea of reopening the Chop House evolved after Gatzaros family members started to renovate their Murphy-Telegraph Building at 155 W. Congress, which contains the restaurant. The family initially discussed opening a cigar bar in the Chop House space.

“We started to get a lot of responses from people saying, ‘You should reopen the Chop House,’” Gatzaros recalled.

So they moved the LCH Cigar Bar upstairs and started work on the former Chop House, soon realizing it needed much more that they originally thought. “We decided it’s worth it,” Gatzaros said.

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To call the renovation “extensive” is an understatement. It took two years to complete. What wasn’t salvaged was completely stripped and rebuilt, which includes the skeletal structure as much as the circulatory system –wiring, plumbing and HVAC system. Original pieces like the booths, bar and stage were totally refinished.

“As far as renovations go, employees who used to work here are amazed at the overhaul,” says General Manager Bjorn Lagerfeldt. “People say it’s more elegant now than it was before.”

Historically, this has been a “see and be seen” kind of place. Famed restaurant critic James Beard named it as one of the ten best restaurants in the country in 1961 and Playboy included it in its Top 25 in 1980.

The service over the decades was flawlessly formal, but in its waning years before it closed -- particularly after chef Jimmy Schmidt left in 1980s-- it became less noted for its food.

“Even if the meal was a little on the lackluster side you could excuse it because the service was impeccable,” said Michael Guralewski, Systems Analyst Project Manager for Federal Mogul and my dinner companion who has many fond memories of the original LCH. “It was really very simple. The menu wasn’t meant to be intimidating.”

The most important thing to understand about the food at the Chop House is that it isn’t fancy. Pricey; yes. But molecular gastronomy it is not. It’s still an old-school steak house. Our dinner of steak tartare, a half dozen oysters, French onion soup, Caesar salad, filet mignon and lamb chops (with a reasonably-priced a bottle of wine plus a few extra glasses of wine and after dinner drinks) cost about $300. And we were relatively modest in our selections.

A 10 oz filet goes for $47; horseradish braised beef short ribs are priced at $17 for lunch and $35 at dinner time; a “Poncho Burger” made with Roquefort cheese costs $14 for lunch and $23 for dinner.

The menu pays homage to the original incarnation, which was ultimately a simple place serving simple food of unsurpassed quality.

They even have some of the same items the Chop House was once famous for, like their Veal Oscar with lump crab hollandaise. The menu is essentially steaks and burgers, just on an exceptional scale. Those whose preferences tend towards trendy nü rustic and nouveau cuisine will likely turn their noses up at this unapologetically Old World Americana package.

But the menu is modernized: presentations are decidedly artful, and while bordelaise is the first choice listed to accompany your steak, you can also opt for chimichurri, the spicy South American sauce. They skip the craft cocktail craze in favor of “classics” (think French martinis and White Russians) and ice cream drinks like their signature Hummer.

But lest you think this place is more akin to a fancy Five Guys, they also offer a seasonal foie gras presentation and full caviar service.

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Out of necessity, the level of formality has been dialed back for a modern audience. They’ll still scrape your crumbs from your table but the waiters are in suits and ties instead of tuxes, and men aren’t required to wear jackets.
The restaurant has received a fair share of praise.

One person wrote on Yelp: “This was one of the best meals I have had in or around Detroit in a very long time, if not the absolute best. The short ribs are what sold me on the menu, and I ended up sampling the filet, French onion soup, beef soup, creamed spinach and the cauliflower. Everything was AMAZING.”

But not everyone is sold. Another wrote:
“We started with the steak tartare and the tuna tartare followed by 2 dozen oysters. Both the steak and tuna were disappointing. Neither had much flavor. While the presentation was ok, the taste wasn't there. Pepper helped a little but we had to flag down” a different waiter “because we couldn't find ours…”

The coveted Booth One and Booth Two are still always kept open for “VIPs.”

While the Chop House has its place as a special occasion restaurant, it also has plenty of regulars. It’s the kind of place where the customers give the bartender some sweet gratuities, just because.

“I’ve been golfing twice a month at a country club and got all kinds of tickets to concerts and suites, all because of the elite who go there,” said the bartender. “Special privileges come with the territory of working at the London Chop House!”

Some customers simply enjoy the opportunity to get dressed up, to wear their tuxes and fancy gowns and enjoy a nice meal instead of drinking a $300 bottle of wine in T-shirts and jeans at the more nouveau riche restaurants of Birmingham.

“I have seen so much action of suburban clientele coming downtown,” Gatzaros says. “Business leaders, captains of industry ... I hear them and they’re talking about Detroit like it’s an up-and- comer. They’re talking about business opportunities in Detroit.”

Yet downtown, it hasn’t been all good news. The Caucus Club closed last week. It was the Chop House’s sister and another Mad Men-era restaurant across the street that was originally opened to serve as the waiting room for the Chop House’s overflow. Owner Mary Belloni blamed a rent hike for the closure.

After decades of fighting steady decline and a downtrodden image, Gatzaros sees the Chop House as part of a Detroit comeback.

“You just have to keep doing the positive things that you think are going to work. Sometimes you have to paddle your own boat,” he said.

“Sometimes you just have to believe. And we believe. The people in the city of Detroit have heart like nowhere else in the world.”

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