Chef Aaron Egan Debuts In JN, Reviews Parks & Rec
At 11 o’clock on a Thursday morning in November, the fog still hadn’t lifted past the fourth floor of Downtown Detroit’s buildings. Diffuse brightness, crisp air, the hallmarks of the upcoming winter flecked with the colorful fall. Just between Foxtown and the DTE plaza, there’s a unique flatiron building where, on a chilly morning like this, there’s always a hot mug of coffee and something good to eat. Parks & Rec Diner is a small place and what it lacks in seating capacity, it makes up for in spirit — and that’s just the key.
We call restaurants and hotels the “hospitality industry,” but those of us inside the restaurant industry too often forget the first word, opting instead to focus on the industrial part of it. We reduce servers to sales associates with quotas and scripts and thereby destroy the hospitality — the genuine feeling of warmth and welcome.
The best restaurants do not constrain their staff with scripted dialogue and falsified enthusiasm, but rather cultivate a culture of enjoyment and conviviality — what we might call hospitality — in their establishments. Parks & Rec Diner, from the first visit, has been a place to call your own.
Perhaps you’ve just spent a night away from home, and it’s a little too early for lunch; maybe you had a bowl of cereal or a bagel before you left. Hang up your coat on the rack in the corner and have a seat at the counter. If your coffee runs empty and you don’t see a server nearby, there’s a carafe no further than 10 feet from your chair to refill your mug, if you want to feel that comfortable — but Parks & Rec’s staff will happily attend to your needs if you prefer.
You order the pound cake, baked in a large muffin tin to give you a personal cake instead of a slice, and the offer to warm it up is automatic.
Ask your servers what they like on the menu, and they’ll take a moment to talk to you about why they like it, not just drop a suggestion on you with an indifferent tone. There’s never the old-school diner feel of vague contempt: The popcorn grits are good enough that you’ll want to kiss them yourself, so who needs Flo?
The restaurant industry grows outward from the very simple notion of inviting people into your space to take care of them. The staff at Parks & Rec doesn’t have much to manage: the dining room is small, the menu concise and easy to read, and there’s only a few rotating items that the servers need to make sure guests know about — and most of them are displayed in a small glass pastry case on the counter, made fresh and delicious by the very capable kitchen.
It’s easy to find happiness in a plate of food, no matter where you go. It’s harder to find a place that keeps that feeling once you look up. Find the hospitality and revel in it.
So much the better if it’s biscuits and gravy at Parks & Rec … or maybe the brisket and grits … or how about the special pancakes …?
Parks & Rec Diner
1942 Grand River Ave., Detroit
8 a.m.- 2 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; open until 3 p.m. Thursday-Sunday
Aaron Egan is a Detroit-born-and-raised chef, writer and food historian who has lectured nationally on the intersection of food, history and culture.