Restaurant Revolution: New Hamtramck spot tries a unique approach to dining

Detroit Free Press
Thursday, Feb 20, 2014

Metro Detroit’s most unusual new restaurant opens only one night a week, has no chef and never serves the same menu twice.

Called Revolver, it hosts a different chef each Friday night in its small, spare, softly lit dining room in downtown Hamtramck.

The chefs bring in their own ingredients, kitchen assistants and servers. The guests sit side by side with strangers at communal tables — an arrangement that might feel awkward elsewhere, but seems perfectly natural in the room’s relaxed, convivial environment.

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Almost nothing about Revolver is conventional — but that’s part of its appeal at a time when diners are seeking out new experiences, young chefs are looking for new audiences and creative outlets, and restaurants themselves are assuming new forms. Along with food trucks and pop-up restaurants, a concept like Revolver — with its revolving cast of chefs and menus — is just one more way in which entertainment dining is evolving.

“When you go to Revolver, you get a beautiful meal that the chef has really thought through ... and they seat you with these strangers who are as ‘strange’ as you are — which is wonderful!” says Faye Friedman of Farmington Hills. She and her husband, Jim, both 63, have dined at Revolver a half-dozen times since it opened in October.

“The food is fresh and interesting ... and everybody is there for an adventure,” she says.

A first for metro Detroit

Each Revolver dinner has two seatings of about 38 guests each; prices depend on who is cooking but range from $30 to $45 for three to four courses. Tickets are available only at the website, www.revolverhamtramck.comand must be prepaid; chefs and their menus also are listed on the site.

Revolver isn’t the only restaurant of its kind in the country, says international restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman of Baum+Whiteman in New York City. Several others exist solely “to display the craft and skill of visiting chefs,” he says.

But Revolver is the first in metro Detroit, and the concept is so new, there’s still some debate about what to call it.

While “permanent pop-up” sounds sexier, owners Peter Dalinowski and Tunde Wey prefer to avoid the association with pop-ups, where chefs “pop up” in unexpected places for one-night stands. Instead, they call it simply “a restaurant.”

“People call it a pop-up, but to us a pop-up doesn’t normally host what we are doing here,” says Dalinowski. “At a pop-up you go to a warehouse ... or a loft and you pop up out of nowhere. We are always here.”

They also prefer to distance themselves from the perception that pop-ups are sometimes rather chaotic events hosted by less-experienced cooks.

“The food is often quite good,” says Dalinowski, but the logistics for one-night events are so difficult, things can go wrong. That’s less of a risk in Revolver’s restaurant kitchen and furnished dining room.

Revolver’s guest chefs aren’t all well-known but they’re carefully chosen, the owners say. Lately, Revolver has begun to attract established names such as James Rigato of the Root in White Lake Township, and from Detroit, ex-Roast chef Andy Hollyday, ex-Rodin chef Kate Williams, Colors chef Phil Jones, and Marc Djozlija, former executive chef of the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group at MGM Grand Detroit.

Building a brand

For chefs like Hollyday, cooking at Revolver is a way to build excitement for Selden Standard — the Midtown restaurant he will open this summer — and test some ideas for it. He especially likes the atmosphere of the dining room, with its communal tables, simple décor and flickering votive candles.

“As a chef, you want everyone to love your food but you also want to give them an overall good experience. It should just be about eating out and enjoying the company, and I think that’s what Revolver really hits on. ... You can kind of overlook some things there because you’re in that environment.”

That being said, “your experience is determined by who’s cooking,” he added.

Before cooking there last month, he visited Revolver as a guest. “It’s an experience ... it’s kind of a show, I guess. You’re there for that one thing,” not just to grab something to eat on the way to somewhere else.

Rigato, who was a recent guest chef, says Dalinowski and Wey have succeeded in “putting some structure into the whole pop-up movement — and a little bit of class.

“Pop-ups can be unpredictable, and it’s not always awesome to have an unpredictable outcome. Here, you know you’re going to get a good space ... a working bathroom ... and that you can just show up and enjoy. But it still has the benefits of rotating chefs and creative freedom.”

Bragging rights

Whiteman, whose 43-year-old company created New York’s Windows on the World restaurant, says concepts like Revolver regularly sell out their dinners because “customers are seeking more than just a meal; they’re after an adventure as well.” And because the spaces usually have limited capacity, “snagging a seat gives customers a degree of bragging rights.”

If the meals are expensive — although Revolver’s are not — that’s fine, too, Whiteman jokes. “You can tell your friends how much money you spent at the dinner they couldn’t get into.”

The chefs benefit, he says, by being able to “show off in front of people who might not ordinarily come to their restaurants, and because they broaden their appeal.”

Rigato said the guests at his Revolver dinner were almost all new faces from Detroit, Royal Oak, Birmingham and other cities, including several from the Grosse Pointes.

Widening exposure

Dalinowski, 43, and Wey, 30, both of Detroit, opened Revolver on a relative shoestring in an empty restaurant space on Jos. Campau last October and — debt free — are developing it slowly and deliberately.

They plan to add more nights of dinners and are in the process of joining the Open Table online reservation system, which will give Revolver wider exposure. They are especially proud that they are doing something different.

“You don’t have to do the conventional thing,” says Wey.

“Everybody thinks there’s one way to open a restaurant and run it,” Dalinowski adds. “That’s nuts. There’s not one way to do anything. ... Anything you do in life, there’s an alternative way to do it that would probably work better for you.”