“Never judge a book by its cover.”
Detroit has been plagued with crime, poverty, scandal, and a surplus of other negative images that it’s sometimes difficult to get past the negative headlines and find a bright spot. I find that Detroit is a beautiful place. It has it’s problems, there is no denying that. But the allure of Detroit rests in it’s people, the people who might have gotten the heck out of Dodge when times got hard.
There are groups of people who still believe in the Motor City. I’m one of them. There’s an entrepreneurial wave that is hitting the city and bringing along a national media spotlight. The New York Times has become a sounding board for Detroit’s progress. The media is doling out article after article either criticizing or applauding the efforts of a city that was once the nation’s wealthiest and fourth largest city. Amidst the clamor and confusion, the blame-shifting and finger-pointing, the elation and the sorrow, one thing is for sure: Detroit is in the midst of history, for better or for worse.
Imagine being a fly on the wall amidst the changes. To be able to see the rise and decline of Detroit in first-person would be incredible. It’s the history that draws me to Detroit and on one Sunday it was what drove me to Scotty Simpson’s in the Brightmoor District of Northwest Detroit. From it’s window view, Scotty Simpson’s has seen Detroit’s best and worst over the past 63 years. The Brightmoor district is one of those neighborhoods that sprung up amidst an auto boom and quickly faded away because of the bust. Mitch Albom recently brought attention to Brightmoor with the help of Pulte Construction and hundreds of volunteers to assist in the cleanup of the area. Despite the derelict reputation, I say again, “Never judge a book by it’s cover.”
My dad and I walked in through the back, through the kitchen, and past the wait station and were seated at our table. The tables are pre-set with knife, fork, and disposable napkins and two-top tables are pushed together to form larger tables where necessary. There’s a warmth to the restaurant. The late afternoon sun was shining through vertical blinds and cast rays on the nautical decor and a bumper sticker that states, “We Believe in Brightmoor.”
At first I was hesitant to even go into Scotty’s. The overgrown yards and burnt out houses that surrounded the area gave me a sinking feeling. I know I’m in Detroit but seriously? Shame on me for doubting. Once we settled into our seats I opened a conversation with our waitress. We talked about the food, of course, and what she admires about the restaurant. I liked her immediately. She was genuine and had a good knowledge of the area. Her uncle Harry is the owner and head cook (fryer?) and she has worked for him for years. When we met Harry, he was coming out from the kitchen with a smile and was wearing a clean, white v-neck. This is when my pre-concieved notions started to fall by the wayside.
Harry first started working at Scotty Simpson’s on his first day of high school in 1966 and has been there ever since. He started as dishwasher and eventually bought the restaurant. Harry makes it a point to greet his guests and serve the freshest seafood and homemade desserts around. My dad and I can immediately tell he loves his job. Most of his crew loves it too. A collage of Polaroid pictures hangs on the wall, each picture an employee and the length of their tenure is handwritten below the photo. Many of the pictures show five or more years at Scotty’s. It warms the heart to see that.
I order the perch dinner while my dad stays true to form and orders the traditional fish and chips. The fish is fresh, never frozen, and hand dipped with Scotty’s secret recipe. Harry tells us a little more about the food.
“Everything is homemade,” he proudly states. “The fries, the coleslaw, and pies…we make everything except the rolls. Those are from a local bakery.”
We get our fish and my dad and I both had to check with each other to see if we weren’t fooling ourselves. I have a habit of letting my mind get the better of me. It’s the romantic in me. If I want something to be good it will be good. Upon further review and some light poking and prodding we both agreed that this was the lightest, crispiest fish and chips we have had. Harry tells us the batter recipe hasn’t changed since the 50′s. The coleslaw is something different too. A bit on the dryer side, it’s a chopped coleslaw with fresh cabbage and a bit of green pepper thrown in too. I like it because it’s fresh tasting. Some people may want a saucier coleslaw but they can get it somewhere else. The fries are hand-cut, brown, with a rich potato taste. There was an earthiness to it that I really liked. And the chocolate cream pie, well, like the fish it was light, fluffy, and some of the best I’ve had. At Scotty’s you’ll definitely want to save room for dessert.
As we eat, Harry pulls out his photo albums. The albums are a mixture of family and restaurant. At a place like this, usually the two are indistinguishable. He showed me one event in particular. In 2010, Scotty’s celebrated its 60th anniversary with a huge party. Harry had found a menu from the early 1950′s when the restaurant was still in its infancy. You can guess what happened next. For one day only (and dine-in only) Harry priced the menu as if it were 1950 again. Fish and chips, plus a pop, ran for a little over $1! It created a huge buzz around town and more than 1300 dinners went out that day. Longtime customers showed up with gifts in appreciation and took photos with the avuncular owner. Harry said it was their busiest day ever but the enjoyment far surpassed the cost.
Sometimes, to see the really good parts of Detroit you have to search for them. We see the news about downtown renovation, Dan Gilbert, and urban gentrification and that is terrific and newsworthy. I love to see it! But what about the neighborhoods past midtown? These areas also have their history to tell. Go out and find it, but be safe as well.
Scotty Simpson’s is a place you go to feel good. Harry makes it that way. He wants it to be a family affair. He and his crew have made a commitment to providing the best food possible. You can eat fish and chips at a lot of places. But for my money the history, staff, atmosphere, and food at Scotty Simpson’s can’t be beat.
22200 Fenkell Street, Detroit 48223