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The Motor City's current restaurant boom doesn't come close to representing its population, and Max Hardy is on it

David Landsel
September 08, 2017

A modest, takeout-focused restaurant on an unglamorous commercial strip far from downtown might not get so much as a second glance outside of its own neighborhood, in most American cities. In Detroit, Max Hardy's recently-opened River Bistro is nothing short of a big deal.

You may have heard of Detroit's robust food scene. The first thing you need to know about this almost-out-of-nowhere phenomenon that's been around for barely more than a decade, is that it doesn't necessarily look all that much like the actual city of Detroit.

With a population of over 700,000, Detroit is more than 80 percent black. The admittedly sophisticated—and still growing—restaurant scene you've heard about? That's largely confined to the rapidly redeveloping core of Detroit, a city that has spent more years in steep decline than many of us have been alive.

As such, these restaurants—relatively few of them black-owned or operated—mostly cater to mostly new, affluent transplants, living and working in a highly-targeted area that's received an extraordinary amount of attention and investment in a very short period of time.

The rest of Detroit, apparently, will have to wait.

Not forever, hopes Chef Hardy. Born in Detroit, Hardy's resume includes a stint as Amar'e Stoudemire's personal chef and a stint on Food Network's "Chopped." His new restaurant, River Bistro, is the first of three he'll open within the next year, if all goes to plan. Smart but small, and more geared toward carryout, River Bistro offers a Caribbean-inflected soul food menu, reflecting Hardy's years spent soaking up the various influences that abound in Miami, where he worked for a number of years. There are a couple of communal tables, the menu is up on a chalkboard. The West Side of Detroit, where the restaurant opened just weeks ago, is loving it.

Opening this simple spot is just one small part of Hardy's multi-pronged approach to making Detroit's restaurant scene better reflect Detroit itself—not only is he hoping to create opportunities for more black chefs, he's also focused on training and education for the next generation. From an urban farm on the block where he grew up, which he'll use to supply his restaurants, to culinary training programs in local schools and, eventually he hopes, his own cooking school, Hardy has already been successful in raising a great deal of awareness.

Right now, however, he's most focused on opening his next two restaurants—an upscale spot near the just-completed hockey arena, and a fast-casual rotisserie chicken spot, located inside a new food hall built out of shipping containers, in the heart of the city's now-trendy Cass Corridor.

Hardy joins a growing number of black restaurateurs and chefs making their mark on the New Detroit scene—Mikiah Westbrooks, another Detroiter who moved back home, has opened Brix Wine and Charcuterie, over on the city's east side; one-time techno DJ Mike Ransom's Ima Noodles has made a significant splash in an already restaurant-saturated Corktown, much closer to the downtown action. The region's very first Black Restaurant Week got off the ground, this summer—eleven restaurants within the city of Detroit were featured, including River Bistro. Slowly but surely.