Historically Good: The Caucus Club stands the test of time in Detroit

In 1938, Les Gruber and his brother Sam opened The London Chophouse in the basement of Congress Streets Murphy Telegraph Building. For a span of five plus decades, The Chopper, was downtown Detroits preeminent fine dining restaurant.

Serving the citys carriage crowd, as well as any of the worlds notables making stopovers in Detroit, their success was substantial. Their remarkable dining room was so busy, that in 1952, they opened what they referred to as The London Chophouse North, directly across the street in the magnificent Penobscot Building The Caucus Club.

Still thriving today, with little change  in either interior or atmosphere, The Caucus Club boasts the legendary Gourmet magazines designation as having The best business lunch in Detroit. True enough. My Roqueburger, a medium rare, thick flying saucer-shaped platter of freshly ground sirloin with creamy Roquefort pressed into the meat, was too large to pick up. Served simply with a side dish of cottage fries and the traditional condiments, this knife and fork burger is, in a word, fortifying.
One could envision a table of 1950s business adversaries handshaking a contract after eating this burger, too sated to quibble about their differences any longer.

And thats the feeling you get when dining in this mid-century throwback to the Detroit of 60 years ago of agreements settled and ambitions realized. The Caucus Club opened its doors when Detroit was at its peak population of close to two million and early 1950s downtown was a busy mingling of commerce, fashion, streetcars and post-war progress. Maybe one of the only things that hasnt changed since those halcyon days when Detroit was putting the world into a drivers seat, is the wood and wine ambience of The Caucus Club.

Of interest is that in the spring of 1961, this is the venue that first launched the singing career of one 19-year-old Barbra Streisand. It was from the main dining room of The Caucus Club that this vocalist icon first sang her way to stardom before her breakthrough performances on NBCs Tonight Show with Jack Paar. Yet, more amusing to me, is that Streisands last performance at The Caucus Club was on April 15, 1961 exactly 50 years to the day from which I was having my dining experience. An interesting coincidence.

Even though it was not a private club, up until 1971 this Detroit power lunch spot was reserved, as many other downtown dining rooms were also, for men only. Social mores evolving as they have, since 1993, the venerable restaurant has been owned by a woman, the tireless and entrepreneurial Mary Belloni.

With a sharp wit and estimable kitchen skills to match, Mary and her steadfast waitstaff serve some of the best versions of old-time Detroit favorites that Ive yet run across. For example, their Maurice Salad, a Hudsons stand-by, is better than the original. The house-made dressing outshines any Ive tasted, and is worth ordering the salad just to get it.

Before dinner, though, I started the evenings fare with a Detroit original, the famous Bullshot cocktail. This is Motowns twist on the Bloody Mary, replacing tomato juice with beef broth, vodka and then stirring in a special spice mix, known only to The Caucus Club. Best sipped while sitting at the unchanged early 50s blond-wooded bar, or while tucked into a spot in the original semi-circled booths, the Bullshot is a must-drink cocktail on any imbibers list of important concoctions.

But, back to the food. My first course was Marys spectacular plateau of Champagne Oysters, a half-dozen large bivalves, lightly poached in champagne, butter, and cream. Served with a side flute of bubbly, this is heady stuff. Im an oyster fan anyway, but this dish was a new approach for me and one I would eagerly order again. It was delectable.

Ive mentioned the Maurice Salad earlier, but I didnt go into detail about its other virtues. Namely, that the turkey used on the bed of crisp, clean-tasting lettuce was roasted in The Caucus Club kitchen. This is true of all of the turkey used on the menu its house-roasted. Combined with the Swiss cheese, smoky ham, and the fabulous dressing, its a notable, and noble, version of this Detroit original.

On to the main course. One of the signature dishes (baby back ribs being another) of The Caucus Club is their perch dinner. Mine was served on a platter with eight lightly dusted fillets, done to perfection, served with house-made tartar sauce, and a simple accompaniment of two red skinned potatoes and lemon wedges. Devine.

I ended this memorable dining event with a pyramid of strawberry shortcake topped with whipped cream. Nothing out-of-the-ordinary, yet extraordinary, at the same time.

There wasnt one regrettable bite, or sip, throughout my seating. As the only remaining historically significant fine dining restaurant in the central business district of downtown Detroit, The Caucus Club should have a fixed position on any foodies radar. This is quintessential cuisine that is as deeply good now, and maybe better, than it ever was.

By Paul Arlon

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