By Ellen Koteff
Named for the actual department in the Motor City’s government that called this space its home for 40 years—and not the former hit TV show—Parks & Rec Diner is introducing Detroit to the boundless possibilities of a chef-driven breakfast.
The restaurant and its sister eatery, Republic Tavern, occupy two corners of the city’s Grand Army of the Republic building (G.A.R.) in the heart of downtown. Aside from the same owners, the restaurants both feature the cuisine of Executive Chef Sarah Welch.
Opened in August of 2015, 34-seat Parks & Rec Diner shares a kitchen and some staff with the much larger Republic Tavern, which can seat up to 100.
Mindfield, a Detroit production company owned by brothers David and Tom Carleton, and Sean Emery, who have been partners since 2000, bought the building in 2011 after it had been vacant for almost three decades.
The company’s offices occupy the fourth and fifth floors, and plans call for an event space on the second. The third floor will be occupied by other businesses.
“Right now Detroit is in a really good place,” Emery says. “There is a revitalization going on, and we are absolutely thrilled to be part of it. There is a real vibrancy here.”
Built in 1899, the G.A.R. building first served veterans of the Civil War with Union Blue décor. Despite being boarded up for many years, Emery says, the building was in good shape. “The bones held up surprisingly well,” he says, and the restaurant has retained much of the structure’s historical integrity.
Parks & Rec has a relaxed vibe featuring tables inlaid with checkerboard, original light fixtures, and green metal chairs with “Parks & Rec Detroit” stenciled on the back.
“The restaurant is very comfortable, and the owners often make an appearance,” Welch says. “It is a very accessible environment.”
Welch also notes it was the reputation of Republic Tavern’s food that helped launch Parks & Rec. “Republic gained a name for itself early on,” Welch explains. “And now breakfast at Parks & Rec has been really well received as well.”
Open daily from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Parks & Rec Diner features an egg-heavy menu, made-from-scratch pastries and breads, in-house cured lamb and pork bacon, hand-made chicken and pork sausages, and a variety of preserves crafted on site.
The restaurant also menus several brunch items, including sandwiches, shrimp and grits, and a meat and pickles crepe. However, the emphasis remains decidedly on breakfast items.
“During the week we sell a lot of functional breakfasts, but on the weekend guests are more playful with their choices,” Welch says.
Best-selling items include a Cinnamon Roll filled with walnuts and smothered with chevre honey icing that is baked to order for $8; Biscuits & Gravy made with three kinds of house-made sausage and a poached egg for $9, and a build-your-own High End Hash dish served under two eggs for $8.
The restaurant highlights a variety of Michigan items, including cherries, apples, strawberries, morels, ramps, plums, and tomatoes.
“The reputation we are gaining is spreading,” Emery says. “A lot of people are queueing up to have their first experience with us, but I would say it has been rare that someone has come here only once.”
Operations at Parks & Rec start as early as 5 a.m., and Republic Tavern sometimes goes as late as 3 a.m.
It takes about 15 employees to run Parks & Rec, and food costs run on the low side—between 24 and 26 percent—because of all the from-scratch cooking that Welsh says also hikes labor costs.
“Many folks from the Detroit suburbs begin their weekend by making the trip in. It’s worth the drive,” Emery adds.
Ticket averages run $12 per person during the week and $15 on weekends. On weekdays, the bustling restaurant does roughly 70 covers, a number that jumps quickly to around 200 on the weekends.
Moving forward, Emery says, takeout and a commissary—to add more kitchen space—are both on the table. “We have a saying at Mindfield: ‘Evolve or die,’” he says. “Our challenge now is to maintain our momentum and give people a reason to come back.”
Despite a lack of restaurant experience, Park & Rec’s owners understand hospitality goes a long way to inspiring repeat guests.
“We always want to make it feel like our restaurants are a place where friends are cooking for friends,” he says.