Five new bistro applications and one for an existing restaurant, the Whistle Stop Diner, received preliminary approval by the Birmingham City Commission on Monday, October 26, meaning they can all be moved on to the city's planning board for full review before returning to the city commission for final approval.
October 1 is the deadline each year for bistro applications for the following year, planning director Jana Ecker explained. Commissioners had initial review screenings for 2021 bistro liquor licenses, of which up to two new licenses per year can be given out, and up to two can be given to an establishment which has been operating in the city for at least five years.
The new bistro license applications were for Bloom Birmingham, 239 N. Old Woodward, in the former Pita Cafe location; Rustico Kitchen & Cocktails, 135 N. Old Woodward, next to Starbucks; Sushi Japan, 176 S. Old Woodward, in the former Mediterranean Street Food spot; TINO's, 344 Hamilton, in the 7 Greens location; and Vinewood Kitchen & Cocktails, 724 N. Old Woodward. Whistle Stop Diner, 501 S. Eton, requested a bistro license for an existing business.
Bloom Birmingham would feature plant-based cuisine by Matthew Kenney, who said he went to culinary school instead of law school. “About 18 years ago, I decided to focus solely on plant-based food because I decided it was good for food, for the environment,” the L.A.-based Kenney told the commission. “At this moment, we are a global lifestyle brand, with about 45 restaurants, a media division. Our restaurants are in Saks Chicago, the Four Seasons, we have partnerships around the world. We really love to spread the word all about how food and wine can be engaged without compromise.”
Kenney, who does not have a financial interest in Bloom, would act as a consultant, while Detroit-based chefs Nina Paletta and Meghan Shaw of the Detroit-based food operation Street Beet, would operate the establishment, which would have a contemporary design.
Rustico Kitchen & Cocktails, in the former Centigrade location, and Vinewood Kitchen & Cocktails, under the Kohler store, have identical concepts, both proposed by owner/operator Christ Backos.
“We have created one concept with two potential locations,” he said.
He said he grew up in a family restaurant business in Clinton Township, currently owns Eddie's Mediterranean Room in Clinton Township, as well as three Leo's Coney Islands in Macomb County, the Detroit Food Company catering company and The Fresh Food Kitchen meal prep and delivery service. He said he is very familiar with Birmingham.
Both proposals are for a modern, upscale American bistro in a modern rustic environment.
“It's very family-friendly, where kids and parents can be in a fun environment. I will be handing the day-to-day operations, hospitality, everything. I'm collaborating with Sarah Nahas Hormi from the Food Network show, Chopped, who is a graduate of New York Culinary School on new twists on American classics. We can really stand out from other concepts in Birmingham.”
Commissioner Clinton Baller was intrigued that the location beneath Kohler, which opens to the parking lot in the rear, would have views of the ravine and river, and hoped he would explore that. Other commissioners were concerned about where there could be outdoor dining and that dumpsters for the building were there. By moving forward the concepts, Backos has the opportunity to work out the details.
Attorney Kelly Allen introduced her client Ximing “Charlie” Yu, who with his family emigrated to the United States from China in 2008. Yu is planning to open Sushi Japan in the next couple of weeks, Allen said, after spending about $300,000 on renovating the location. She said it will be an Asian restaurant featuring primarily Chinese food. “He has been paying rent and he is opening with or without a liquor license,” she said.
Yu said a liquor license would make the restaurant financially more sound.
Yu is currently a sushi chef at Kona Grill, and considers himself a noodle expert, with an emphasis on ramen and other noodles on the menu.
“This is a small business, a family business. He will be there 24/7. He believes it will be a destination around the county. It will be different from the other Asian restaurants in the city,” Allen said.
Yu said the renovations are creating an open kitchen, and there will be 50 seats in the restaurant, with six seats at a sushi bar, and eight seats outside. It will be open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, and feature a Chinese brunch.
Kelly Schaefer, who has owned 7 Greens on Hamilton Row for the last four years, said she is hoping to transform the spot into Tino's, “a casual neighborhood meeting spot and taqueria. Latin food has been one of my favorites. I love the spices, fresh ingredients, the culture.”
She said 7 Greens, which also has locations in Detroit and Chicago, has struggled in Birmingham as a fast casual. “We've wanted to turn it into something fun, with pizazz, family friendly,” she said. “It will have a great bar, 58 seats, an outdoor dining platform. I think Hamilton could totally use the addition.”
The Whistle Stop Diner has been in operation since 1965, with owners Elda and Valter Xhomaq buying it in 2012 after beginning work there in 1999, Elda as a waitress and Valter as a cook. After buying another diner on Woodward in Pleasant Ridge, which they also named Whistle Stop Diner, they discovered customers enjoy a drink with brunch and lunch.
Their attorney, Patrick Howe, explained they want to convert the diner to bistro and undertake a major renovation. Elda explained they will open all the walls, place the kitchen in the center, add eight counter stools, and put up an outdoor dining platform with 26 seats on the grass behind the diner. The menu will stay the same. It will continue to be open daily, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
All of the bistro applications can now proceed to the planning board for final site plan and special land use permits. Once they receive full reviews and recommendations for approval, they return to the city commission for final approval.