I attended a poetry reading in downtown Flint Saturday night for the first time in years. It was an intimate affair at the Buckham Art Gallery on Second Street. Jan Worth-Nelson, a writing instructor at The University of Michigan-Flint, gathered her creative writing class to stage a group reading of the work they had created over the course of the semester. The readings were inspirational, the crowd spirited, and of course there was food and wine.
In addition to being a wildly talented writer and outstanding teacher, Jan is also an avid supporter of the local community and, dare I say, a good locavore. She noted at the beginning of the night that the wine we were drinking came from D’vine Wines, A Flint Farmer’s Market vendor, and the food came from Hoffman’s Deco Deli in Carriage Town. I highly recommend both places, if you haven’t tried them.
As the first group of readers presented their poems, I started thinking how important the connection is between cultural events and food. The two seem to create the ideal match. How many times have you gone out for dinner before a play or an art opening or the symphony? And how many times have you gone to the Torch or The White Horse after a poetry reading or an Art Walk?
On this Buckham poetry night, Philip, Stephanie and I had an early dinner at Blackstone’s Pub & Grill in Downtown Flint. It was nice to see Stephanie because I’ve had to cancel our lunch two weeks in a row (that’s why I’ve taken a brief hiatus from our Mexican Lunch Tour). She and Philip hadn’t seen each other in ages, so it turned out to be the perfect dinner reunion.
I know Blackstone’s has been reviewed to death and is the new darling of downtown, but bear with me as I put my own twist on what I see as the place that tries to be everything to everyone. And I don’t mean that as a critique; I really think they’ve designed the restaurant to cater to multiple audiences at the same time. I think it’s a unique concept for Flint, and judging by the size of the crowd every time I’ve been there, they may actually be on to something.
As their web site www.blackstonesgrill.com states, “The 6,600-square-foot Blackstone's Pub & Grill, one of a series of Uptown Reinvestment Corp. projects that are reshaping the downtown area, opens in what used to be a men's clothing shop that bore the same name. The pub and grill, with an Irish-American motif, maintains the building's authenticity with exposed walls and an original steel ceiling that soars 23 feet above a stained concrete floor.”
Indeed, the place is huge. But it doesn’t feel cavernous. The beautiful wood bar running almost the length of the restaurant not only creates its own space and atmosphere,. but it also helps define other spaces in the gargantuan dining area. There’s a more “quiet” space toward the front of the restaurant that includes the windows overlooking Saginaw Street with a baby grand piano in the corner. I say “quiet” because that word is relative in Blackstone’s. It’s a noisy, bustling place. Again, most likely by design.
The middle section of the restaurant is sort of the centerpiece where a majority of the tables are arranged. It feels like a dining room within a dining room. In the back is another, smaller group of tables, a pool table, and a couple of big screen televisions (two or three more are hung above the back wall of the bar), which creates a mini sports bar atmosphere. The genius of their space designer, though, is the incorporation of six feet long half-walls on wheels, which allows for a complete reimagining of the total space based on the needs of any given group of customers. The movable wall concept can accommodate big parties, while still maintaining a nice dining room atmosphere, and while preserving the bar/sports bar ambiance, which is why Blackstone’s succeeds at being everything to everyone.
The real reason to come to Blackstone’s, however, is for the food. I’ve heard some say it’s too expensive, some say the food isn’t always very good, and some say it only draws an upper class crowd, but I have almost a dozen trips to Blackstone’s under my belt, I can say with some authority that those criticisms are not totally accurate. The food is a bit pricey, but for the quality, I don’t think it’s unreasonable. I might not have liked everything I ate, but I wouldn’t say the food wasn’t good. The ingredients are fresh, the flavors and textures are exciting, and the overall dishes are generally quite successful.
The one area where I might agree with the critical voices is the clientele, but not in the way you might think. While Blackstone’s definitely caters to Flint’s bourgeois, it also caters to the rest of us. One can sidle up to the bar and chat it up with the polite and friendly bartenders, shoot pool and drink bud light in a bottle, or just have a sandwich with some friends. The problem I have is that Blackstone’s does not include the college students in their mix of patrons. Most college students couldn’t afford to eat here, and unless they sit at the bar, have one beer, and listen to the occasional band, this really isn’t their scene.
Blackstone’s isn’t alone in this area by any means, but I’m not arguing that we hold them responsible for catering to more populations than they probably can. The new places that have sprouted up in the downtown district have been great for the community and have drawn people back to Flint from the suburbs, especially after five o’clock. But aside from The Loft, The Torch, and Churchills, which are more bar than restaurant, there isn’t a quintessential college student restaurant yet along Saginaw Street. That’s not to say the college kids don’t go to places like The Lunch Studio, Brown Sugar Cafe, or any of the other hangouts, but what I’m suggesting is that if we’re going to create culinary niches in downtown, let’s make one or two for the college kids, who represent a pretty big percentage of the permanent downtown population.
As I said from the outset of this post, I have a love for food and a passion for the creative arts. Perhaps some of our best and brightest culinary and creative minds will come together to create the perfect storm of a vibrant and collaborative food and creative arts scene in the middle of our beloved city. I think we’re actually closer to this realization than we think.