Has Ferndale Gone Swank?
New businesses are raising the bar by offering modern elegance to a diverse – and sophisticated – population.
Chandeliers and romantic candles give off a speakeasy vibe at the Oakland Art Novelty Company on Nine Mile Road. Just across Woodward Avenue, light pours in through the window walls of Torino Espresso + Bar where cappuccinos share menu space with hand-crafted cocktails. And at Valentine Cocktail Bar, the bartender just harvested that fresh mint in your drink from the garden right outside.
Some might call this the very definition of local “swank” in the most positive sense of the word — Ferndale businesses that are raising the bar with a “fashionably elegant” and “smart” operating philosophy.
It's a natural fit for Ferndale, say these business owners, and they are more than happy to lead the way in offering new taste and sensory experiences to a population of diverse Ferndalians.
So has Ferndale indeed gone swank?
Torino, Oakland and Valentine opened within months of each other and have been around for less than a year. But forget flashiness or pretense; the owners say they were simply eager to establish unique bars that cater to people who are hip and casual – and also quite sophisticated.
"Ferndale definitely does have a very casual vibe," Torino co-owner Noah Dorfman said. "But people here also really appreciate modern elegance, and that's what we're bringing to the table. A bar doesn't have to have 50 TVs, and it doesn't have to be a place where all the drinks are made with pre-made drink mixes."
So don't expect to walk into any of these new establishments and get sensory overload or a martini with the bright green tinge of Apple Pucker. The music is quiet. There are no TVs. And with the handcrafted quality of their products, patrons will get the message that the drinks here are meant to be savored, not slammed.
Oakland, in fact, lets you know right on the menu that you should "prove yourself able to carry our libations, keep your heads, and remain ladies and gentlemen."
The guy behind the bar at Valentine, Nick Brancaleone, likewise pointed out what can happen when you take the time to appreciate a well-made drink.
"Great cocktails make great conversations," Brancaleone said.
But make no mistake, all of these venues have their own distinct ambience, and all offer their own version of swank.
Torino marries good coffee and booze. It's the only place in Ferndale where you can order a latte or an espresso martini at 7 a.m. They wanted to fill that niche, Dorfman said, because while he knew of plenty of places like this in Miami where he lived for 10 years, he and his partners didn't know of any other place in their native Detroit like it. The feel is light, sleek and modern. There's a hand-poured concrete bar. They offer freshly prepared appetizers and sandwiches to go with your espresso and butterscotch cream. And they want you to enjoy yourself.
"This isn't a place where you're gonna come in, shovel the food in your face and leave," Dorfman said.
Unlike Torino's minimalism, Oakland is a darkly lit bar oozing with intricate details like tufted velvet chairs, crystal accoutrements and ornate chandeliers. The classic cocktails are from the era before Prohibition, when drinking was "one of the pleasures of life – not one of its evils." The drinks are made with fresh fruit, real sugar and the highest quality liquors. As is the case with Torino and Valentine, Oakland shuns pre-made drink mixes.
"I wanted people to walk in here and be transported to a different time," Oakland owner Sandy Levine said. "And I wanted to pick one thing and do it well. So we only serve drinks made with true craftsmanship, and I think the style and atmosphere of our place reflects that."
Valentine Cocktail Bar, of course, is primarily an introduction to the Valentine Distilling Co. where Valentine Vodka is made. There is a hazy red glow throughout the small industrial space of reclaimed brick walls.
Owner Rifino Valentine said he wanted to establish a front-room bar where cocktails are made "the right way" using only fresh ingredients and a little extra time and care. It's the same with his vodka, he said.
"I think people in Ferndale just appreciate it when things are done the right way," Valentine said. "We produce our vodka like it was produced a hundred years ago. It may not be the cheapest or the fastest, but it's the right way."