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Restaurant spices up downtown Detroit

Urban turnaround

That day in November, 1995, when suburban restaurateurs Nick Apone and Nino Cutraro swung open the doors of Intermezzo, their new upscale Italian restaurant in downtown Detroit, they didn't know how directly they were speaking to a new generation of wannabe urbanites.

But for residents of the Detroit metropolitan area, the language of Intermezzo came through with a flourish.

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It was more than just a restaurant opening. "It was almost more of a symbolic thing," says John Tanasychuk, restaurant critic for the Detroit Free Press.

"It was suddenly like, 'Wow, there's something cool in Detroit!' People really responded to it."

And thank heaven they did, says Mr. Apone, who acknowledges that he took a risk putting an upscale restaurant in the heart of one of America's most run-down downtown areas.

"That first year we hoped we'd see sales of $1 million," Apone says of the 180-seat restaurant.

They hit $2.2 million instead, and it became clear that Apone's hunch had legs.

"It was really just a gut feeling," Apone remembers now. At the point at which Apone and his partner, Mr. Cutraro, were considering opening Intermezzo, downtown Detroit seemed an unlikely prospect.

Apart from a couple of blocks known as Greektown, popular among tourists, the city had long stopped being seen as a destination of any sort.

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Detroit is perhaps the most racially polarized major metropolitan area in the US, and the chasm between city and suburbs has done the city serious economic damage.

Whites, for the most part, live and work in the suburbs, and for decades generally avoided downtown.

The ripe time, the right place

Apone felt the time was ripe for change.

"People my age and older remember the riots of 1967 and 1968, and for them coming downtown had a certain stigma," says Apone. "But people 35 and younger have no recollection of that whatsoever. They love the metropolitan, downtown feeling."

Apone was determined to avoid a reputation as a "whites-only" or "blacks-only" restaurant, and to offer the kind of service that made everyone welcome.

"A lot of places didn't cater to African-American clientele," he says. "We cater to everybody the same."

"Everybody" has turned into a mixed crowd that reads like a who's who in Detroit.

Mayor Dennis Archer, Ford executive Edsel Ford, and several members of the Red Wings hockey team all show up regularly. Vice President Al Gore and singer Lou Rawls have dined there, as have Stevie Wonder and the artist-formerly-known-as Prince.

The latter two showed up the same night at Intermezzo, and wound up jamming spontaneously together in the lounge.

Big plans for small business

Apone, who bought his partner out and now operates the restaurant on his own, says he was encouraged to consider a downtown opening by the 1993 election of Mayor Archer.

Detroit, under Archer, has pumped $7 billion into new economic development. The city has also charted a 10 percent annual drop in its murder rate and a 33 percent increase in housing values.

Archer also quickly developed a reputation for running an administration that was friendly to small businesses.

When Apone first saw the future site of Intermezzo, it was an empty building facing a tiny, abandoned plot known as Harmonie Park. But he immediately grasped its possibilities. "I envisioned a little SoHo, like New York," he says of the pocket-sized triangular space.

Started as a risk, became a trend

Apone approached the Archer administration, which agreed to clean up the little park if he was serious about investing in the area. By the time the restaurant opened the park had been restored, and the city frequently sponsors live music there during warm weather months.

And Intermezzo cooked up new business interest in the neighborhood. Two cafes have sprung up; a recording studio moved in down the street; some loft spaces next door have been converted to residences; and another restaurant has opened around the corner, with a third scheduled for launch shortly.

A development company has picked up the lease on a deserted, 1920s-era club at one end of the park, and a developer plans to restore a hotel around the corner.

Earlier this year, Matthew Prentice, a suburban restaurateur who once scoffed at the idea of a restaurant in the city, spent $2 million to launch Duets, an upscale bistro in a different part of downtown. And it's struck the same successful tune as Intermezzo.

This time, it seems real

Apone says he considers competition the least of his worries.

"It's actually the best thing for us," he says. More restaurants make the city "more of a place to come."

By 2000, new downtown stadiums for the Lions and Tigers professional ball teams are expected to open, in addition to three casino projects.

Mr. Tanasychuk, of the Detroit Free Press, has been living in Detroit for a decade now and says he was slow to get excited about the notion of a turnaround.

"We've been hearing it for so many years," he says. "But this time I believe it. This time there are too many things to ignore."

Not everyone raves at Intermezzo's success, though. A small retailer in the neighborhood complains that rents have gone sky-high. "Six years ago there was a community here that Intermezzo has forced out," she remembers. "A dance company, a gallery, a performance club" - none of whom can afford the space. "There was more of a Bohemian art enclave kind of feeling."

But, she concedes, after seeing her city in ruins for so many years, "It's good to see the area being developed."

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