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City Wings Detroit

2896 West Grand Boulevard
Detroit, Michigan 48202

Grant Lancaster

By Tunde Wey
October 10, 2012

As far as Detroit’s culinary cannon is concerned, we are probably most famous for our Coney dogs – hot dogs slathered generously with beanless meaty chili and topped with chopped white onions and yellow mustard. Of less savory note are the rows of dirty bulletproof glass dividers that greet customers in many of the city’s diners and restaurants. Grant Lancaster is on a mission to change both of those things.
From the outside City Wings Detroit looks like another unassuming building among a row of other equally unassuming (read: unremarkable) buildings. It sits on the fairly busy West Grand Boulevard in New Center. There is nothing notable about the stretch of block City Wings inhabits, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the inside would be equally unremarkable.
But step inside and you are transported. City Wings is strikingly modern; more a chic lounge than a grab-and-go wing joint. There are high chairs lined behind a long bar bench overlooking the boulevard through the wall of windows at the front. A wood-paneled bench pressed against the wall extends lengthwise from one side of the restaurant to the other. The interior is spacious and uncluttered.
An attractive countertop cordons off the kitchen and service counter area, which are both totally open to the dining room. The kitchen is meticulously kept; its well-ordered array of deep-frying baskets and gleaming brushed stainless steel equipment are all tuned to the music of sizzling chicken wings. The symphony of sounds at City Wings is an orchestra of crackling fry oil, clanging steel, register slides and trays delivered to tables, all background to the smooth R&B and soul music that play inside. Classic hip-hop soothingly placates eager customers, who bob their heads and drum their toes to the infectious bass lines.
While food preference is certainly subjective, the wings are City Wings are delectable. Only Amish chickens are used (no factory-farmed poultry here) and the rubs are made in-house. In fact, most of the food is made right inside the restaurant save for their fries, onion rings and okras. From the 17 different flavored wings to the beans, turkey and mac-and-cheese, the recipes are generations old and the ingredients organic.
This is not Detroit—at least not the Detroit of bulletproof glass dividers, dirty floors and dismissive service. The problem is not that Detroit doesn’t have nice restaurants; on the contrary, the city is filled with them. What Detroit lacks, and where City Wings succeeds, is a respectable restaurant that serves delicious from-scratch food at an affordable price to people in a city with predominantly fast-food options.
In addition to being a restaurateur, Grant Lancaster is also a fire fighter. Tall, bald and self-assured, Lancaster exudes the kind of cool confidence it takes to walk into a fire—and to start a restaurant. Starting a restaurant also takes experience; the restaurant business has been Lancaster’s life since 1994. Now 42, Lancaster’s first foray into the industry was instructional, if brief. While in college in Atlanta, Lancaster and some friends opened up the Soul Food Joint. It was both a grand opening and a grand closing—after opening in May 1994, it was closed in November of that same year. For Lancaster the benefit of the experience was the connection he made to the owner of another restaurant, City Wings, which was around the corner from his place.
After his restaurant closed, Lancaster went to work for City Wings. Starting at the bottom rung of the company, Lancaster eventually rose to buy an ownership stake in the business. It was during this time that Lancaster learned the restaurant business first-hand. “I put far more time in it than I got paid for—I was working 16-18-hour days. In my mind what I was getting was the key to the franchise—the keys to the car.” In 1998, after working four years at City Wings, Lancaster decided to return to Detroit. Armed with the knowledge and expertise, Lancaster decided to open up City Wings.
It would take twelve years for Lancaster to meet his goal. For him it was not a dream deferred but rather a period of planning and preparation. “To make a typical Detroit spot, I could have opened that a long time ago but that’s not what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted to make something that was unique and pleasing to the eye. A place where people will feel comfortable … I wanted it to be clean. Something new; new is not something you see a lot in Detroit.”
After eventually securing a $300,000 investment from private sources, Lancaster went to work building the kind of restaurant he believed the city deserved. It took a year and four months of complete renovation to bring City Wings to its current modernist interior. Even after two years of operation, it is decidedly new and exceptionally clean.
Lancaster says, “Everything is done on purpose; there is no big board menu, which eliminates conversation. So you can’t just order food, you have to talk to someone to ask what to get. Dialogue is important and people appreciate that.” He adds (half joking, but the other half quite serious), “You get tired of screaming from behind the bullet proof glass, and not everyone is a criminal.”
In a city with its fair share of uninspired restaurants, it is delightful that a place with from-scratch food, toe-thumping music and an upscale-yet-inviting ambiance exists. Now that’s a mouthful we can all appreciate.

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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