Hygrade Deli – Detroit

“What is your favorite restaurant?”

It’s an impossible question. “Favorite” implies one restaurant, in all things, rises above all others in every possible way. It implies a sacrifice; the inevitable “desert island” question, a rhetorical game for children. You can’t have a favorite. Can you?

The author sitting inside Hygrade Deli in Detroit, Michigan
The interior is older than me and probably hasn’t changed in my lifetime

I’d like to think that I don’t have a favorite… but this time of quarantine and closure has shined a blinding light, casting stark shadows on some harsh realities: some of the places we love will not survive this pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis that goes along with it. The hand of chaos drifts over us, like a tornado indiscriminately obliterating a swath through our neighborhood, leaving us to ask: who will make it? Who won’t?

A BLT sandwich with swiss cheese on an onion roll at Hygrade Deli in Detroit
BLT with Swiss cheese on an onion roll and a bowl of chili

Restaurants are more than just places to get food. A restaurant can be almost like a home for those of us who love food. Walking in can convey a sense of relief, of warmth, of safety. It can be a place of refuge, of comfort, of predictability. Even if the staff doesn’t know your name, you know that chair, that smell, that particular jingle as the door opens, that particular clack of the cash register as it is slammed shut over and over again. You know that when you leave and disappear into the world, it will be the same when you come back weeks or months later, as if the restaurant itself exists in a time capsule, its own pocket dimension, a place unaffected by whatever is going on out there.

Detroit's Best Reuben Sandwich at Hygrade Deli on Michigan Avenue
Detroit’s best Reuben sandwich. No contest.

Except now, what’s going on out there is affecting what happens inside. Our favorite places are closed or closing. They are struggling to figure out how and if they’ll be able to re-open. Some of them will never be able to do so. The lines are being drawn in a variety of ways; some racial, some based on who is most popular on Instagram or who got the most coverage in Eater. New Detroit will weather this better than Old Detroit, and Hygrade sometimes manages to straddle the line, but is pretty much firmly in the Old Detroit camp.

This has been the line of thought that brought me back to this childish question: What’s my favorite restaurant?

A hot meatloaf sandwich with gravy and mashed potatoes from Hygrade Deli in Detroit
Hot meatloaf sandwich with mashed potatoes

I realized that if Hygrade Deli didn’t survive this crisis, I would be devastated. Maybe that doesn’t make it my favorite. Maybe if I’m not in the mood for a perfect sandwich or a bowl of the best chili I’ve ever had or a cup of mediocre but predictable coffee, or maybe if I’m not in the mood to talk, or maybe if I want something more exotic than corned beef—maybe then Hygrade Deli isn’t my favorite restaurant on that particular day. But maybe… maybe sometimes it is.

The chili from Hygrade Deli in Detroit
My favorite chili in the world. Stuart will not give me the recipe. I’ve asked.

Hygrade is so special to me because it’s how I aspire to be: thoroughly unpretentious, accommodating, comforting, quirky, funny, unaffected by the ups and downs of daily life, and passionate about doing a few things really well.

Corned beef sandwich with a bowl of chili from Hygrade Deli in Detroit
My most common order: Meal on a sandwich with corned beef on an onion roll and a bowl of that damned chili

But now it is affected. Hygrade is closed for now because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the State shelter-in-place orders. The seven people that keep the place running day in and day out are all at home in quarantine, wondering if they’ll have a job in a month, in two months, in a year. The owner, Stuart, put a fundraiser up to help out his staff. Maybe it’ll be enough for a bit. Maybe it won’t.

A BLT sandwich with cheese from Hygrade Deli in Detroit
I always add a slice of cheese to my BLT

I talked to Stuart tonight a little bit; he mentioned maybe trying to re-open for delivery and curbside pickup and carryout only soon. Perhaps I’m being nostalgic and melodramatic and maybe this will all blow over and everything will be fine. Maybe in two months I’ll walk in, Will will say “What’s up man?” and sling a glass of water down at my table and say “I don’t know why I bother, you don’t need a menu” and Linda will come up behind me, hug me, and say “Oh I missed you honey, it’s nice to see you again, how’s your dad?” and Stuart will say, “I saw you post a sandwich from that other place on your Instagram, what’s up with that?” and Terry will roll her eyes and say something like “Maybe he likes it better than your food” and everything will be as it was.

Meal on a sandwich. Corned beef sandwich at Hygrade Deli in Detroit
The “Meal on a Sandwich” with corned beef on an onion roll. My “usual”

Hygrade Deli is located on Michigan Avenue between Grand Blvd and I-96. The Instagram set tried to call it “West Corktown” but that’s a lotta new Detroit BS. It’s in Core City or Southwest, depending on who you ask. You can find them on Facebook for now.

Triple-decker turkey and bacon sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and Russian dressing on rye from Hygrade Deli in Detroit
Triple-decker turkey and bacon sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and Russian dressing on rye
Corned beef on an onion roll from Hygrade Deli in Detroit
I don’t like the pickles. There, I said it.

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