This summer marks the 20th anniversary of a Southeastern Michigan favorite with a loyal follow – ing: the Common Grill in Chelsea. Before the doors opened on Main Street in July 1991, “ I estimated that we could appeal to a 10-mile radius,” says owner and Executive Chef Craig Common. Chelsea was a bit sleepier than it is today, and the Purple Rose Theater—which eventually grew to draw people to the town from around the country—had just been launched by actor Jeff Daniels in February of that year. It was Daniels’ father, Bob Daniels, owner of Chelsea Lumber, who approached Common about starting a restaurant for the theater crowd.
“The first menu was much smaller and had things like deep-dish pizza and barbecue ribs,” says Common. The restaurant opened with 100 seats, and every detail was considered right down to the light fixtures in the shape of the simple yet solid beveled “ C” logo. From the start there was a chalkboard mounted over the bar listing daily specials. “The board allowed me to do what I loved, and as the years went on I got more creative,” he says. Diners’ response to those specials dictated where Common could go with his cooking, and over time the menu shifted toward seafood, with a focus on freshwater fish.
The 10-mile radius was a gross underestimate, and the reputation of the Common Grill has extended well beyond that with excellent reviews from the start in the Detroit Free Press, the Ann Arbor News and the Detroit News, as well as national recognition with coverage in Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines. In 1997, Common had the great honor of preparing dinner at the famous James Beard House in New York. And this year he was one of the semi-finalists for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region in the 2011 James Beard Awards. Additionally, the Common Grill was selected as one of Detroit’s top 10 restaurants in the national edition of the Zagat Guide, America’s Top Restaurants 2011.
Common has received some of the highest praise available to a chef, which he has earned over a long career of hard work. He fell in love with restaurant life at a very young age. His first job was as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Dearborn Heights while he was in high school, and he says, “It got in my blood.” In 1973, after a couple of years of college, he left to travel in Europe and explore the food culture there. “The markets had a pretty positive effect on me,” he explains. “Compared to what you saw here, it was incredible.” His time in Europe greatly influenced his attitude about the quality of ingredients used in his cooking.
Common returned home from his trip and immediately started working for the C. A. Muer restaurant group, which specialized in seafood restaurants. He worked his way up through the ranks, eventually rising to a position in charge of opening new restaurants and serving as corporate chef in charge of 16 restaurants. He was there 12 years before he was approached by Daniels to open his own place.
Common’s focus has stayed true to the influence of his first European trip many years ago, and his dedication to the highest quality ingredients has only grown. Everything at the Common Grill is made from scratch in-house. The restaurant is known for homemade bread and rolls, generously doused with butter and herbs, that have a cult-like following. “On the day before Thanksgiving, we sell between 1,200 and 1,500 dozen,” Common says.
In order to stay aware of shifts in taste and find new inspiration, Common likes to make annual trips to either New York or San Francisco and the California wine country. “I try to do layers of flavor in my food, so you’re not bored by it. I try not to be a trend follower, but I like to see what’s out there and keep it as fresh as possible.”
Beyond good food, Common is adamant about great service. “We’re here to take care of our guests. We engrain it in our people. It’s simple: You have to have good food, but if you don’t take care of your guests, there are too many other options out there for them.” He has a dedicated staff, many of whom have been with the restaurant for over 10 years and there are even a couple who have been on board from the start.
In 20 years’ time he has proven to be a valuable and active member of the Chelsea business community. “When you’re a part of the business community, you owe it to the community to support it as much as you can,” explains Common. Influenced by a similar festival he saw in Naples, Florida, Common helped found the Sounds & Sights Festival that will celebrate its seventh year this summer. The festival brings live music, children’s entertainers, artists, outdoor movies and more to the streets of Chelsea all summer long. “Being here for 20 years, you see babies grow up, people get older,” Common says. “You don’t think about that when you open a restaurant—about being a part of the community.”
The Common Grill: 112 S. Main St., Chelsea; 734-475-0470; commongrill.com
Nicole Ray is an Ann Arbor–based freelance writer and illustrator. She enjoys foraging for fiddleheads, pouncing on purslane and diving into dessert. This was originally published in Edible wow’s Summer 2011 issue. Find more great stories at ediblewow.com