America’s Coolest Comeback Towns

By Carole Jacobs

DETROIT

Once key notches in America’s Rust Belt, these two comeback towns are now as clean, beautiful and trendy as America’s super cities. You’ll find exciting new foodie scenes, swank new hotels (many occupying restored turn-of-the-century gems), swooping ‘scrapers, elegant shopping districts, sleek sports stadiums, glam casinos, quaint residential hoods, historic farmers markets, a treasure trove of ‘20s-style architecture and price tags neither coast has seen in eons. So, move over, New York and LA, and make room for America’s most surprising -- and stunning -- second acts. Here’s where to go to see the best of the new (and the restored) Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Spend a weekend (or a week) in the new and improved Motor City

It’s hard to believe that just four years ago, Detroit went belly-up, declared bankruptcy and became the biggest municipal flop in U.S. history. Since then—and defying people who claimed Detroit would be a ghost town by 2016 --the Motor City has undergone a full-scale Renaissance. Dark alleys and derelict neighborhoods have been transformed into dazzling public spaces that designer hotels and trendy restaurants now call home, and it’s a sign of the times that an abandoned parking structure in a formerly dicey ‘hood is being converted into a plush condo complex. (Note: If you’re a never-home/out-and-about retiree, Detroit has a 400-square-foot luxury crash pad with your name on it.)

Although most of the city’s slums have been or are being leveled, the country’s best examples of 1920s architecture (Beaux-Arts, Romanesque, Renaissance Revival and Neo-Gothic) still stand tall in downtown Detroit, many spiffed up and repurposed for businesses that didn’t even exist four years ago.  Detroit’s once-forlorn waterfront now has a nature preserve, outdoor adventure center, restaurants, shops, bike paths and kayaking on the Detroit River, an industrial river that was once so polluted it routinely burned. The 1.3-mile-long Dequindre Cut, a former rail line-turned- recreational path, passes by the tumbledown remains of buildings “defaced” with ‘50s graffiti which has been left in place as a tribute to Detroit’s long tradition of street art.

Where to stay: The Aloft Hotel is an art-deco treasure tucked inside the historic Whitney Building while the MGM Grand is a swank high-rise anchoring the MGM Grand Casino, built in 1999 and the first luxury resort casino in a major city outside Las Vegas.

Do brunch: Traffic Jam & Snug, a ‘60s restaurant, bakery and brewery located in the historic Canfield neighborhood, saw Detroit go down around it before rising from the ashes. Try the homemade Italian-style portabella soup, the house-brewed doppelbock braised beef brisket and unusual house beers like Chocolate Amber Brew.

Get some culture: The Henry Ford Museum’s claim of being “America’s great history attraction” is only a slight exaggeration.  See the chair in which Abraham Lincoln sat on the night of his assassination, the actual bus that Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the back of, and the Cadillac that carried John F. Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas. Then wander the museum’s Greenfield Village, where 100 historic buildings were moved from their original settings and arranged in a village setting. Check out the Wright brother’ bicycle shop, Noah Webster’s home, the Illinois courthouse where Lincoln practiced law, and Eagles Tavern, a former stagecoach stop where dishes made from 175-year-old recipes are testament to the days when Americans really ate like they meant it: Costumed waiters serve plates heaped with huge slabs of roast pork that make The Whopper look like a tea sandwich. Wash it down with a strawberry sarsaparilla and save room for the bread pudding. www.thehenryford.org. At the Detroit Institute of Art, one of the world’s greatest art museums, ogle Mexican artist Diego Riviera’s wall-sized frescoes depicting the industrial muscle behind Detroit’s growth and get close-up views of famous masterpieces like Picasso’s “Melancholy Woman” and Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait.”

Shop till you drop: Detroit’s 43-acre Eastern Market is the country’s largest and oldest (1841) indoor/outdoor farmer’s market.  www.easternmarket.com Six blocks of historic brick storefronts house old-time Italian bakeries, butcher shops and cheese stores while several warehouses are crammed with food stands pedaling Michigan pumpkins to Indian spices and an international array of street food --from Mexican tacos and Polish pierogis to Greek gyros. Taste the best of the Market on a food crawl with Feet on the Street Tours. www.enjoythed.com

Everybody say “Yeah!” Experience the magic of Motown at the Motown Museum, which includes the humble apartment where fledging record producer Berry Gordon Jr. started it all and Studio A, the famous pint-sized recording studio where the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder laid down their world-famous tracks. The staff kept the studio’s candy machine stocked with Babe Ruths, Stevie’s favorite snack, and made sure it was always located behind the fourth knob to the left so Stevie could locate it by touch.

Do the party-bike brew tour: Detroit is a sports-centric town with three downtown sports stadiums -- and innumerable sports bars. Experience the best of the midtown brews with Michigan Pedaler. Following dinner at Bookie’s Bar & Grille, one of Detroit’s favorite hangs featuring three floors of draft brews and seriously good grub (try the Buffalo chicken wrap or black bean tostada burger), hop on the party-bike, with bicycle seats and pedals for 10 riders, and head to Detroit’s legendary midtown watering holes. At Honest John’s, neon signs behind the counter (“Sobriety Sucks,” “Count Your Change) say it all. Or unwind at the Bronx Bar, an old-time haunt with a pool table, jukebox and draft beers.  Feel free to imbibe: The party-bike is equipped with an electric motor that will power you back to Bookie’s in the event you’re too tired or inebriated to pedal.

5-star night on the town: Consider dinner at Santorini, a contemporary Greek restaurant in Detroit’s hip-and-happening’ Greektown. The eatery is run by a woman chef who went to culinary school after bemoaning Detroit’s dearth of authentic Greek restaurants in the early 2000s, then returned home to open her own. Greek specialists include Moussaka—sliced eggplant, potato and beef simmered with Greek herbs and spices and topped with creamy Béchamel sauce.

Or, for the best steak in the Midwest served in an ultra-swank setting, head to Wolfgang Puck Steak at the MGM Grand casino.

Catch a game: Even if spectator sports put you in a stupor, you won’t believe Little Caesar’s Arena. Built by the Detroit family of Little Caesar’s pizza fame, the sleek, high-tech arena is the centerpiece of a 45-block urban renewal project and has an indoor pedestrian mall lined with restaurants and shops, and elegant viewing suites offering catered snacks and booze and a bird’s eye view of the action.

Welcome to The Detroit time machine: Even if you went through high school with a slide rule in in your shirt pocket, the minute you enter The Belt, you’ll seem too cool for school. A refurbished alley-turned-hip shopping/dining district, The Belt includes Z Garage, the only parking structure on earth with artwork on the walls and roof; Standby, a dimly-lit pocket-sized bar where you can party like it’s 1993 while sipping radically creative cocktails (try Mezcal Me Maybe and Dog Days Negroni) and The Punch Bowl, an adult, sophisticated take on Chuck E. Cheese’s. You bring the people and the restaurant supplies the rest: food, booze, a happening party vibe and even an in-house bowling alley where you can work off dinner. How cool is that?

 

PITTSBURGH

The Steel City never looked or tasted this good

The scene: From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Pittsburgh’s steel industry began to tank as the U.S. entered a new era of de-industrialization. After the 1981–1982 recession, the mills laid off 153,000 workers and one by one, Pittsburgh’s steel mills began to shut down. The city, fueled by innovations from industrialist Andrew Carnegie and others, lost young people educated at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon because there were no jobs for them upon graduation, and the city entered a years-long death spiral.

Today, a bumper crop of new jobs in the tech, health and medical fields are not only keeping recent grads in town but luring scores of educated millennials and boomers seeking a hip place to live with more affordable housing and costs of living than super cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, LA and Seattle.  Meanwhile, move over, Silicon Valley: Google recently built two offices in Pittsburgh, the city is aggressively courting Amazon and Pittsburgh's old U.S. Steel Tower now hears the name off UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

As was the case in Detroit, Pittsburgh’s path to recovery also included developing its waterfront, beautifying its downtown, building new hotels, expanding cultural ops and setting the stage for a smoking-hot foodie scene. Today, chic restaurants are breathing new life into the city’s once-crumbling warehouse and you can forget about burning rivers and blast furnaces. Pittsburgh’s three rivers never been cleaner or prettier, and there’s no fumes or flames at the city’s sole remaining blast furnace, which is now a living history museum.

Where to stay: The Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel, a restored historical gem located in Pittsburgh’s downtown cultural district, is within walking distance of museums, performing arts venues, 16 restaurants and shopping. Built in 1906 by prominent Pittsburgh architect Grosvenor Atterbury and originally called The Fulton Building, the structure was home to offices, a night club and World War II hospital before opening as a luxury hotel in 2001. Today, the Renaissance is a life-size work of art with mosaic floors made from cut stone and polished black slate, lobby grills made of solid brass, and granite floors quarried from the same Connecticut quarry that supplied the stone for the Statue of Liberty. www.renaissancepittsburghhotel.com

Best breakfast: Head to the hip hood of Regent Square and Square Café for homemade, frisbee-sized lemon, berry and ricotta pancakes, everything but the kitchen sink omelets made with locally sourced produce and eggs and creative vegetarian ops like the Brussels Sprout Bowl, a concoction of cheesy grits topped with sautéed shaved sprouts, leeks, bacon, mushrooms and eggs. www.square-café.com

Burn it off by walking the bridges: “The City of Bridges has 446 bridges -- more than any other city in the world, including Venice, Italy, and many listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Several are also a great place to walk, cycle, enjoy art and cultural fetes and soak up panoramic views: The beautiful Smithfield Street Bridge, a vision of glittering gold, is the largest ever built in the United States while the Robert Clemente Bridge, built in 1819 as a wooden covered bridge, now links to Pittsburgh’s sports arena and is closed to vehicular traffic on game days. It’s also one of three parallel and nearly identical suspension bridges collectively called “The Three Sisters.” The other two include the Rachel Carson Bridge, which hosted a dazzling lights/wind power display last Christmas, and the Andy Warhol Bridge, which is decorated with Andy Warhol banners, potted plants hanging from lamp posts and leads to the world-famous museum. www.heinzhistorycenter.org/.../pittsburgh-the-city-of-bridges.com

Lunch at The Strip: Wedged between the steep slopes of Mount Washington and the Monongahela River, this historic farmer’s market features the food Pittsburgh loves to eat, from Italian bakeries and Polish delis to Primanti’s, a longtime fave of steelworkers for their portable, whole-meal-on-a-bun sandwiches. You don’t even need a lunchbox to try the “Pitts Burger Cheese Steak, a burger heaped with a full order of greasy, hand-cut fries, creamy cole slaw, tomato and onion.   Other must-stops include Mancini’s Bakery for homemade cinnamon bread; Colangelo’s Bakery and Café for dark cocoa coconut maroons, Sunseri’s for killer pepperoni rolls; Enrico Biscotti Café for homemade biscotti and the S&D Polish Deli for handmade perogies. See and taste it all on a Burgh, Bits and Bites food crawl. www.neighborsinthestrip.com

For a one-of-a-kind sit-down lunch featuring items from four different restaurants, check out Smallman’s Galley, Pittsburgh’s first food hall and restaurant incubator. The galley hires four aspiring chefs for 18 months so they can spread their culinary wings, build a clientele and learn the restaurant biz before opening their own. Current eateries include IronBorn (handcrafted pizza), Colona (Latin American fare), Banhmilicious (modern Vietnamese fare) and Brunoise (progressive American fare like braised lamb pasta and mac and cheese). www.smallmansgalley.org

Afternoon at the museum: Occupying a converted music store, The Andy Warhol Museum is the largest in the world devoted to the work of a single artist. Although typically remembered as a long-standing artist of New York’s arts scene, America’s most famous pop artist was actually a Pittsburgh boy, born and raised. See his outsized red Campbell’s soup cans, the room of floating, metallic Silver Clouds and star in your own short movie with the screen test machine. www.warhol.org

Ticket to ride: Check out the city and the three rivers that run through it on the Gateway Clipper, which offers narrated tours. Or ride back in time and up panoramic views aboard the Duquesne Incline, a century-old wooden cable car originally built to carry cargo and weary passengers up Mt. Washington’s killer slopes. www.gatewayclipper.com; www.dusqueneincline.org

Shop till you drop: The tony hood of Squirrel Hill, named for the chattering critters that live in its many leafy parks, is home to a slew of one-of-a-kind eateries and shops. Go gluten-free at Gluuteny, sip afternoon tea at the Rose Tea Café or chow down ethnic noodles at Tan lac Vien Vietnamese Bistro. Browse Ten Thousand Villages for handcrafted items and buy hard-to-find vinyl at Jerry’s Records, named one of the country’s best record stores by Rolling Stone. www.coolpgh.pitt.edu/living/squirrel-hill.php

Night on the town: Start with craft cocktails at the Ace Hotel Whitfield, set in a century-old YMCA building.  The Smoking Gun cocktail delivers an intoxicating punch of bourbon, scotch, chipotle-infused agave and pineapple so go ahead and knock yourself out. Then head to Spoon, which launched the city’s culinary rebirth and serves seasonal gourmet dishes like stuffed quail and maple pumpkin turnovers. Or for chestnut fettucine and wild boar, try Bar Marco, a former firehouse-turned rustic-chic eatery. For after-dinner drinks, try Butcher and the Rye, the first in Pittsburgh to be nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award with 300 types of whiskey. Or have a fiery margarita at Tako, a lively downtown taqueria that also serves innovative Mexican street fare. Octopus tacos, anyone?

Into the country: From mid-to-late October, the deciduous forests surrounding Pittsburgh blaze yellow, orange and crimson. See it all on a scenic drive to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, a 2,000-acre 5-star playground for adults and kids located about 90 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Whatever you want to do is here: off-road driving, animal safaris, zip lines, an Outdoor Adventure Center, a ski resort with six slopes, a Vegas-style casino, a PGA championship golf courses, several restaurants, two spas, a private landing strip for well-heeled visitors and three deluxe lodges whose faux architecture outdoes the best of the Vegas Strip.

Visit France without the jet lag by staying at The Chateau Lafayette, a dead ringer for the Ritz Paris with a grand reception lobby dripping with crystal chandeliers, a tea room, cigar bar, multi-million-dollar art collection and Lautrec, a five-star gourmet French restaurant whose Sunday brunch (Mississippi mud pies, chocolate tortes, cheesecake and mousse) is guaranteed to put you in a carb-induced coma. Opulent guest rooms have vaulted ceilings, chandeliers, Jacuzzi tubs, floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies overlooking formal gardens and rolling hillside laced with walking paths.

Or up the ante even more by settling into Falling Rock, the resort’s intimate hotel modeled after Frank Lloyd Rock’s masterpiece overlooking the golf course.  The drop-dead-gorgeous 42 suites come with 24-hour butler service, a 10-option pillow menu, a drawn bath menu, milk-and-cookie turndown and on-site access to an infinity pool complex and upscale steakhouse.  

For luxury pampering, The Woodland Spa has all the latest and greatest treatments. Or head to the Holistic Healing Center for integrative treatments, Ayurveda medicine, yoga and meditation classes and the Holistic Garden.  

Looking for a relaxing place to bring the family and kids for Thanksgiving? During Nemacolin’s Thanksgiving holiday weekend Nov. 23-26, the resort twinkles and blinks with a million fairy lights and there’s holiday food and fun galore: free hot chocolate and cider, visits with Santa, craft workshops for kids and a Thanksgiving Day feast with live entertainemt.www.nemacolin.com

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