James Rigato knows Detroit inside out.
He’s the perfect ambassador for the Motor City’s thriving and creative food and drink scene, since, after all, he helped create it.
The Michigan native grew up in the small town of Howell, about halfway between Detroit and Lansing, and got his first job in the restaurant business at 14, as a dishwasher at a local diner. After attending culinary school (in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, of course), he worked his way up through some of the city’s finest restaurant kitchens and finally struck out on his own, opening The Root in 2011 and Mabel Gray in 2015.
Though his culinary star is rising—he won a spot on season 12 of Top Chef and was named a best new chef in the region by Food & Wine, and Mabel Gray was a James Beard Best New Restaurant Award semifinalist—Rigato remains committed to supporting his home state. The “Young Guns” dinners he hosts regularly spotlight promising area chefs, and both of his restaurants serve produce from the region and even frequently host performances from neighborhood bands.
He also knows his drinks, placing particular importance on the wines and cocktails paired with the dishes on Mabel Gray’s ever-changing menu. And, naturally, we got him to share with us his three favorite beverages in town. You won’t be disappointed!
Montenegro Old Fashioned at Standby
“Joe Rob is the best bartender in Detroit,” Rigato says, without hesitation. At speakeasy-style joint Standby, whose hidden entrance is off a graffiti-covered alleyway, Rob “has a 50-drink cocktail menu that has never disappointed me.” That extensive menu pairs beautifully with a selection of internationally inspired bar bites. Rigato’s usual order here is a classic Old Fashioned that swaps out whiskey for Amaro Montenegro, an Italian bitter liqueur with notes of flowers, spice and citrus. “Amaro is a cocktail crutch for me,” Rigato says, “but really, anything Joe does is genius. Believe the hype.”
Miller Genuine Draft at Madison Park Bowl Bar & Grill
You read that right: One of Rigato’s favorite drinks in Detroit is a cheap domestic lager at a bowling alley bar. He explains: “For the last 100 years of constant change, metro Detroit has never abandoned our beloved dive bar. Darts, shuffleboard, mini tacos, pool, keno, sassy local ladies pouring beers and faux stone and wood paneling. It’s my hiding place and by far my favorite bar.” The spot does offer a selection of local beers Rigato enjoys as well, but for the full dive-bar experience you’ve got to order an MGD.
Cold, Cold Night at The Oakland Art Novelty Company
Opened in 2011, The Oakland was one of the first craft-cocktail joints in the Detroit area, and is arguably the city’s best-known watering hole. Part of the appeal of the spot for Rigato is owner Sandy Levine’s stalwart support of the local drinks scene. “He’s always been a soldier of hospitality, hosting field trips to bourbon country with his staff and creating a comfortable drinking environment for guests,” Rigato says. The Oakland offers a wide variety of drinks, including its annual transformation into a tiki bar each summer, but at this frigid time of year, Rigato goes with the appropriately named Cold, Cold Night cocktail, which is a twist on the Whiskey Sour with bourbon, raisins, bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup, lemon and orange, and a trio of bitters. “It’s a great last drink of the night,” he says.