Detroit: SEE-FOOD Capital of America

Small restaurants that once served a dense residential population have nearly disappeared in Detroit.  To attract attention to their wares, these small businesses had to communicate quickly with people passing by in automobiles and on foot, and chose to do so with images of food painted on walls. Here, the simple message is unmistakable and urgent.

Johnnie Mae Soul Food will forever tantalize with its visual menu of mouthwatering foods. The wall advertisement was successfully completed, but Johnnie Mae never opened.

Big Stu’s Soul Food also relied on a visual menu. With the huge Chicken Bomber flanked by a smaller array of delectable offerings, it’s to be lamented that Big Stu’s is no longer open. This colorful display continues to make stomachs growl at West Warren Avenue and McGraw on Detroit’s west side.

Other storefronts were mainly takeout, with no dine-in options. The exterior of Geek’s Hole in the Wall, covered in nearly weatherproof purple paint, depicts a fried chicken leg, grasped in the fist of the cook, smashing through the wall. Through the “opening” left by the “damage,” we get a peek at the other foods on offer.

Flagg’s Soul Food Deli and Grill’s humorous, inviting and down- homey motto was “Food So Good… Gotta Take Yo’ Shoes Off To Eat!”  Now that was an appealing dining option.

Every attempt was made to depict or describe nearly every dish associated with soul food at the now-defunct Pearls Dining. “Tasty Delicious Umm Good.”

As I looked inside, I saw the ceiling is collapsing from water damage but the table and chairs remain in place, perhaps in the hope of a grand re-opening someday.

At the corner of Gratiot and East Grand Boulevard sits a little take-out place, originally Utopia Grill, that evolved into FLA-MIN MOEZ SOUL FOOD. The business relied on drawing you in with a deftly-painted rack of ribs whose juices dripped down the safety-yellow wall. Fla-Min Moez certainly did not last long, but the ribs are still there for the pickin’ and lickin’.

I spent a day location scouting in Detroit with this duo of French documentary filmmakers. We stopped at the defunct Houston Grill to take a look at the cheerful artwork completed by Lee “Bird” Walker, a commercial sign painter of note in the area. The Houston was a longtime fixture on Gratiot Avenue.

The “Home of the Murder Burger” image is painted on the parking-lot side of a failed business on Dexter Avenue. The image can be seen only briefly as you drive by the building. The takeout store’s name reflected the “Murder Capital of America” label once attached to Detroit. ( This image appears in Talking Shops: Detroit Commercial Folk Art – author David Clements  and still available at: Wayne State University Press and Amazon.)

Ham Palace out on West Fort Street, was still open the last I knew. The clever caricature of a pig working at washing the dishes of a busy restaurant was a welcome visual as I drove by.

A large image of a black Angus cow is the star attraction representing the prime product at the Old World Meat Market on Joy Road.  The Iraqi father and his son are very proud of the store, founded in 1965. They graciously allowed me to take photographs inside for my location file of Detroit store images.

Fatboyz Eatery on Mack relied on brightly painted walls to display its collection of take-out foods. I would love to get the waffles and chicken, or a grilled chicken salad with blue lettuce, but this place is gone.

After this building changed hands it became OFF THE HOOK, “Where Fresh Meets Hot!” Some very attractive exterior paint mimics the color of water that appears to be swarming with the bounty of the deep. The appeal of “U Buy – We Fry” is that it saves consumers valuable cooking time, especially if they don’t have a stove or the skills to prepare the meal.

The same services – “You buy…We Fry” – were offered at another carryout business, Fish and Sea Food, at Chene Street and E. Canfield Street.

Spudeo’s haunting image of a chef tempts the viewer with a “Monster Burger and Spuds.” The restaurant claims to be the “Home of Home Style Cooking.”

Yellow and red is a color combination that never fails. Dynamo Deli promoted huge corned beef sandwiches along with various other options listed in hand-printed window signs.

Also employing a red-and-yellow paint job, The Coney Zone on Van Dyke displayed nearly all of its food line-up in images and words on the wall. Children and motorists passing by must have found the choices hard to resist.

Universal Coney Island was “Voted Detroit’s Best” for something … but what? Maybe for one of the dishes pictured on the wall where customers could consider what to order as they approached the building.

It would seem that breakfast was not complete without strawberries at Sterling Soul Food on Linwood Avenue.

I have always appreciated the artwork by Lil’ John Signs on the exterior of The Sandwich Shop on Van Dyke near 8 Mile Road. The craftsmanship, good graphic design, and the humorous sandwich images grab and hold my attention.

And finally, chilly treats can be purchased at Xtreme Ice Cream. The purple trim near the ground directs customers to the takeout window in warm weather.

Bon Appetit.

You may view more Dissolving Detroit Blog stores and archival images at:  www.davidclementsproductions.com

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5 thoughts on “Detroit: SEE-FOOD Capital of America

  1. Good work David, I’m drawn to art work at Sudeo’s featuring the mysterious Chef.

  2. What a fantastic and timely showing of what restaurants are trying and doing in these crazy times. The website in general is great, and this adds very well to it. Wow!

  3. David, you are simply amazing. I’m not sure what you do to make the colors pop like you do, but it is so “in the zone.” You are one of a kind and you have an incredible eye that never fails to impress.

  4. Phenomenal documentation again by Brother David!!
    Thanks for sharing Detroit with the world. Your photos are beautiful and the info is quite intriguing.

    Take a bow!

  5. Came across this via a posting on the website Soul Source. Really interesting article with wonderful photos. I’ll be looking into your other work next – anything on the record stores for example?

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