How one Detroit restaurateur uses the city’s artistic past to heighten the dining experience

It’s 5 o’clock on a Friday, and the seats at Antietam are filling fast. Suit-clad 20-somethings mingle at the bar while a party of ten files into the main dining area.

“What’s that you’re having?” asks an older woman to my right. It’s escargot, I say, and some of the best I’ve ever had. “You want to try?” I ask. Her daughter looks slightly bewildered, but a smile graces the older woman’s lips. I dip a crusty baguette into a buttery basin that cradles the snails and pass it to her. As she eats it, her eyes widen, and I know she agrees with me: this is good.

But food isn’t the only thing at Antietam that entices the senses. Stepping into Antietam, located in the Eastern Market District of Detroit, is like stepping into Detroit in the 1930s.

1932, to be exact. That’s what owner Gregory Holm tells me one afternoon as we walk up a narrow staircase to the event space above the restaurant. He points to the floor, then up to the doorway. “These tiles are original, as are these swinging doors,” he states proudly.

Once a seasoned installation artist, Holm designed and renovated the two adjoining buildings that make up Antietam. It took over a year and a half. Though the restaurant was originally the third in a series of reclaiming and repurposing abandoned spaces (preceded by the 2010 Ice House Detroit and 2011 Fire House Detroit), once the renovations ended, Holm decided to dive headfirst into the restaurant business.

From the fresco-like mural commissioned by an artist friend in New York City to the quarter-sawn red oak paneling above the booths to the inlayed brass that graces each dining table, the assemblage of architectural details at Antietam are nearly all original, handmade, or reclaimed from the surrounding city.

“My belief is that aesthetics have a very large input into not necessarily the success of a business, but in getting people initially to come in the door,” Holm tells me. “Antietam was a test to myself to see if I could do that.”

And he did. The space evokes nostalgia at every turn; an encased display of antique teacups sits quietly behind the host stand, while coats are dutifully hung on a standing coatrack that looks like it came from your grandfather’s house. It is both unique and familiar, and arouses an immediate sense of comfort.

While Holm has achieved artistic mastery in Antietam’s physical space, head chef Seth High has achieved it through food. French brasserie-style dishes like Terrine of Oxtail and Tournedos of Beet au Poivre grace each night’s menu. Fresh pasta with seasonal fillings, hand-pulled mozzarella, and perfectly glazed vegetables decorously echo the importance of Antietam’s aesthetic sentiment. For, as I quickly saw, Antietam is equal parts restaurant and art.

 

Detroit itself plays an important part in Antietam’s story. In the 1930s the city began widening various streets throughout Detroit to combat the dramatic increase of automobiles in the city. Entire buildings were demolished as the city widened entire roads for miles at a time. Gratiot Avenue was widened in 1932, thus giving birth to many of the art-deco facades on the south side of the street.

These 20th century details are what initially excited Holm about the space. “It’s easy to get a bunch of chairs and tables from Ikea and have a good-looking restaurant,” he tells me. But his desires for Antietam were beyond a visually appealing space. He wanted it to have meaning. “You know,” he says, “my grandfather drove his horse and buggy around Eastern Market, so I feel connected to here. So that’s what this space is; an homage to the past.

“I didn’t even particularly like antiques when I started out,” he laughs, “but I love that each one tells a story.”

Dining at Antietam, you feel like you are a part of the story, too. It’s easy to get lost in the beauty of each new and exciting restaurant that comes to fruition. But at Antietam, you instantly feel like a part of something bigger. Something that pulls you in from the second you walk in the door.

“My goal with Antietam is creating a space where people remember each time dining with us,” says Holm. Through that desire, Holm has created an atmosphere where diners feel at home. Where they may be encouraged to, say, pass the older woman next to her a piece of escargot. And where dining out is more than just a meal; it’s a unique artistic experience.