Dressed fedora-to-Oxfords in grey, a 1920s gangster boards his grey speedboat and takes off across the river. He’s on his way back to Detroit from Canada, grey pistols in hand, with loads of liquor to smuggle. He wears a grey mask so his true identity is never revealed, but he is the most well-known booze-running pirate in the city — the Grey Ghost — and he lives on at 47 Watson Street.
Today the legend comes in the form of a spray-painted mural on a set of lockers at the back of the establishment. Aptly done in tones of grey, a robotic waiter stands on a dock with his boat and the Detroit skyline behind him. Clothed in a white shirt and black tie, he extends his Lego-like hand and offers a bottle. Out of it pops a ghost donning an eyepatch and crossbones, matching the one on the mechanical man’s server apron. A modern and fitting twist on the tale, this depiction of the Grey Ghost watches as patrons fill up his restaurant and bar on a Thursday evening.
Sitting at a small, wooden table on a black bench that extends the length of the dining room are a husband and wife celebrating his birthday. They clink their drinking glasses together as two young couples on a double date to their left debate side dishes — cauliflower or Brussels sprouts? Out on the patio, across the open (and undoubtedly, grey) space, a group of men in Tigers shirts grabs a beer after the game to celebrate the win.
“We sought to provide that level of service and that level of food that you’d find in the old-school, fine-dining places of yesteryear, in a place that is completely approachable,” says owner and chef John Vermiglio.
And he has been seeking for quite some time.
“We planned to open the Grey Ghost when I left for culinary school in 2002,” Vermiglio says of himself and his twin brother, Dave, who are from Clinton Township. “I always said I’d open my first restaurant here.”
Somewhat on a whim after finding a fascination with the Food Network, Vermiglio obtained his bachelor’s degree in culinary arts from Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. From there, he worked a few internships in Chicago while living in a closet in his brother’s frat house. He continued his career in the city until 2016 at places like Charlie Trotters and Table Fifty-Two.
“All the while, literally every boss I had, every chef I had, every line cook, everyone that knew me knew that I was going to move to Detroit and open a restaurant,” Vermiglio says. “That was my nickname in college — Detroit — because I’d never shut up about it.”
Having discussed the idea with so many people, he picked up six friends along the way, including chefs, a beverage director, a manager, and a server, who moved to Detroit to open the Ghost.
From the physical execution in February 2016 to the opening in July, Vermiglio and chef Joe Giacomino worked every day constructing the restaurant, including the walls and the patio, while working as servers to get by.
“To say it took a long-ass time to plan and organize is an understatement,” Vermiglio says. “This is my lifelong dream, here, where I work my ass off every day.”
As I gaze through the floor-to-ceiling windows at the quaint neighborhood, “the” Grey Ghost dish arrives — Fried Bologna, sliced thin and piled on a potato-cheddar waffle, topped with cream cheese fondue, pickled jalapeños, and jalapeño jam.
“Our style is reflective of who we are and how we like to eat, and sometimes that’s hard to describe,” Vermiglio says. Past menu items include rabbit pot pie, octopus corn dog, and thousand island dressing fried in an egg roll. “For those not seeking a culinary adventure, we also have a cheeseburger, and it will always be there.”
Because Giacomino is from the backwoods of Wisconsin, he grew up hunting, dressing, and cleaning his own animals, and over the years has bestowed his knowledge upon Vermiglio. The two even took classes together. In addition, the space briefly served as Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe, so choosing what to serve came naturally to the chef duo.
“We’ve refined the art of butchery,” Vermiglio says, “and having control of our own menus gave us the opportunity to do that.”
For our main course, we choose the New York strip with steak sauce hollandaise, the pork shoulder with root beer barbeque sauce, and the fried chicken skin Brussels sprouts. I pair my meal with a Repeat Offender — gin, aloe, and lime — while my date sips a Better Luck Tomorrow — tequila, red pepper, lemon, and cacao.
“I like to use a lot of familiar ingredients and deliver them in a way that people don’t usually see them,” beverage director Will Lee says, shaking our drinks vigorously. “My big thing has always been hospitality and the full experience. Cocktails are an avenue in which I can deliver that.”
After finishing our drinks and supper, we revel in dessert — a churro with fiery chocolate sorbet and agave caramel, and a cherry chip sundae with spiced berries and biscotti.
As we prepare to leave, there is a feeling of being watched. Tucked to the left in the back corner, a set of eyes are painted on lockers in the latest portrayal of the Detroit rum runner, who thoroughly symbolizes the restaurant, the bar, and the spirit — the Grey Ghost.