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Posted on Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 11:35 a.m.

The Common Grill's uncommon quality makes Chelsea a destination

By Jessica Levine


The Common Grill prepares simple food with fresh ingredients.

Jessica Levine I Contributor

A full moon swallows the night sky, casting Chelsea’s rail line, brick buildings and the cornflower blue logo on its “Jiffy Mix” elevators in white. Purple Rose Theatre-goers pour onto Park Street, conversely stuffed with stage magic and hungry for meat, wine, starch and sweets.

Around the corner on Main, light from The Common Grill’s dining room spills onto the sidewalk via its un-curtained windows: It is brilliant, a bistro like one seen ambling out of the smoky basements of Parisian apartments.

It would be a slight to suppose, however, that The Common Grill is merely a Midwestern carbon of a Montmarte district locale — manned by a maitre d', in Paris, coffee is served after dinner with a cheese wedge, with Burgundies and cigarettes, with airs. By contrast, executive chef Craig Common calls his restaurant an upscale American bistro, a restaurant as practiced and pure with its ingredients as any you would find in France.

Ingredients, like asparagus, peaches and whitefish, that Common says are, simply, “dynamite.”

Common began his kitchen career inauspiciously at age 14 washing dishes at Dearborn Heights’ Boars Head Inn. After years of learning the culinary trade from the ground up, Bob Daniels — proprietor of Chelsea Lumber and father of playwright Jeff Daniels — approached Common to open a destination restaurant as part of a downtown reinvigoration effort. In 1991, Common threw open his lacquered double-doors, and the Chelsea masses have been well-fed ever since.

“This is a restaurant where you can feel relaxed,” Common said. “We can accommodate anyone’s occasion, whether it’s a birthday party or if somebody comes up to the Grill to get a sandwich for dinner. We try to make it very comfortable for people.”

This comfort comes from fresh, un-fussy food served in a place that respects the basics. Suffice it to say that Common doesn’t adhere to the philosophy of chefs like Ferran Adria. Executive chef of Spain’s elBulli and considered to be among the world’s greatest culinary talents, Adria’s Willy Wonka approach to cooking has him preparing dishes like frozen polenta, asparagus with hot mayo, sushi with a ginger spray and tapioca’d ham.

Literally, this guy turns cured pig bits into gelatinous pearls.


The Common Grill’s Meyer Lemon Buttermilk Tart.

Jessica Levine I Contributor

Common avoids this kind of faddish pretense and trends toward the old, good way of cooking that allows the ingredients and their flavors to stand alone. He admires cooks who do the same.

“From a restaurateur’s standpoint, I like Danny Meyer out of New York. He’s impressed me for a long time,” said Common. “From a chef’s standpoint, I like Nancy Oakes, who’s the chef at Boulevard in San Francisco and Jeremiah Tower, former chef and owner of Stars (now closed) also in San Francisco.”

As in the traditional French and Italian styles, Meyer, Oakes and Tower all value simplicity and freshness over frozen, deconstructed and nuked. As noted on her restaurant’s website, Oakes said, “We all feel a reverence for the food we use... we choose diver scallops rather than dredged, and fruits and vegetables straight from the farm or the farmer's market.”

While emulating these chefs’ European-inspired cuisine, Common works hard to preserve Chelsea’s heartland flavor. Nightly he prepares a dinner menu of bouillabaisse, tenderloins, perch and scallops for service in a dining room with wall-length murals of local landmarks. Chalkboards posting daily specials hang above the U-shaped bar tapped with Michigan microbrews; in a glassed-off space next to the central kitchen, bakers pound bread into submission.

...A couple having lunch is seated beneath the restaurant’s mural of the town skyline, giving the effect that they are a part of the picture, a part of the town’s brickwork. Subtly, that is Common’s intent.

In support of the Chelsea community, he has hosted local jazz musicians like Bobby Streng, Edie Harrold and Debbie Fogel. He cooked frittatas and praline pancakes for the town’s “Sounds & Sights on Thursday Nights” fundraiser. And he’s done it using Michigan ingredients — Calder Dairy buttermilk, Great Lakes walleye, syrup tapped from our maples. Eggs and locally farmed shrimp. Goat cheese.

“I think Midwestern cuisine is underestimated,” Common said. “We take second fiddle to the east and west coasts, but I think our food and the chefs that are in the Midwest are second to none. We’ve got a lot of chefs in this area that are top-notch.”

Like Common himself.

Considered an Oscar nod in the food world, The James Beard Foundation recently nominated him for its 2011 Best Chef: Great Lakes award. He was one of three Michigan restaurateurs named in the category.

“I was thrilled,” said Common. “It was a validation of how you work with everybody, so it was very exciting.”

The word is out about The Common Grill: The Detroit Free Press, Bon Appetit and Gourmet have sunk in their tenterhooks and sung the bistro’s praises. Deservedly, it is a restaurant that’s talked about, but one that remains levelheaded due to Common’s combined humility and confidence. To label it solely a mimic, a Paris/New York/San Francisco wannabe stuck in a quaint, Midwestern jewel of a town would hardly do it justice.

The Common Grill is Chelsea. It is Michigan and it is, in the words of Craig Common, “tasty.”

Jessica Levine profiles the culture, history and personalities of Washtenaw County restaurants for Contact her at



Wed, Jun 29, 2011 : 7:37 p.m.

Calling Adria faddish pretense and Willy Wonka is a little too easy. First, it's a very ignorant statement. Adria's very much rooted in tradition but he's using new techniques to get at the very basic essences of food - flavor, texture, aroma, etc. But he recognizes that classical techniques need to continue to evolve, otherwise things get stagnant and boring very quickly. Which, unfortunately, is what's happened to Common Grill. The menu is seriously tired and boring. It's caught in the mid-90s and it sounds, based on this article, that they revel in that. And apparently a lot of people like to stay in that mode . And I thought Washtenaw was a little more progessive than that. If I'm going to pay Common Grill prices, I want more than something comforting. I want to be excited.


Thu, Jun 30, 2011 : 8:38 p.m.

Didn't read the Newsweek article, but I've heard other stories on why they are closing such as impending lawsuit from their original financier. I think it's what he says it is - the restaurant was losing money. From all indications, he doesn't really care what critics say of his methods. But I think you're missing the point of what he does and why he matters. Even a traditionalist like Bourdain has come to appreciate this. Really, all cooking is science - you're transforming something from one state to another. He's finding new ways to do it, but not just for gimmickry. He's trying to get at the very essences of food. I suppose traditionalists would've scoffed at sous vide preparations but, lo and behold, it's being done at places like Grange in A2. Like in many fields, it's fine to favor traditionalism, but you can't ignore new developments. It's a lot like music - The Drifters were fine in the 50s, but there's a heckuva lot of new things out there that's worth listening to.

Jessica Levine

Wed, Jun 29, 2011 : 10:42 p.m.

<a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> ^thefoodandwinehedonist, this Newsweek article discusses the lively debate surrounding Ferran Adria and his work at elBulli. Apparently, he will be closing his restaurant for good at the end of July largely because of critics' condemnation of his controversial cooking philosophy. You make a fair point when you say that he's used classical techniques in his cooking, especially when in regards to patisserie; however, this stops at his complete destruction of traditional aesthetic and flavor by science. Like fictional Mr. Wonka, he turns what's normally hot to cold. What's solid into a liquid. Chef Common is a traditionalist, and adheres to the philosophies of renowned chefs like Julia Child, Auguste Escoffier, James Beard and Irma Rombauer. Maybe Julia said it best: "You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces - just good food from fresh ingredients."

sun runner

Wed, Jun 29, 2011 : 2:02 p.m.

I have lived within walking distance of the Common Grill for nine years and I consider it one of the perks of having a house in downtown Chelsea. Over the years I have learned a few things. Sunday evenings are the best time to go. The crowds are light, the noise level is minimal. Slip in around 8:00 and you practically have the place to yourself. If you go on a Friday or Saturday evening, news flash: IT WILL BE VERY LOUD AND CROWDED. That's why I simply will not go there on a weekend evening any more. I don't like having to yell at my companions any more than the next person. Off-peak lunch visits during the week are both easier on the wallet and on the ears. I'm not at home during the weekdays very often (darn full-time jobs) but if I do have the opportunity, I try to get in there for lunch. Late-night desserts to go are AWESOME. Sit at the bar. Lots of elbow room, personal attention, and you can watch what's going on in the kitchen. If you're there late enough in the evening, the bartender might just give you a giant bag of rolls to take home with you that otherwise would have gone to waste.

gerald brennan

Wed, Jun 29, 2011 : 10:31 a.m.

On the negatives, it's very noisy there, and when it's busy I have had some mediocre to worse experiences. And on those nights I have resented the size of my bill. The warm rolls are outstanding, but they use salted butter in them, which is a questionable choice flavor-wise. Pluses include: Service is a cut above the local abysmal norm. And when they're not rushed and the food is well-prepared and thoughtfully presented they can be first-rate. What the Common Grill does NOT have is competition. They don't need it, but out here, local diners do. If they had it they would be more consistent at what they do, and maybe even consider the noisy ambiance situation.


Wed, Jun 29, 2011 : 10:20 a.m.

Not mentioned was how noisy the place is, how overstuffed (tables to close together) and how manic the waitstaff is. Other than that it's not a bad restaurant, but there's no real need to travel from Ann Arbor to Chelsea just to eat there.


Wed, Jun 29, 2011 : 12:50 a.m.

I read Ms. Levine's review and found it very helpful and well written. She has written a number of reviews for Ann, I always look forward to reading them. I've been to the Common Grille several times, Ms. Levine has accurately described this restaurant. Keep up the good work!

Marshall Applewhite

Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 10:46 p.m.

One of my favorite restaurants in SE Michigan. The food is reasonably priced compared to other restaurants of similar quality.


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 9:14 p.m.

A bit pricy for a family of four, but the food is outstanding. So save some money and make a night of it. Chelsea is a very underrated small town. Very nice people, cool small shops and they've had some music performances in the downtown area during the summer months.


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 7:23 p.m.

A really good restaurant, especially when combined with a play at the PURPLE ROSE around the corner... but on the noise/crowd issue...try lunch there sometime. A varied, affordable menu in a less frenetic atmosphere....and always a nice drive to chelsea, especially via the huron river and the backroad from dexter.


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 6:57 p.m.

Always enjoy it. Definitely worth the trip.


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 6:18 p.m.

Kinda noisy and overrated, IMO. . . .


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 5:17 p.m.

I can't recommend this restaurant enough to people who haven't been there. Great food and service. It's right at the top of restaurants in Washtenaw County. If you haven't been there, make sure to give it a try soon!

dading dont delete me bro

Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 4:12 p.m.



Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 7:04 p.m.

Agree. And not the place for a cozy, intimate dinner for two. If you go there, expect to PARTICIPATE - willingly or not - in the &quot;atmosphere&quot;. Most of the time you have to literally YELL at your dining partner in order to be even slightly heard. Personally, I'd rather sit on my porch and enjoy the flowers in the peace and quiet.

fred westan

Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 2:20 p.m.

The bluefish is the best I have ever tasted. My wife and I always make it part of our routine when we go to the Purple Rose.


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 1:27 p.m.

I haven't been there for awhile, but used to enjoy the excellent food. They had a very good health inspection on 1/25/11 - no critical violations, and only 3 noncritical violations. Congratulations! That is near-perfect attention to detail which reflects well on the ownership and management.


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 1:21 p.m.

Photos are a good addition to your review. I've never been to the Common Grill, but it sure sounds like a place to go. I never knew the name of the restaurant was the name of the owner. LOL


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 1:02 p.m.

Thanks for the wonderful profile! I have been going to the Common Grill for years. It is among one of the top two or three restaurants in the entire county. Craig Common and his crew are fabulous.


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 12:25 p.m.

&quot;A full moon swallows the night sky, casting Chelsea's rail line, brick buildings and the cornflower blue logo on its "Jiffy Mix" elevators into white like Swiss fondue&quot; &quot;Purple Rose Theatre-goers pour onto Park Street, conversely stuffed with stage magic and hungry for meat, wine, starch and sweets.&quot; &quot;It is brilliant, a bistro like one seen ambling out of the smoky basements of Parisian apartments&quot; &quot;...A couple having lunch is seated beneath the restaurant's mural of the town skyline, giving the effect that they are a part of the picture, a part of the town's brickwork. Subtly, that is Common's intent&quot; I like the Common Grill but this article is a load of pretentious bull. My favorite line: &quot;hungry for meat, wine starch and sweets&quot; LOL!


Wed, Jun 29, 2011 : 11:44 a.m.

Jessica: thank you, thank you, thank you for shutting down this troll!!! Let's not forget that this article is about a restaurant. BTW, you did a nice job describing Chelsea and the ambiance of the restaurant. So nice to see an article about something outside of Ann Arbor.

Jessica Levine

Wed, Jun 29, 2011 : 11:10 a.m.

In the spirit of civility, let's end this here. I seek to write descriptive profiles for some--evidently, not all--to enjoy.


Wed, Jun 29, 2011 : 4:41 a.m.

Good grief. &quot;her writing has rich imagery&quot; Methinks someone is either a friend, relative or easily enraptured by over-the-top flowery dialog. &quot;Then again, anyone older than 15 who uses &quot;LOL&quot; in conversation would probably think anything with polysyllables is pretentious.&quot; Polysyllables? You actually used the word &quot;polysyllables in your attempt to refute my claim of pretentious writing? Hilarious...


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 11:47 p.m.

Jen, you are right on in your assessment. Clearly, there are those who sadly enjoy hiding behind their keyboard making baseless cheap shots instead of engaging in constructive dialogue. Then again, anyone older than 15 who uses &quot;LOL&quot; in conversation would probably think anything with polysyllables is pretentious.


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 10:31 p.m.

Her writing has rich imagery, which brings the restaurant to life. I love her articles because they always recreate the magic of new dining experiences and the excitement of the new restaurant discovery. In fact, I'd venture to say that your sarcastic criticism reflects more on your pretentiousness than the writer's.

free form

Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 9:49 p.m.

Agreed. I like the restaurant very much, but this &quot;review&quot; reads more like an over the top creative writing assignment.


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 11:59 a.m.

The Tuscan pear salad and lemon tart. Can't be beat!


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 : 11:52 a.m.

Syrup from oaks? Never heard of it.