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Posted on Wed, Apr 17, 2013 : 11:01 a.m.

Smokehouse 52 BBQ adds a new dimension to dining options in Chelsea

By Julie Halpert

Phil Tolliver had longed to open a barbecue restaurant in his native Chelsea. "There's just no good barbecue" in the area, he said. He and his wife, Jenn, owned four businesses previously, including True North Jerky Company, providing him with experience in smoking meats.

On Feb. 20, their dream became a reality with Smokehouse 52 BBQ, a spacious restaurant that seats 174. The restaurant is a family affair. On a recent Saturday night, The Tollivers' 10-year-old son, Nick, bused tables while his 8-year-old sister, Sophia, tagged along with servers to greet diners.

Jenn and Phil Tolliver renovated the interior themselves, attempting to maintain the charm and character of the market that was housed in the 123-year-old building. "Anything I could, I salvaged," Phil said. That includes the exposed brick and original tin ceilings.

He installed solid oak floors and a hand hammered copper bar top. Burlap feed bags hang from the ceiling, while antlers perch over the bar. There are two rooms; one features the exposed brick walls, while the adjoining room has walls painted in brick red. "I wanted it to look like a tavern," Phil said. It's a look that he's successfully achieved in this welcoming space.

The menu is extensive, with a large selection that also includes salads, macaroni and cheese, and salmon. There's also a kids menu with six choices beyond the typical grilled cheese (though that's one option).

My advice is to come with a hearty appetite, as all the portions are huge and the dishes are rich and heavy. The Smokehouse nachos were immense and laded with pulled pork, baked beans, cheddar cheese, jalapenos, and scallions, topped with sour cream. The chips were sprinkled within the dish instead of just serving as a base. The nachos were outstanding and filled us up so much that we had difficulty making a significant dent in our entrees on our first visit.


Smokehouse 52 BBQ
125 S. Main St., Chelsea
Smokehouse 52 on Facebook
  • Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
  • Plastic: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover.
  • Liquor: Yes.
  • Prices: Moderate. Many entrees are in the $13 range and include a choice of two sides.
  • Noise level: Loud.
  • Wheelchair access: Yes
I enjoyed the warm cream cheese and onion dip that accompanied the homemade potato chips, but I had envisioned warm, soft, thick potatoes at the mention of the word homemade. These were simply crispy chips that tasted baked, but not very different from packaged chips.

My husband ordered the pimento mac and cheese without the bacon. It was creamy, with an in-house made bechamel sauce, but was served lukewarm, diminishing its appeal.

My daughters each opted for a similar sandwich. The BLT was wonderful, served with thick slabs of bacon on Texas toast. The MLT provided a nice vegetarian version of this, using a Portobello mushroom on fresh ciabatta bread. My daughter asked if she could have it with blue cheese; our server happily obliged and that made the sandwich even better.

Both the French fries and sweet potato fries were served hot and crispy. The thick, wedged-shaped sweet potato fries were particularly tasty. The house smoked wings were also moist and delicious.

This restaurant also does its more healthful offerings right. The Smokehouse Cobb salad was full of fresh Artisan greens; the highlight was the abundant pieces of smoked chicken.

My dish, Southern fried chicken, was the best we tried. The crust was thick and crispy, with a sweet honey taste, while the interior was moist. Though my dining companion enjoyed the Smokehouse ribs, I thought they were disappointing. They were prepared with a rub, with the tableside sauces expected to add sufficient flavor and moisture. But they didn't overcome the tough texture of the meat, which was difficult to pull away from the bone. The pulled pork on my son's sandwich had the same issue; it was too dry.

There are four different types of sauces offered at the table, all gluten free. My favorite was the most basic of all: the All American, a sweet/spicy mix of all regions containing vinegar and tomato. The Smokehouse was also great, a South Carolina style mustard barbecue sauce. I didn't care for the ultra-sweet Root Beer sauce, which tasted just like the carbonated drink. It didn't provide an optimum complement to the meat. Kiss and Vinegar is a North Carolina barbeque sauce that I found too bitter.

There are a variety of sides here, and Smokehouse does some better than others. The stewed tomatoes and green beans side was bland, while the collard greens had a slightly bitter taste. Later I was told by Phil that adding the Kiss and Vinegar sauce would enhance them, but our server never mentioned that. I thought the corn bread, made from a mix from the nearby Jiffy plant, was flavorful, yet not too dry. The corn bread pudding was also rich and sinfully sweet.

All the desserts we tried were amazing. We were so full it was difficult to shovel them in, but we persevered, opting for the brownie sundae on our first visit. Served in a mason jar, this was a homemade brownie topped with ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream and was delicious.

The second time around, we dipped our spoons into the thick, creamy banana pudding with vanilla wafers. The chocolate-chip bacon cookie sounded unappealing, but it was delicious, soft and chewy, with the bacon adding an interesting maple flavor.

The prices here are also extremely reasonable, with many entrees as little as $10.

The only significant issue here was the service. This wasn't a problem on our first visit, when the restaurant was less crowded. But on a busy Saturday night, we were told there was a half-hour wait (the restaurant doesn't take reservations for fewer than 10) even though several tables were left empty, an observation made by several waiting customers. We didn't have that long a wait, but once we were seated, we endured a significant amount of time for our entrees to appear. The place is clearly short-staffed, at least on this night. Eager to turn over our table, the server brought our check before asking if we wanted dessert. When we said we wanted to order, she didn't even clear the dinner plates, so we were forced to squeeze in the dessert plates while looking at our leftovers.

It's not surprising that Smokehouse 52 is attracting crowds. Word has clearly gotten out about the fun atmosphere and high quality food in an area that was lacking a family-friendly barbecue place. If they hire more staff, this place has all the ingredients of a winner.

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T Wall

Thu, Apr 18, 2013 : 11:29 a.m.

Each time we have gone the food has been fantastic. I just love heading to Chelsea for the best ribs ever.


Thu, Apr 18, 2013 : 12:41 a.m.

We were so thrilled for a new restaurant (especially a smokehouse!) to open up in our little town but after 4 very below average visits, I'm sad to say I'm not sure we'll be back. We've experienced cold mac and cheese (you could still see the shredded cheese on top), cold nachos (it looked like someone sprinkled shredded cheese on top right before serving it) the "pulled" chicken was not pulled at all, it was big chunks of cold chicken. These were the types of chunks of chicken that I would only use for soup or chicken salad, certainly not what I would serve in a restaurant. In fact, all of our meals on each visit have been mediocre and cold. I'm sad that we have to continue to drive all the way out to Ypsilanti to Red Rock for good smokehouse food. I hope they will listen to the feedback and improve.


Wed, Apr 17, 2013 : 6:09 p.m.

Nice photos again, Courtney. I especially like #2 and #3.

Courtney Sacco

Thu, Apr 18, 2013 : 10:10 p.m.

Thank you Brad. there where a log of great things to photograph at Smokehouse 52


Wed, Apr 17, 2013 : 4:32 p.m.

Glad to see they finally have the bar up and running I was disappointed to find out they did not have any beers on tap on my first visit. Overall my experience there so far have been so-so. It's nice to have a BBQ joint here in Chelsea but compared to similar establishments in SE Michigan like Red Rock, Slows, and The Union Woodshop it falls a bit short. As Julie mentioned the sauce offerings leave a bit to be desired and I too received lukewarm sides on my visit. The overall execution of the physical restaurant design as well as the menu were average at best. I'd liken it to a more family friendly version of Rub Pub, but with a ways to go in quality of the BBQ you are getting, think potluck BBQ in a cafeteria type setting. I also hope they don't keep Sophia and Nick chained to the restaurant, I'm all for kids learning hard work at a young age but the cuteness schtick they had going was old on our second visit. I understand this is their first run at a restaurant so I wish them the best and hopefully they can continue to work out the details and make it a lasting business for years to come. A few things I'd really like to see before I make it a regular destination: A few TV's and some type of decor (eg chandeliers) to fill the empty space of the main dining area and music and please get some decent music playing maybe a live local band once and a while too!