The Whitney

A Review in Prose

I recently had the opportunity to dine at ‘The Whitney,’ a hauntingly charming fine dining restaurant near the heart of Detroit. Completed in 1894 the mansion was built for David Whitney Jr at the low cost of $400,000 in the money of the day. This is approximately 12 million in 2022 dollars with most of the inflation having happened in late 2021. My impression is that David Whitney Jr lived in the home for a period of time. Sometime after this period of time the home was converted into a restaurant. The mansion has a number of original Tiffany windows, so many rooms, at least one kitchen, and ghosts.

Before I attended my dinner at the Whitney I was not familiar with the Whitney. I would have correctly assumed certain features: the existence of windows, the likelihood of a kitchen. I expected a dining room or two. Upon my arrival we were greeted by the valet coordinator. Let me first say that I love a valet service. My love for valet directly stems from my hatred of parking. As a native of the rural, southern US I don’t remember searching for parking. There were long driveways, empty parking lots, and the occasional front lawn. My first experience with high pressure parking was at university. Despite the distributed parking lot near each building it was inevitable that I would arrive on campus, five minutes before class started, only to find that the most optimal parking lot to arrive on time was full. As a tax paying, hoa meeting attending adult I can easily see the solution of arriving earlier to campus. At the time, it was obviously the other parkers that were wrong. At this moment in my life, it does not matter how early I arrive to the area, or how many spots are likely available: the anxiety of needing to find parking haunts me. I’m fortunate that so many nearby cities have fee-based public parking available, but I still worry: with so many things to do, and so many people wanting to do them, why should I believe there really is parking for me. My experience is that parking garages tend to offer hope and relief. I will gladly pay two or three dollars an hour, hike up and down multiple flights of stairs, and queue to struggle with the semi-automated attendant if it means I can avoid doing laps around the block looking for a spot. And so, imagine my relief to find that The Whitney caters to people like me.

We quickly escaped inside from the cold, northern November air. After the expected exchange of greetings and names we were escorted to our table where we were greeted by our server for the evening. “Welcome to The Whitney,” he exclaimed. “You are sitting in the music room. You can often determine the function of the room based on the details in the Tiffany glass windows.” He continued with the details about both the music room and the mansion more generally. While I wasn’t ignoring him I was also not paying particular attention. That is until he said the following words.

“It’s too bad, you’ve just missed the tour of the mansion. Last week, we saw a ghost.” 

My interest in the menu immediately dissipated. Before I could remark, and potentially ruin what was to come, my wife encouraged “Oh, ghosts.”

“Yes, the mansion is haunted. Do you have a wine menu?”  We were able to confirm we did, in fact, have a wine menu before he left our tableside.

At that moment I could not believe that this was a “The Whitney” sponsored introduction to the venue. This was a rogue server bored with today’s specials attempting to have some fun. I listened as our server greeted an older foursome that arrived shortly after us. No mention of ghosts, ghouls, or poltergeists. There was some mention of a Beef Wellington. I’m now convinced that we have started something special with our server, an occult-obsessed connection where we will hear the back of house secrets from the front of house staff. 

Our server returned shortly to take drink orders. Being the designated driver for the evening I ordered a glass of red wine with intent to stretch it through our evening. Our server recommended a California Cabernet Sauvignon assuring me that it wasn’t ‘too oaky’. My wife took a cocktail from the short cocktail menu. My friend ordered a drink I was not previously familiar with: a Boulevardier. A Boulevardier is a simple drink, similar to a Manhattan. A bit less rye and vermouth than a Manhattan, add Campari, and you’ve made a Boulevardier. I certainly didn’t know this at the time. Our server raised a mild objection, “I’m not sure if we have the ingredients for this, sir.”  He then did something I had never seen. He requested a backup drink order. 

“I’m sure they do,” my friend responded, not unkindly, but he relented, ordering an Old Fashioned. This satisfied the server who disappeared to ring in the drinks. My friend’s wife questioned him with her eyes. He explained that the last time they were here he saw Campari in the bar. Our drinks came, my wine was fruit forward with dry hints of the oaken barrel, as promised. I watched as my friend first looked into the glass. It was gold, but maybe rose; the dim lighting made it hard to guess whether there was a hint of the dark red Campari. Nothing was left to do but to taste it, and so he did. His eyes closed. A second sip. 

“It’s an Old Fashioned.”

There was no time to mourn, for at my shoulder our server was offering my wife his phone. This was, yet again, a new experience in fine dining for me. Her eyes widened and focused on the screen. “Do you see it?” She nodded. He then presented the phone to me. The image before me was a group of people standing on the stairs leading to the second level of the mansion. I recognized the stairs because these same stairs were directly beyond the camera in my view. The people in the image, of course, were not still on the stairs. My eyes were drawn not to the smiling faces of the happy visitors, but to the glowing person in dated clothing standing directly behind them. I looked up at our server to find a well pleased smile of satisfaction on his face.

“This showed up in an image a guest took.” I think the meaning I was supposed to take from this was essentially “we didn’t doctor this image ourselves”. Nevermind the issues with chain of custody I again wondered how deep this haunting conspiracy would go. I doubt this ghost picture was emailed directly to my server. Maybe it was though. Perhaps he passed his phone around to share contact details at some point during brunch. Or did “The Whitney” indulge in these alleged apparitions?  I can only imagine the standup before dinner service began that evening.

“The GOOD wines today are the Decoy cab sav and the Babich sav blanc. Mrs. Middleton sent in another ghost picture; make sure to share it with your guests before they eat. Today’s special is Beef Wellington, again.” For those who have escaped the right of passage that is serving tables, a GOOD wine or cheese is one that is ‘Going out of date’.

Or perhaps, my server simply lied to me. Maybe this was a publicity shoot done with practical effects or photoshop. I ran through these and another dozen possibilities as I passed the phone back to its rightful owner. As he took possession the most astonishing thought came to my mind. What if The Whitney is truly haunted by its own past denizens? 

My friend drew me back to more mundane problems before us. “It’s probably a bad sign for a drink if the server doesn’t want to sell it to you.” I expressed that I wasn’t so sure that was true. From my days serving tables and bartending I remembered how difficult it would be to charge customers for a custom drink. It typically involved explaining to the bartender what the person actually wanted, being told no the prerequisite three times, then finally being told fine. You’d then ask how to ring it in as billing for cocktails is the bartenders’ purview. What followed was an eye roll, an internet search, and a complicated list of menus, liquors, and substitutions that would likely amount to twice the typical cocktail price. You’d have to then find a manager to comp the price down explaining that really, it was unfair to the guest to be charged so much for the same quantities of liquor that we would serve in an Old Fashioned. The manager would mumble something under their breath about additional labor costs as they knocked 10 dollars off the cost of the billed liquor. You’d finally return to your table triumphant with cocktail in tow to see your entire section of tables was on fire to have the recipient of the glass say “Did you add any Campari to this? It doesn’t really taste right.” I can understand how a server might stare in the face of a drink that is 1 part rye whiskey, 1 part sweet vermouth, and 1 part Campari and say “I’m not sure we have the ingredients for this, sir.” An alternative response to an off menu cocktail request at not-a-cocktail bar might be “I’m sure we can, sir, but you won’t be happy with it.”

I had Beef Wellington. It was fine.

After our meal we gave ourselves a tour of the restaurant. On the third floor was a bar with a small dining area. We were welcomed to the Ghostbar by a hostess or server at the top, letting us know we could be seated at the bar if we’d like. I chuckled and asked “Ghostbar, because of the ghosts downstairs?” She looked beyond me to see if there was, in fact, a ghost at the bottom of the landing. She then gestured towards the bar. “No, it’s the spirits.” I looked upon the spirits of the Ghostbar, one stood out among many. A bottle of Campari.