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Executive Travel

On the Road: What to Do in Birmingham, Michigan

An upscale northern suburb of Detroit, the city offers top-notch dining, art, architecture, and sport.
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Daxton Hotel King Bed Joe Vaughn

Detroit is experiencing a renaissance, with urban renewal projects that involve both new development and the rebirth of long-vacant buildings. For travelers doing business in the city, a different kind of experience awaits in the northern suburb of Birmingham.

The city sits about 30 minutes north of downtown (think Plano and Dallas). When I arrived, I felt as though I had been transported onto the set of a Hallmark film, with its a vintage movie theater, cigar lounge, and a turn-of-the-century two-story home with a wraparound porch that had been repurposed into a Japanese restaurant.

I stayed at the Daxton Hotel, a 151-room property that opened in April 2021. I’d soon have an opportunity to hear about efforts to create a luxury experience just a short distance from the Motor City. As Birmingham’s mayor, Pierre Boutros, would later tell me, “We’ve created the closest thing to Beverly Hills…and it’s called Birmingham, Michigan.”

During my three-day press trip, my itinerary was as diverse as the food scene in town. From Lebanese and Japanese to American and Italian, the dining experiences were like a spiritual journey into a food coma. My activities stretched from art and architecture to racing around the M1 Concourse at 150 mph in a Dodge Challenger.

Day 1: Downtown Birmingham and Night Life

After a two-and-a-half hour flight to Detroit and a 45 minute scenic car ride, taking in Michigan’s beautiful trees, I arrived at the front door of the simple but charming Daxton Hotel. The first thing I noticed was a geometric canopy that sheltered the bar and a whimsical tree roots sculpture above the front desk.

Taking a closer look, I realized the roots were twisted to form two faces on either end. The hotel’s art collection is impressive and include more than 400 original pieces curated from around the world by Saatchi Art, including one unique piece in each of the 151 rooms.

Provocative art is showcased in the Daxton Hotel lobby.

After settling into my corner room with a view overlooking the theater, I took a quick, five-minute walk for lunch at Social, an eatery that features New American cuisine. The main dining room, with its exposed duct-work and brick and wood finishes, creates a retro vibe; when the weather is right, the restaurant also offers outdoor and rooftop dining. I ordered a custom salad and the Gemelli—a creamy concoction of Italian sausage, Calabrian chili, truffle tomato, and parmesan.

Afterward, it was time to offset the carb overload with a walk through town, window-shopping at shoe stores, quaint coffee shops, a pet accessories store, vintage clothing shops, and upscale restaurants. I ventured beyond the main strip into a residential section that reminded me of Highland Park. In fact, I struck up a conversation with a local who told me she had lived in University Park for several years before discovering Birmingham.

Dinner that night was at hotel’s restaurant and bar, Madam—its name a blend of the initials of the owner’s children— Mark, Adam, Daxton (clearly the favorite), Alyssa, and Maddox. The menu, concocted by stellar Executive Chef Garrison Price, offers dishes that range from Mission Fig Pizza or Octopus Busiate to Steelhead trout (one of Michigan’s most popular fish) and Dry-Aged Duck for Two. I started with the Tuna Tartare (with bing cherries, avocado, amaranth, basil, and yuzu), followed by a perfectly prepared Wagyu Strip Loin (with spiced oxtail, bone marrow, and sweet scotch bonnets).

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Perfectly prepared Wagyu Strip Loin at Madam restaurant Ben Swanger
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The Tuna Tartare did not disappoint. Ben Swanger

Day 2: Art, Architecture, Wined, and Dined

The next morning picked up right where I had left off—food, with a breakfast that featured scrumptious fresh fruit, buttery and flaky croissants, and a decadent quiche.

From there it was a 15-minute trip to the noted Cranbrook Educational Community, comprised of a graduate Academy of Art, contemporary Art Museum, Institute of Science, and a pre-K through 12 independent college prep school. Cranbrook alumni include actress Selma Blair, race car driver Robbie Buhl, Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins, EA CEO Bing Gordon, Groupon Co-founder Brad Keywell, politician Mitt Romney, and countless others.

Among the highlights of the tour was Saarinen House, the art deco home of Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen and the crown jewel of Cranbrook’s architectural treasures. It was the dwelling place for the Saarinen family of architects for more than 20 years and where the St. Louis Arch was designed by Eliel’s son, Eero. Among other landmarks, Eliel designed the Helsinki Central railway station, National Museum of Finland, Vyborg railway station, and Hvitträsk Kleinhans Music Hall.

My art-filled morning was capped with a late lunch at Phoenicia, founded and owned by Lebanon immigrant Sameer Eid, who first lived in Denton after arriving in America. Phoenicia, now operated by Sameer’s son Samy, offers authentic Mediterranean food with a Texan twist.

The menu is straightforward but packs a decadent punch. My fellow travelers and I started off with sausages, hummus, arayes, and baba ghannouj. It was all spectacular and I could have stopped there, but Samy insisted we keep going, serving up Shrimp Gallaba, Kafta, and Chicken Shwarma.

Things got really fun when he brought out the ribs; it was clear that Texas barbecue had struck a nerve in Sameer’s culinary heart. Sprinkled with a dry rub called Samy Spice (consisting of paprika, garlic, salt, pepper, and other spices), Phoenicia’s fall-off-the-bone ribs transported me 1,000 miles back home to the Lone Star State. They might have been the best dish of the trip, and that’s saying something.

After a nap and a workout in the Daxton gym, furnished with Pelotons, treadmills, free weights, yoga mats, and more, I felt refreshed and ready for another meal. (Tough assignment, I know.) And this time, it wasn’t just an ordinary meal, it was an experience known as The Art of Dining, held at the Daxton just once a month.

The brainchild of Price, Daxton’s executive chef, and Beverage and Service Director Liz Martinez, the meal is inspired by the hotel’s extensive art collection. It begins with a tour of some of the showcased pieces of art that were reflected in the menu.

At the table, we were served Northern Spy Apple (fig brulee and local hazelnut) and Featherstone Flowers (poached egg, Bloomsdale spinach with vanilla vinaigrette), followed by Foraged Mushroom Terrine (matsutake, hen of the woods custard) and Roasted Lamb Saddle (with smoked red kuri squash, Brussels sprouts, and pomegranate), and capped with Hubbard Squash Cremeux (allspice dram gelato garnished with nasturtium).

From start to finish, the meal truly was a work of art.

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Day 3: A Yacht Club, but for Million-Dollar Cars

To no surprise, I had no appetite for breakfast the following morning. Besides, I was advised that what I was about to do is best experienced on an empty stomach.

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M1 Concourse Performance Fleet Dodge Challenger

When in or around the Motor City, getting into a good old-fashioned, American-made muscle car has to be on the agenda. And I did just that when I visited the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, about 20 minutes north of Birmingham. With nearly 300 garages housing vehicles worth well into the millions, M1 Concourse is a yacht club for car enthusiasts. Every Saturday, garage owners pull back the curtains on their car collections and run their sports cars out on the track.

The smallest garage space at M1 is just 560 square feet, which sold for $186,000. All spaces are now off the market. But as long as you sign a waiver, you can get a taste of speed with a couple laps around the track at nearly 150 mph as a passenger with a track driver. The thrilling ride offered just the adrenaline rush I needed before heading back to Dallas.

I packed a lot into my three days in Birmingham. If you have a little more time, I recommend a visit to the relaxing Rivage Day Spa and Churchills Bistro Cigar Bar. Whatever your itinerary, the Beverly Hills of Michigan will not disappoint.

Author

Ben Swanger

Ben Swanger

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Ben Swanger is the assistant editor for D CEO, the business title for D Magazine. Ben manages the Dallas 500

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