Food For Thought

Café Muse Owners Break Outside Of The Brunch Box

By Chris Azzopardi

People don't talk about Royal Oak's Café Muse without mentioning the grilled cheese: the way the three-cheese blend - havarti, fontina and mozzarella - melts into a savory mix of basil, tomatoes and organic bread, and what the dash of honey does to the taste buds.

You know it's good when it's got Oprah's approval.

"That's gonna be my epitaph," deadpans Greg Reyner, who co-owns the restaurant with his business and life partner David Smith.

Responding to Reyner's sarcastic eye-roll at a table situated in the new expansion of their restaurant, Smith reassures, "It's good to be known for something."

But nearly five years after the grilled cheese became Café Muse's claim to fame, Reyner wants more than a signature sandwich to their name.

They do dinner now, with a smorgasbord of sea scallops, duck, filet and the grapefruit-marinated tofu. The new menu was introduced two years ago, as the restaurateurs expanded their breakfast and lunch success into the evening with 15 rotating small plates, bar snacks and hearty entrees (all served 5-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday). The bar they always wanted also became a reality when the space next door - formerly If the Shoe Fits - closed and they moved in. Now, Café Muse isn't just egg scrambles and dino pancakes - they've got a happy hour.

"I want to see us known for dinner," Reyner says. "That's what we're really pushing right now."

Which is why they're doing things a little differently. They offer unique bites like rabbit and mussels, and even their sides stand out: an asparagus foam - a whipped puree - accompanies the filet.

"From the beginning, we've always wanted to be more of a farm-to-table restaurant, something that wasn't really a thing in this area back when we opened," says Smith.

They outsource as much local food as possible. The rabbit, for instance, is raised specifically for them up in the Irish Hills, located on the border of Jackson and Lenawee counties.

Not a foodie? Have a drink. Café Muse's selection of wines recently earned them their second Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, which picks the recipient based on the kinds of wines it serves and how well they complement the menu items.

"We have, I think, the best beverage program in Royal Oak and probably one of the top in southeast Michigan," says Reyner. "We have a phenomenal program. And what we're doing dinner side is very creative - no one else is doing it."

When Smith and Reyner opened Café Muse seven years ago, its location a block north of its current spot on Washington Avenue was so small that only one person could fit in the kitchen. The dish-washing space wasn't any bigger. Even Reyner was too tall to fit back there.

"That was the prerequisite," Smith says about the hiring process. "You had to be short."

Now their kitchen storage alone is about 2,000 square feet, while the kitchen itself is larger than their entire original space. No height restrictions anymore, either.

"That being said, most of our staff is short," Reyner laughs, before his partner quips, "Well, you're 6 feet 4. Come on!"

Why the need to expand? One word: Oprah. After the talk show tycoon endorsed Café Muse's now-legendary grilled cheese sandwich in 2008, business boomed.

Smith recalls being so slammed on the day he received a call from her production company that he didn't take the call from Harpo seriously. "Take a message," he remembers telling the server who answered the call.

Later that day, he returned the message. And it wasn't a hoax. Oprah's show was curious about this grilled cheese that Esquire Magazine called one of "the best sandwiches in America." Her trusty sidekick, Gayle King, flew out to their first location - it had just 23 seats, and half the equipment in the kitchen had to be hauled out to fit in Oprah's production crew - and put it to the test. King loved the grilled cheese so much it got top honors.

After the episode aired, hundreds of people swarmed the Café just for that sandwich.

"We thought we had bought enough cheese for the week," Smith recalls, "but we went through all that in the weekend after it aired. It was insane."

Ever since, Café Muse has been a Royal Oak hot spot - and not just with the locals. Oprah's endorsement boosted the restaurant's notoriety so much that even celebrities stop in between film shoots. Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Jason Segel and, most recently, Tilda Swinton have all come in for a bite while working on movies in the area.

Swinton, of course, had the vegan burger, but didn't leave before telling Smith how much it tickled her taste buds. "She stopped me and said, 'I wanna let you know everything was great and I'm going to really try to come back before I leave.'"

When they're not serving the Hollywood elite, they say their clientele is mixed and pretty gay despite not being a "gay restaurant."

"We've never really promoted ourselves as being a gay-owned, gay-run restaurant," says Smith, who mentions that they also believe in giving back to the community. They've partnered with both Ruth Ellis Center and AIDS Partnership Michigan.

"We don't fly a flag out front - no. Because we'll take anyone." He laughs. "Anybody that wants to buy food, please come."

But they are also gay, so of course they understand the need for a queer hangout that's not just a bar or nightclub. Hence their reason for launching Gay Centric Tuesdays, a new night dedicated to the gays who want to have an after-work cocktail in a relaxed environment.

"Typically bars in Detroit are either pickup bars or just dance clubs," Reyner says. "There's no place where you can just go and hang out."

Though food is a priority at Café Muse, for Smith and Reyner that's not always the case. Even they eat fast food. "It's all relative," Reyner says. "I love Taco Bell."

And with lots of long days, sometimes they only have time for a Double Decker.

"Work doesn't stop," says Reyner, who runs the kitchen. "I just want to go to bed at 10 o'clock and he's like, 'Oh, I have another question' and it's just like, 'Leave me alone.'"

Smith deals with logistics and catering, but only part-time because he also runs a video production company in Auburn Hills that does work for Volkswagen, so when restaurant questions come up, Reyner's his go-to - even if it's bedtime. "It's just always like, 'OK, one question - that's all!'" Smith says.

"That's probably the hardest thing about owning a business with your partner," says Reyner. "They also sit next to you on the couch."

The two met 20 years ago at an after-hours club called Red Door at Wayne State University, back when the only way in was with a secret word. Reyner was studying pre-law, political science and history. But he hated college.

"I wanted to get to a place where I could actually make money as quickly as possible," he says, "so I went to culinary art school."

It made sense: He grew up around food. His mother had dinner promptly on the table every day. Sunday was reserved for a big feast.

"Food wasn't the driving force in the family, but it was something that was always there," Reyner says. "Food's a part of life. It should be enjoyed and savored."

Even if it's a grilled cheese sandwich.

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