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The New Old Vinsetta Garage

Ann Stevenson of the Vinsetta Garage  Photo by David Lewinski
Ann Stevenson of the Vinsetta Garage Photo by David Lewinski
When is the last time people happily, eagerly waited in long lines at a gas station? How about, um, NEVER!

Vinsetta Garage, the iconic early-1900s service station that reopened as a restaurant on Woodward Ave. in Berkley last month, however is drawing crowds willing to wait one, two, three hours for a bite of revved up comfort food and a look at a place so familiar to so many metro Detroiters for so many years.

With its opening, Vinsetta Garage becomes the latest space to undergo the amazing repurposing skills of owners Curt Catallo and his wife Ann Stevenson, who have raised the bar when it comes to barbecue, mac & cheese and other favorites turned out of their Union Woodshop and Clarkston Union, both located blocks apart in Clarkston. They also are known for hungry customers willing to wait to get into their version of gastronomic heaven.

With Vinsetta Garage it's hard to say if the excitement is more about the food or the location, an art deco building with a colorful history and all kinds of connections for locals. Whatever it is, Vinsetta Garage was special and Catallo and Stevenson, whose passion for preservation matches their appreciation of tasty food, knew as they stood in the massive, old space, surveyed it and cooked up their next design and culinary adventure.

There was one thing they knew for certain: they could not wipe out Vinsetta's character and charm or take the cheesy, gimmicky route in their re-do. They also wanted didn't want to disappoint the hard core automobile buffs, racers and historians behind the garage, including K.C. Crain Jr., a vice president and group publisher at Crain Communications Inc. Crain bought the cool, old garage in 2010 and earlier this year made it the backdrop for a Velocity TV network show, "Autoweek's Vinsetta Garage." He, Stevenson and Catallo decided to partner on owning and transforming the building.

"For us it was about keeping the sanctity of the space," says Stevenson, an art major from Bennington College in Vermont, where she and Catallo met. Her love of design began as a little girl who shared an older brother's interest in cinematography and art.

"We didn't tear everything out of there right away. We thought maybe we could use this… The two big skylights for example. I thought what a marvel to have these in this building. We wanted to preserve what was there instead of adding new things that don't have a relationship to the rest of the building. I've seen that happen before ... buildings that have all this character but something new is popped in there that doesn't fit and that character is gone."

"My whole thing with the space was about taking this raw garage and warming it up. So with the booths you have the caramel colors. The bar stools, you have the leather that's a little more sumptuous, and I wanted elements in there that were more organic, like wood. The way I looked at it was to still have the patina and the layers that were present in the garage without erasing the garage's original purpose. I feel like it's a fine line where you weren't taking over too much to allow the history to be present and also make it comfortable."

There is no mistaking that Vinsetta was (is) a vintage garage, but with updates:  automobile and racing memorabilia, old repair receipts as wallpaper, bathroom floors laid with pennies, glass from the old skylights made into clouds that hang over the pizza oven, on the walls of a private dining room and on the restroom doors, kitchen staff wear mechanics shirts.

Whether it's the food or the building that's brought so much attention on Vinsetta - from customers and media outlets - one thing is for sure: Stevenson's and Catallo's projects, Vinsetta and others, are certainly illustrations in sustainability.

The Union Woodshop was a frugal transformation of their Clarkston Cafe, a fairly fancy American-French restaurant they morphed into a more rustic spot. For lamp shades, they used galvanized buckets that can be found in your own garage, at yard or salvage sales or even at the Home Depot. They re-used marble from the fireplace of the old restaurant and small wooden tablets that were the menus became part of the inlaid design above archways, Stevenson says.

The Clarkston Union was a bigger project as the couple turned an old church into a restaurant down the street from the Woodshop. It was a mix of re-use and rebuilding. They made the parsonage into the Union General store and a place for Catallo, Stevenson and their children, ages 9 and 8, to live upstairs. During the Vinsetta re-do they also worked on redesigning the second floor of the Woodshop into an overflow bar. It was much less demanding and "fun, liberating, just to do whatever we wanted with it."

Vinsetta was their heftiest budget and the most stressful.

"I have to say, frankly, it is more costly ... We always say we could have bought something in a strip mall and moved in for much less money in much less time," she says. "I wish i could say it was a project that was economical, but anytime you're taking an existing building that had a certain individual purpose and changing it into something that's a complete turnaround it does get to be a major expense.

"What we love is that people appreciate it so much. They care and they respect the work that's been put into it," says Stevenson whose first experiences combining art and entrepreneurism came at age 7 when she sold her artwork to classmates for a nickel.

The renovation costs shouldn't be a deterrent to dreamers with an eye on that special building, she says, because the appreciation and respect may lead to a loyal customer base. It helps to know good craftsmen interested in the unorthodox uses of every day items. It takes an outlook that everything is useful or reusable.

"I think there's much more interest in returning to something that's more homey, has more personality. I think also people are thinking about being green these days ... What better way than to use what someone else has used. That's definitely in people's consciousness. And design-wise the different things you can use are infinite. Repurposing really opens up the variety: scale, texture, form ... To not have everything the same is much more interesting. I like things that are a little bit off. They work but almost don't work. I find that much more intriguing. It sets off a good energy," she says.

As the couple prepares for their next big project - the restoration of the Fenton Fire Hall - into what could be their next red hot endeavor, Stevenson expects Vinsetta will hold the top spot as the most demanding overhaul.

"I think the Fenton Fire hall, I knock on wood as I say this, will be a little easier to change. Maybe I'm just wishing. With Vinsetta its main purpose was the garage, but also at one time it had a store and an apartment so it was sort of a funny shape."

Stevenson points out how The Fenton Fire hall is more straightforward. "As I'm looking at it it feels like there are fewer questions as to how to utilize that space. I'm not saying I wasn't happy with that challenge in Vinsetta, but I'm thankful we're done."

"I still walk in to Vinsetta and say we're so fortunate to have this opportunity," she adds. "It's been nice that people feel this sense of connection to Vinsetta. It's had a personality. It's like an extra member of the neighborhood."
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