Former Cafe Owner Seizes Second Chance at Atomic Dawg in Berkley
"I feel like a washed-up prize fighter with another shot at the title,” says Gary Brunner, who relishes making gourmet hot dogs at the Coolidge Highway eatery and used to own Café 317 in Royal Oak.
Over the years, a storefront on Washington in Royal Oak – between the railroad tracks and Fourth Street – has been home to a string of diners and cafes—Cassia's, Café 317, Café Calypso, Café Muse, and What Crepe?
“That place has been handed down, handed down, handed down – since the 1920s,” said Gary Brunner, 43. “You used to be able to buy train tickets and step out the back door. The slab to get on the train is still right there.”
Brunner would know. He owned and operated Café 317 from 1997 to 2003.
Moving up the kitchen ladder
Growing up in Highland Park, Brunner learned how to cook from his grandmother and mother.
“I was getting into trouble, so it was always, ‘You stay in the kitchen and help out with dinner.’ So, I learned how to cook – a lot,” Brunner said laughing.
In the '80s, Brunner got into the restaurant business washing dishes at Mr. B's Pub. From there he moved up the kitchen ladder to the renowned Golden Mushroom in Southfield where he worked in the kitchen with his “super heroes,” chefs Milos Cihelka and Steve Allen.
All the while, Brunner would eat breakfast at Cassia’s at 317 S. Washington and dream of owning his own place.
“Then the owner approached me and said, ‘Why don’t you just buy this place?’ I flipped out. I said ‘Wait a minute. I love this place. Don’t sell!’ But we put together a deal and it ended up working out,” Brunner said.
Brunner would run Café 317 for five years. He served the likes of new wave rockers The Romantics, Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead and other rock stars passing through the Royal Oak Music Theatre – as well as Average Joes looking for omelets "as big as your head," he said.
“I never worked harder, never been broker and never had more fun – only to lose everything in the end. I maxed-out nine, maybe more, credit cards trying to keep that place alive,” he said. “I drank my way though most of the bars in downtown Royal Oak trying to drown my sorrows.”
In 2003, he ended up closing the doors to Café 317 and it was back to waiting tables, this time at the Coach Insignia at the top of the Renaissance Center in Detroit.
“Every once and a while I would run into guests I had at the café and they would always ask me the same thing, ‘If you had it to do it over again, would you?’ And, I would say, ‘Definitely!’ because I’m crazy I guess. But I knew I could never do it myself again – all of the shopping, payroll, sweeping the floors, painting the walls. I cooked. I managed. And, I did all the money losing. I always said I would do it all again but I would need a partner.”
Then last spring, Brunner received a phone call from an old friend – out of the blue.
“Joel Bacow, who I have known for more than 25 years said, ‘Gary, what are you doing these days? I want you to cook again.' ”
Bacow, of Huntington Woods, had the idea to put together an Atomic Age hot dog diner in Berkley. He fixed up a 1921 building at 2705 Coolidge Hwy., which was a creamery in the 1940s, and Atomic Dawg was born.
With its retro stainless steel bar tops, vintage light fixtures, kitsch orange and turquoise dining room, Brunner in the kitchen and an old-time radio to play funk and soul throwbacks, the Atomic Dawg has become a destination for gourmet hot dog lovers.
“Joel took me in like a puppy,” Brunner said. “I got my dream. I get to do it over again, and I have a partner. I feel like a washed-up prize fighter with another shot at the title!”
Bright colors, bright flavors
Brunner managed to bring over a few of his recipes from Café 317, including his grilled cheese sandwich and veggie burger.
"I like really bright colors and I like really bright flavors,” Brunner said. “I think colors should match the flavors. Let’s face it, no one is coming in here because they haven’t eaten for three days. They’re coming in here to have a nice time and to try something different."
The diner is a favorite of Seymour Schwartz. He eats at Atomic Dawg three or four times a week.
“Everyone here is really here is really nice and we found something we love to eat,” said the Berkley attorney. “We come here for the Russian-style veggie sliders – with Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Russian dressing.”
Business is great – and so is life these days, according to Brunner.
“Sometimes you get a second chance,” he said.