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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,  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.”

Dream 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.

About Atomic Dawg

  • Where: 2705 Coolidge Hwy., Berkley
  • Hours:  Atomic Dawg is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
  • Contact: Call 248-398-DAWG or www.facebook.com/theatomicdawg
  • Learn more: 7 things to know about Atomic Dawg
William Stocker February 01, 2013 at 03:10 PM
JOEL MARTIN BACOW IS A LIAR CHEATIN' SCUMBAG THAT HAS RIPPED OFF THE DETROIT MUSICIANS FOR DECADES. GARY WILL BE THE NEXT ONE TO BE RIPPED OFF AND TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF BY JOEL THE THEIF.
William Stocker February 01, 2013 at 03:11 PM
Gary got involved with the WRONG PERSON. JOEL BACOW AKA JOEL MARTIN AKA THE GUY THAT RIPPED OFF EMINEM'S ROYALTIES FOR YEARS IS TOTALLY DISHONEST
Windsor May 14, 2013 at 10:14 AM
HAS IT HAPPENED AGAIN TO THE ROMANTICS…. The Romantics let Joel Martin go in 2005 due to allegedly no transparency in the band’s financial and business affairs. Quote from Joel Martin from the Chicago Tribune 2008: "Martin said. "But you don't have to be too sophisticated to hide things from musicians. You just have to have a little larceny in your heart." The Romantics walked away and started fresh, again, in 2005. So why did Joel Martin allegedly finance (now former guitar player as of 2011 due to this lawsuit) ) Coz Canler in a suit against The Romantics, claiming that Coz Canler allegedly deserves royalties on the song ‘That’s What I like About You’. A Song that Mr. Canler did not write, did not play on the tracks, was not even in the band when it was recorded. (public record in Macomb County) Why was the suit filed the day after the statue of limitations was up, meaning that the Romantics could not go back and file a suit against anyone for allegedly no transparency in the Romantics business dealings, and confusion in all their paperwork, contracts that allegedly Mr. Martin created himself. Did not know that Joel Martin was also a lawyer? Sounds familiar George Clinton? This is worthy of a book, because it happens so frequently to artists who don't understand their rights." Martin said. "Publishing and administrative rights are the key to money flow.

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