One of metro Detroit’s most recognizable restaurateurs has died.
Tom’s Oyster Bar founder Tom Brandel, a fixture of the local dining scene since the 1970s with his trademark bow-tie and tortoiseshell glasses, died Thursday, according to the restaurant’s current owner. He was 78.
“He was so full of life,” said Nick Ritts, whose hospitality company purchased the Royal Oak location of Tom’s Oyster Bar from Brandel in 2011. “I was shocked that he passed. We’d been in contact with him a few months ago. He seemed fine.”
The restaurant posted a message to its Facebook page announcing Brandel’s passing Thursday night, after receiving a phone call from a close friend of the family.
“Tom was very kind to us and loved that we kept his legacy going strong,” the restaurant’s post read. “We plan to proudly carry the torch of the last of his eponymous restaurants for many years to come.”
Brandel was best known for his eponymous seafood restaurants, each decked out in dark wood, tin ceilings, framed New Yorker magazines lining the walls and blue-and-white checkered cloths on the tables.
Over the years, Brandel helped educate countless diners about the finer points of merroir – the notion that an oyster’s taste reflects the unique characteristics of the waters where it grows.
“He was a visionary,” Ritts said. “He was the first to put on 10 tap handles, which today sounds like nothing but in 1994 everyone had two tap handles. He served really high-end food in a casual environment.”
Perennially asked by members of the press about the rumored aphrodisiac qualities of oysters, Brandel would frequently answer with only a coy smile.
“He was the quintessential gentleman,” said Michael Layne, a founding partner of the Marx Layne public relations firm. “He was a constant throughout life. He didn’t change his look and he didn’t change his demeanor or his kind personality. He was just a warm and sincere person.”
Layne said he met Brandel during the late 1970s while playing in a jazz band called the Red Port Review. In 1976, Brandel followed up on the success of his original Union Street restaurant in Grosse Pointe Park by buying a rundown bar on Woodward called Mad Anthony’s and converting it to Union Street Too, where Layne’s band played every Sunday.
“At the time I was really dirt poor, as were my band members, so to be able to have this steady gig at the Union Street was quite a wonderful thing,” Layne said. “And it was a great place. Tom was one of the first to really offer a venue that would be well-received today. He was a visionary.”
A 1983 Free Press article details the lavish debauchery of Brandel’s bachelor party, which saw him and a group of 20 friends charter a bus loaded with Dom Perignon, caviar and oysters. The party tooled around Detroit for an epic night, hitting hotspots of yore like Diamond Jim Brady’s and the Post Bar while watching the Tigers game on a portable TV on the bus.
“He did make it to the church on time, however, Saturday morning for his marriage to Susan Monley of Birmingham,” the article reads. “The wedding was at St. Mary’s in Greektown and the reception at Oakland Hills Country Club, but friends admitted Wednesday’s celebration was a hard act to follow.”
Brandel went on to open numerous restaurants around town, but the Saginaw native always remained a Detroit booster.
“I am excited by the city, and I think most people have the wrong idea about Detroit,” Brandel told the Free Press in the summer of 1977, shortly after opening Union Street on Woodward.
Brandel retired in 2011 when he sold what was left of the business to Ritts.
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“He’d kinda run his course and he was done with it,” Ritts said. “That’s a lot of years in the bar business.”
Ritts could not confirm the cause of death and Brandel’s family could not be reached Friday for comment or information about funeral services.