The moment I heard the toot-toot-toot, I knew I was going to like Detroit. I had come out of the Renaissance Center, the ballyhooed cluster of glass towers on the St. Clair River, hoping the city had more to show for itself, when I spotted a little red trolley barging blithely up Jefferson.
''That's our version of the cable car,'' said a Detroit friend, explaining that at 35 cents a fare, the one-car trolley runs back and forth on a recently extended downtown route. It obviously will never put the San Francisco cable car in the shade, but then it's a mistake to stack Detroit up against the great United States tourist cities. I doubt you will be disappointed.
As for the Renaissance Center, known locally as the ''Ren Cen,'' the reviews have been mixed, the house seldom packed. There were dark reports the week I was in town that the $357 million project, opened in 1977 and carrying the hopes of a troubled city, had already lost $100 million. Some fancy shops and stores in this gleaming indoor bazaar had recently closed up and moved to the still promising suburban shopping centers, of which Northland (one of the biggest you'll see anywhere), Fairlane (perhaps the most successful in the region), and Somerset (the most elegant, up the road near Troy) are the leading lights. It didn't seem that the Ren Cen's Westin Hotel (formerly the Detroit Plaza) was faring badly - in fact, the check-in line was so long the morning I arrived, I stowed my bag, left the hordes of paint-industry conventioneers amid the hanging vines and crisscrossing skyways, and went out to meet the real Detroit.
I didn't have to go far. Bricktown, a reviving turn-of-the-century district just across Jefferson from the Ren Cen, has a clutch of eating and entertaining establishments in a little four- or five-block oasis. La Marmite, French-flavored and not a bit stuffy, is probably the best of 10 restaurants in Bricktown. Ron Crittendon, a young lawyer who opened La Marmite two years ago and in fact gave Bricktown its name, told me: ''We don't live off the Ren Cen, and none of us in Bricktown advertises much. Our customers have become our ambassadors.''
I didn't have the fortune to visit any of the three, but Mr. Crittendon advised me that Rembrandt's, directly above his cellar-dwelling restaurant, Herb's place, and Old Detroit all pour jazz into the Bricktown night.
Two or three blocks away is Greektown, no newcomer to downtown Detroit. Monroe Street is the main artery of this chunk of Athens with its Greek restaurants, Greek bakeries, Greek groceries, and Greek tavernas. Day and night, Monroe and the parallel Lafayette Street disprove the notion that Detroit is unsafe or unsavory. In fact, Lafayette grinds, bouzouki-style, far into the night without peril.
''This is a very safe neighborhood,'' said Elaine Zesses as I plunged into a Greek salad at the New Hellas Cafe, 583 Monroe Street, a place her grandfather opened in 1901. ''People take care of each other around here, and there's always a cop walking the beat.'' The only scare I received was when a waiter ignited a flaming kasseri cheese plate at the next table.''
The Warehouse District may not sound like the most palatable place, and in fact this area east of the Ren Cen is largely what it seems, empty weedy lots, rusted railroad tracks, and shabby warehouses, but it also conceals three active , attractive restaurants, the Woodbridge Tavern, the Soup Kitchen Saloon, and Rhinoceros.
Before I leave the restaurant beat (and there are some US epicureans who rank Detroit behind only New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans), I have to mention the London Chop House. You could say it is Detroit's answer to ''21,'' but like the little red trolley and the downtown Hart Plaza - analogous to Rockefeller Center with its outdoor skating rink - the Chop House deserves its own press. Cozy, masculine, low-beamed, it is favored by Detroit's movers and shakers, who are moving and shaking a little less these days in the face of 14-percent unemployment and a severe auto-industry slump. Jimmy Schmidt, slight, shy, and still in his 20s, is the Illinois-born chef who provides all those hearty and, I must say, inspired portions of food, served up by waitresses in tuxedos. I ordered the sliced calf's liver sauteed with whole raspberries in a vinegar sauce, wondering if Escoffier ever had the pleasure.
Since the automobile decline, Ford has canceled its once-impressive tours of the River Rouge plant, but there are other ways to fill the hours between meals. You can follow Jefferson out to Lake St. Clair where the Grosse Pointe mansions await inspection, like a midland Beverly Hills. ''I live on Lake Shore Drive, one of the prettiest streets in Grosse Pointe,'' said Bill Anton, who at the time we met was coordinating restaurant activity for the Super Bowl. ''I live next door to Edsel Ford, Henry's son. But I have to say that Bloomfield, on the other side of Detroit, is worth seeing too. It has a lot of GM magnates, beautiful winding drives. Lee Iacocca lives out there.''
Bill Anton went on to tell me that Detroit divides east and west at Woodward near the Ren Cen, with certain social and cultural characteristics attributable to each side. ''Just like Manhattan,'' I started to say, but caught myself. There's only one Motown, after all.