Famed Restauranteur Jim Lark Left a Legacy of Fine Dining, Beloved Father

James “Jim” David Lark, a homebuilder and owner of The Lark, a famed restaurant in West Bloomfield, passed away on Thursday, January 21, 2021. He was 90 years old (born Dec. 27, 1930). He died peacefully at his West Bloomfield home with family at his side.
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Mary and James Lark
Mary and James Lark at The Lark in West Bloomfield. The high-end European Country Inn opened in 1981 and was twice named Restaurant of the Year by Hour Detroit magazine, a sister publication to DBusiness. // Photo courtesy of the Lark family

James “Jim” David Lark, a homebuilder and owner of The Lark, a famed restaurant in West Bloomfield, passed away on Thursday, January 21, 2021. He was 90 years old (born Dec. 27, 1930). He died peacefully at his West Bloomfield home with family at his side.

Born during the Great Depression, the youngest of six, Lark began working at age 9 to help support the family after his father passed away, selling newspapers on a street corner in front of Sanders Chocolates. He worked hard his entire life, a characteristic he attributed to the Prussian side of his family.

After putting himself through Catholic Central High School and the University of Detroit undergraduate (accounting), he put himself through Law School at Georgetown University where he was the assistant editor of the Georgetown Law Review. He also worked the elevators at the Capitol, meeting many politicians including John F. Kennedy, who gave him a PT 109 lapel pin as a gift.

It was there while sharing Alaska Governor Gruening’s home with five other students and experiencing too many tuna-noodle casseroles, that Lark honed his cooking skills and built on the foundation his French-Canadian mother instilled in him as a youth.

After graduating, Lark traveled the world while in the Navy as the ship’s yeoman on the USS Ford County (LST-772), taking advantage of free days to explore exotic ports, and experiencing things like Boar hunting and Kobe beef for the first time.

Upon returning home from military service, Lark put his tax attorney background to use as treasurer of Kaufman & Broad Co., where he met his life’s love, Mary, and Burt Binder, with whom he left to form Binder and Lark Building Co. During the 1960s and 1970s, Lark, with Binder, gave hundreds of families the opportunity to become homeowners by building affordable, quality brick homes in Livonia, Southfield, and Farmington, while raising his own family of four sons and one daughter in a home he designed and built. He and Binder also developed numerous subdivisions, along with the Moon Lake Townhomes in West Bloomfield.

In 1981 Lark decided to follow his lifelong passion for food, travel, and wine, and opened The Lark restaurant with wife, Mary, in West Bloomfield. At first, critics were not kind, but the couple knew they had something special and The Lark became internationally renowned and one of the most celebrated restaurants in the United States.

Lark was a pioneer in the restaurant business and he and Mary traveled the globe discovering new cultures and cuisines, being amongst the first Americans to vacation in countries such as China and Russia. They shared those experiences with patrons through the world’s first monthly restaurant newsletter, along with themed or wine dinners, predecessors to today’s popular “pop ups.”

Lark also had a passion for wine, and oenophiles visited from across the country to experience his highly lauded cellar. As a general practice, Lark would police the choices patrons made, removing a bottle of red until the right moment in the meal, replacing it with complimentary champagne or a white if he felt it went better with the course.

Though The Lark was a high-end European Country Inn, Lark appreciated great casual cuisine and in the 1970s founded the Michigan Chili Society, establishing the state’s first sanctioned chili cook-off which was held on the tennis courts of his Moon Lake townhome development before switching the location to The Lark — with Lark as “Head Chili.”

An avid cook, which his large family appreciated many nights and each Sunday at brunch, Lark won the Ontario chili cook-off and placed fourth in the world competition. To his final days, Lark would scoff: “If it has beans in it, it’s not chili!”

Lark and his wife hosted patrons at their award-winning restaurant for 35 years, where the patron bragged about his “bride,” children, and grandchildren. He often entertained diners with his stories of travel, hunting, and adventure, and had strong opinions about most anything. Patrons may not have always agreed with him, but he was respected and well-loved.

Lark was a generous man, never forgetting about his humble beginnings. In addition to his many charitable contributions, he founded a scholarship for aspiring chefs at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, helped establish Prince of Peace parish, and sacrificed the second phase of the neighborhood development where he lived so that West Bloomfield Township would have land for its civic center, police station, township offices, and library.

Lark’s hobbies included bird hunting and fishing. He was a long-time member of Hunters Creek in Metamora, where he made many friends with whom he hunted throughout the world. He also prized his regular poker games.

Lark was a voracious reader, and a writer, having written “The Ultimate Lark” in 1997 about food, wine, travel, and adventure. He treasured his many friends, loved his family dearly, and was religious. Having been in his church choir as a youth, he enjoyed singing at mass.

He also loved nature and animals, especially dogs, and cherished the time spent “Up North” with Mary at their Lodge in Good Hart. Known for his excellent sense of humor until the very last, Lark was never afraid to unleash one of his witty one-liners.

James David Lark lived a full life of 90 years, sharing 60 of those with Mary. As he would say, “Laissez le bon temps rouler,” — “Let the good times roll!” The Lark closed in 2015.

He is survived by his wife, Mary, children Jarratt (Janet), Adrian, Eric (Mandy), Kurt (Rebecca) and James II, and grandchildren Mary Claire, Christopher James, Anna, Sara, Cassandre, Julia, Jack, Christine, James III, Henry and Steven. He is predeceased by his parents, Frank and Minnie Lark (Gignac), and his siblings Marion Lark, Jean Kish, Frank Lark, Betty Ladow, and Larry Lark.

A memorial mass celebrating Lark’s life will be held at 1:00pm Tuesday, January 26th at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in West Bloomfield. A visitation will be held at McCabe Funeral Home, 31950 W. 12 Mile Road, Farmington Hills, from 4:00pm to 6:00pm today.

A party celebrating Lark’s life will be held in the summer of 2021 (post-COVID) with details to follow. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in Lark’s memory be made to The Capuchin Soup Kitchen, 1820 Mount Elliot Street, Detroit, MI 48207 and The Father Solanus Casey Center, 1780 Mount Elliot Street, Detroit MI 48207.

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