The Detroit drinking matrix
A bar for every purpose under heaven.
Published: February 25, 2014
Divey: Meant, as always, in the most loving sense of the word, Tom’s Tavern is a true dive. Open mostly on weekends, the bar opened when founder Tom Lucas bought the building in 1928, back when Prohibition was the law of the land, and when Seven Mile was still a dirt road. An astonishing 86 years later, Tom’s survives, despite a host of problems, including a car crash that caved in the front of the tavern. Over the years, the bar has been built and rebuilt so many times that it’s uneven enough to make you feel you’re drunker than you are.
Quirky: Not many Detroit restaurants have been around for more than 70 years. Even fewer have been owned and operated by the same family for as long. The Dakota Inn Rathskeller can claim both. The German beer garden at the crossroads of John R and McNichols is busiest on a Saturday night. Then, inside and through the heavy wooden doors, is the din of mirth as friends and families assemble to celebrate birthdays and other life events, or just grab a beer and sausage. Mandatory sing-alongs are a highlight.
Upscale: Tucked away behind a garden gate on Woodward Avenue just north of McNichols, La Dolce Vita has only a cryptic neon sign (reading LDV) to herald its presence. But those who slip behind the building, often for valet parking, can have one of the most romantic, secluded experiences in this urban oasis. Add the friendly, accommodating waitstaff, a well-stocked bar and good food, and you can see why this restaurant is a favorite. Call ahead to find out about their live DJ parties or inventive brunches.
Posh: With its 52 rooms, 10 bathrooms and 20 fireplaces, the three-story pink-granite edifice built for a lumber baron in 1894 has been one of Detroit’s most celebrated restaurants since 1986. In 2006, Bud Liebler, a former automotive public-relations executive, bought the place and began making renovations in and around the building and, especially, in the kitchen and the wine cellar. Now you can visit the Ghost Bar on the top floor of the ostentatious manor, and maybe say hello to the Whitney ghost that’s rumored to prowl the building.
Divey: Perhaps thanks to the smoking ban, even some of the grittier bars in the city have some outdoor seating, ranging from the fairly simple fenced in space off the alley at Whiskey-in-the Jar in Hamtramck to the outdoor oasis at the Old Miami. The Miami was a Vietnam veterans bar, and is still decorated with Vietnam memorabilia, but out back is an out-of-sight rear garden that you must see to believe.
Quirky: Classier joints often have places to enjoy yourself al fresco, and lots of recent urban spots, such as Corktown’s Mercury Burger Bar, Slows Bar-B-Q and Ottava Via all have ways to enjoy drinks outdoors. But our favorite is the Tashmoo Biergarten, a pop-up spot that takes over the corner of Agnes and Van Dyke, creating a family-style European vibe where drinking in the open air is fun for all.
Upscale: Detroit’s suburbs boast all sorts of restaurants where you can enjoy a craft beer in the great oudoors, from Ann Arbor’s Dominick’s or Milford’s Palate. But there’s probably no grander outdoor drinking place than Tin Fish, with 5,000 square feet of deck, a full tiki bar, and a dance floor. After a few fruity cocktails you may actually start believing you’re in Mexico and not St. Clair Shores.
Posh: Sure, lots of other spots have pleasant water views, but none can match the fine-dining experience of the Rattlesnake Club. Alas, dinner at the Rattlesnake comes at a steep price. The best way to sample the fare and lower the bill is to go for lunch, when some of the same dishes appear in smaller portions and at a lower price, or to simply have a drink on the outdoor patio in what once was a bustling warehouse district.
Divey: Divey spots have really kicked up their grill offerings in the last few years. Midown’s Bronx Bar has its wonderful sandwiches, Kelly’s in Hamtramck has its bacon burger, but it’s hard to beat PJ’s Lager House for its brunches. You can start the day right, with the hair of the dog, and have a rather healthy and often vegetarian meal, with offerings ranging from barbecued tempeh to vegetarian biscuits and gravy.
Quirky: Forget the onion rings of yesteryear: There are a host of places that have opened or revamped over the last 10 years that now offer excellent and creative small plates with their drinks. Try the tacos at Ferndale’s Imperial, the full menu of creative, locally sourced sandwiches at Foran’s Grand Trunk in downtown Detroit. One favorite is the Park Bar, where Bucharest Grill serves falafel and fries out of a space in the rear.
Upscale: Good food and upscale drinks intersect at restaurants more than bars. And Detroit’s Union Street fits the bill pretty well. The full bar has drinkers covered, but the kitchen turns out reliably good food, including excellent calamari and the one-of-a-kind “Dragon’s Eggs”: battered and deep-fried chicken breasts wrapped around Gorgonzola and topped with “rasta sauce.”
Posh: At Michael Symon’s Roast, the wine and beer lists are insane, the interiors are swanky and the food is awe-inspiring. They offer several cuts of beef, all naturally raised and dry-aged for a minimum of 21 days. The same amount of gastronomic attention is paid to the poultry and seafood dishes. Even the optional sides have their own unique signatures. Also a great spot for a date.
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