Best of Detroit 2012
Spend the Night - Staff Picks
Our staff picks for nightlife in Metro Detroit
Published: April 25, 2012
If, like us, you're into cheap buzzes and greasy-delicious, hangover-minimizing meals at night's end, take note: Honest John's kitchen swings its doors until 2 a.m. (Oh, why don't other local watering holes do same?) Also, they serve up your basic 40 of Old Milwaukee, which works mighty sweetly in a pinch. Sure, the cost may be double what you pay for same at a reasonable liquor store. But this is about convenience, yo. Besides, if you're on unemployment and shootin' pool with pals, you'll want a minimum bar tab. If you're a go-for-it day drinker into breakfast, John's opens at 7 a.m. daily.
Best Free Thing to Do on a Friday Night for WSU Students
The Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900; dia.org
The Detroit Institute of Arts, for most, probably doesn't mesh well with your typical escapist collegiate lifestyle. But, after book-pounding the entire week, broke students looking to get it up for an evening that fits nonexistent budgets, the DIA is an idea that smokes. Open till 10 p.m. Fridays, with free admission for Detroit residents (proof of residency required) the DIA is more than just gallery-gazing on the cheap at one of the finest art collections in the country. There are also free drawing lessons, free music performances, and sometimes other various gratis events pop up too. Movies at the lovely Detroit Film Theatre don't drain your pockets (nor your IQ) either: $6.50 for students with I.D.
Best Proponent of Local and National Authors and Oddballs
We love his unironic name-droppage of Kerouac and Keats and Moby Grape, and his unjaded ear for music new and old, and the hours he spends in local record stores, and that glorious snow-white facial hair that's unrivaled anywhere this side of Mark Twain. We also respect that he's an award-winning author who can write, teach, perform — and sometimes even sing and dance! — with the best of 'em. But what often goes unnoticed and should be applauded is how M.L. Liebler is himself a tireless and selfless proponent of local and national authors, big and small, published or unpublished. In fact, he often hosts nights that lift unknowns onto little pedestals that otherwise wouldn't exist. Whether it's bringing in old Ed Sanders to the Wayne State Student Center or hosting readings featuring young poets at the Scarab Club, or those spirited Detroit Tonight Live shows at the Jazz Café that mix rock 'n' roll and jazz with great readings, Liebler brings to our area folks who should be known to anyone with even the slightest interest in literature. And he does this in unpretentious and spirited ways; he doesn't care what people think. Good show!
Best Introduction to Opera
Dr. Opera's Pre-Show Talks,
Michigan Opera Theatre
1526 Broadway, Detroit; 313-237-7464; michiganopera.org
There's one more set of performances in this year's Michigan Opera Theatre season — Ruggero Leoncavallo's 1892 classic I Pagliacci, running May 12-20. It's also the last chance of the season for the uninitiated to be ushered into the art form of opera by Wallace Peace, aka Dr. Opera. The good doctor operates via pre-show talks that come with the price of admission and start an hour before curtain time. Peace delivers the important musicological context and previews snippets of the music to come, for sure. But, moreover, he makes sure you understand, as only a natural raconteur can, that opera's over-the-top yarns of love, lust, longing, loss, treachery, betrayal, adultery, greed and mayhem are rollicking good fun, not to mention the precondition for shamelessly ravishing music. His crowd is mostly staunch opera fans, but for the curious and newbies, there's no better welcome to the circle of devotees.
Best Place for Curious Claustrophobics to Feel Cozy With Killer Music Programing
36 E. Cross St., Ypsilanti; woodruffsbar.com
This Ypsi venue has lots of space, but not all amassed in one area, but that doesn't take away from its cozy ambience, which is particularly augmented by the stone fireplace that stands in the room's center like an ornate tree stump. This place is nearing its 18-month anniversary. (What is that, the tin anniversary?) It attracts much of the same Elbow Room crowd, but also a notably wider breadth of musical performing styles and talents — from, yes, indie-rock and neo-folk to rousing bluegrass and punk, and even jazz and some electro-dance from time to time. Situated in the heart of Depot Town, just off the train tracks, Woodruff's has made admirable efforts to foster regular rotation of engaging weekly programming — from new-wave, post-punk DJ Nights (Absolute Beginners) to Hairy Karaokee nights to acoustic open-mic nights, even a monthly drag show! This is a great room; yes, the vintage arcade playing space is a bit cramped and it is awkward dancing around the old fireplace and maybe you feel even more awkward standing to the side of the stage in front of barstool revelers, but, on particularly packed nights, if you add in the pool table and loitering-friendly floorspace near the usual merch table area, this building can feel like you're in four or five different rooms at once. Eclectic entertainment and curiously cozy.
Best Irish Bar, Kinda
1426 Bagley St., Detroit; 313-962-2121; saintceces.com
So, what happens when you mix the cozy, neighborhood ambience of a proper Irish pub with a welcoming staff and a cast of regulars who remind you that not all Detroit bars obey the rules of either hipster-baiting or divey obscurity? St. Cece's is what happens. (See, St. Cece is the patron saint of whiskey.) The former Baile Corcaigh at the corner of Bagley and Trumbull (just up the street from Hello Records) is a stained-glass and wood-paneled port in the nightlife storm. A joint where you can have a conversation, swap a few jokes and feel left-in even when no one actually knows your name. There's a crackling fireplace to warm by when the weather is beating you down and the smell of the fireplace remains and adds an olfactory comfort even when the temps are balmy. Co-owners Colleen and Celeste Belanger (along with brother Jerry) know what the hell they're doing when it comes to running a bar (see also: Cliff Bell's, Park Bar). And any joint that can A) be the place where Van Dyke Parks ends up holding court at closing time and B) keeps the lights on long enough to let him play an impromptu concert for an audience of 15 has a lot to recommend it out of the gate.
Best Place to Drink
Like a Viking
Kuhnhenn Brewing Co
5919 Chicago Rd., Warren; 586-979-8361; kbrewery.com
Neighborhood micro breweries are becoming commonplace these days but while everybody and their cousin can whip up a decent IPA, it takes someplace special to offer up a whole menu of mead, the ancient beverage made from fermented stuff and honey. That magical joint is Kuhnhenn Brewing Co, a convivial wood-lined drinking hall, which is one of the super coolest things in all of industrial Warren. Along with a delicious, ever-evolving lineup of finely crafted beers and wine, there is that incredible mead, served in a dizzying array of flavors, the sort of hearty drink that the Mighty Thor or Lemmy might chug a barrel of before slaying an army of frost giants. The adventurous might also sample the award-winning Fourth Demntia Olde Ale, a thick, highly sophisticated concoction with notes of chocolate, figs and burnt coffee, tasting something like the bottom of a wizard's cauldron. It's a powerful brew to tackle, but at 13.5 percent ABV, you'll probably only need one. Probably.
Best Drinking Trend
The cocktail is to drinks what jazz is to music — our distinctly American contribution to the art form. For decades, that heritage was obscured by shelves of flavored vodka and gallons of artificial food coloring. No longer. Sure, Detroit caught up to the craft cocktail resurgence a bit late, but 2011 was unquestionably our year for the cocktail: Fresh squeezed juices, rye whiskey, house-made syrups, perfectly cubed ice and herb-infused booze have arrived. And they're here to stay. Sidle up to the bars at the Sugar House in Detroit, the Oakland in Ferndale, the Last Word in Ann Arbor, or a half-dozen other spots and see what's shaken — or stirred.
Best Place to Play
With a Mother
RGB Trio's Thursday Jam at Bert's Marketplace
2727 Russell St., Detroit; 313-567-2030
So you're a musician looking to up your cred in the musical version of Six Degrees of Separation? The RGB Trio's Thursday jazz (mostly) jam at Bert's is a one-stop of Kevin Baconian importance. Bassist Ralphe Armstrong is a former Mother of Invention, former member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, sideman to Miles Davis, Jean Luc Ponty, Aretha Franklin, James Carter, etc. (He's also a son of late roots giant Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong.) Drummer Gayelynn McKinney hails from the musical McKinney clan (she's a daughter of the late jazz-scene sage and Tribe member Harold McKinney), is a member of Grammy-nominated Straight Ahead, and has played with folks from Geri Allen to Benny Golson (the latter just a bit ago at the Dirty Dog — smokin' sets there). Pianist Bill Meyer is a former musical director for Martha Reeves and go-to guy for such ambitious projects as the Mosaic Youth Theatre's Motown show (see above). Plus you never know who else will show up to jam (Martha Reeves, James Carter, Larry Smith, out-of-towners looking for after-the-show action).
Best Suburban Punk Hangout That's Not a Joke
Woodward Avenue Brewers
22646 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-546-3696; thewabsite.com
Aside from brewing some of the best Mitten-made beer and beyond, the WAB is a major meet-up for Ferndale punks, hipsters and indie kids. With the Loving Touch nearby, the vibe of the whole place is very punk rock in the sense that it's inviting and warm like a UK local, but there's food, a happy hour and an inside aesthetic that's both fetching and cozy. Staff's cool too (includes Stevie Michael of the Grande Nationals and Running With Panthers). Live bands perform on occasion, but this place is about hanging with pals and like-minded souls. Drew Podgorski of Running With Panthers says that, "The WAB is the punk rock Cheers."
Best Club That's
Not Open at All
Old Nasty Yacht Club
West Fort Street, Detroit
Two years ago, Detroiter Patrick Jarvis and two friends pooled together a few thousand dollars and bought a building on Fort Street — apparently, just for laughs. They hadn't realized the building was quite so decrepit, and weren't sure what to do with the property, other than chase out the occasional crackhead who broke in looking for loot. When some of their friends decided to join the Detroit Yacht Club, Jarvis and company jokingly decided to create their own yacht club. And so they spraypainted the words "Old Nasty Yacht Club" on the front of the building, complete with a little image of a boat. Something about the tag captured people's imaginations, and it wound up on local artist Scott Hocking's bad graffiti photo blog (scotthocking.com/badgraffiti.html). Some east siders even starting printing up novelty T-shirts with a logo and the nonexistent club's name. Jarvis says, "We found out about that and we were really confused. Like, what? You're not even members!"
Best Night to Laugh
You've got to have a sense of humor to tough it out in a town where even the manholes are steaming mad. Fortunately there is a pretty vibrant standup comedy scene bubbling up here, one that's whacked, raw and as fucked-up as our rusty burg. While big-name headliners own weekends, Thursday night's ripe is for emerging talent slugging it out at the various open mics that can be found everywhere from the east side to Hamtrammck, where the Painted Lady sports an "alternative" showcase hosted by tough-talking derby girl Lauren Uchalik. The wildest of them all is at O'Mara's in Berkley, a cozy brunch spot by day, but an inventive, rudely funny showcase on Thursday nights, hosted by the unpredictable Harry Artin, who stokes the rowdy comedy spirit of the late, lamented Club Bart Thursday show.
Music Venue, Detroit
PJ's Lager House
1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668;
With the Hamtown's Belmont shuttered and various upscale-esque venues now littering the metro area, spit 'n' sawdust venues such as the Lager House, which are an essential part of Detroit music, get more and more precious. Lager House owner PJ is trying his damnedest to keep that spirit moving forward, and he's succeeding thanks to a great sound system and a consistently high-quality list of killer, under-the-radar bands from here and afar that choose the venue whenever possible. To wit: Lettercamp singer Liz Wittman says the Lager's "a no B.S. place to play. You show up, you set up, you play. It's also a pretty intimate setting, whether you are playing a show or seeing one. There's little disconnect between the audience and the artist. I dig that."
Music Venue, Burbs
3087 12 Mile Rd., Berkley; 248-547-3331
Berkley's a fairly quiet little burb, but with a little rockabilly aesthetic and hip-hop development. Even the barber shop, the Chop Shop, sorta fits the 'billy image — hot rods and Morrissey (?!) on the wall, Elvis crooning in the background. The Berkley Front, while not exclusively a rockabilly venue, has that sort of old-school feel about it. The beer selection is great, the downstairs bar is a sweet place to shoot billiards, and the bands and hip-hop artists who play upstairs are consistently worth seeing. No shit. Jeff Howitt of Duende! even compares the venue to the legendary Manhattan rock 'n' roll launch spot. He says you can "close the deal downstairs in the Bier Garden, then you can go upstairs and it's like Max's Kansas City." You best believe I'm in love — L-U-V.
Best Michigan Beer Bar, Downriver
1175 Eureka Rd., Wyandotte; 734-281-4629; rockerywyandotte.com
Specializing in Michigan brews, beer nuts can expect suds from everyplace from Arbor Brewing to Short's, as well as cider from J.K.'s Scrumpy and meads from B. Nektar Meadery. The four taps all pour Michigan beer, and there are more than 90 Michigan bottles to choose from. Burgers, chicken strips and other finger foods will help bring you back from the brink. In addition to live music Friday nights and karaoke Saturday nights, they regularly host events, posted on their website, that can be quite interesting. Tastings bring in local brewers, offering quaffers the chance to taste many different brews for a fixed price; past events have included Frog Island Brewery. It's also where the Downriver Women's Craft Beer Lovers Society often meets, and their inaugural guest was the first certified female cicerone, Annette May, from Merchant's Fine Wine in Dearborn.
Best Stylish Smorgasbord of Local Coffee, Music, Beer, Art
42 E. Cross St., Ypsilanti; 734-482-8050
Café Ollie's just a hopscotch down from the main live music venue in Ypsi's Depot Town; it's got a somewhat heavy door, echoey wood floors, hot zingy coffee and a fine menu friendly to all, particularly vegans. It sounds like your typical college town hub — before you find out how much more it's got going for it, such as tall bookshelves displaying various local releases, CDs, cassettes and vinyl (7-inch, 10-inch, 12-inch). The shelf is consistently updated month-to-month, keeping pace with the ever-industrious community of DIY-musicians situated in the Ann Arbor-Ypsi area (and beyond). A place for lunch as much a place for expanding your engagement with local culture, a place for homework and laptop clattering as much a place to network and soundboard potential song ideas with new collaborators. Over the winter they started a Sunday night acoustic open-mic night ("Ypsi Facto") and for Detroiters heading westward to a Woodruff's show or something at Ann Arbor's Blind Pig or the Ark, this is an ideal place to stop, just north of the freeway, to caffeinate before your night's planned high jinks.
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