Best of Detroit 2011
Photo: Marvin Shaouni
Spend the Night - Staff Picks
From upscale cocktails to dives to rawk 'n' roll, our fave nocturnal haunts
Published: April 27, 2011
Best Random Act of Kindness
Detroit Party Marching Band
You never know when they'll strike, but the second they do, you'll know it. Since literally crashing the scene a little more than a year ago, the Detroit Party Marching Band has quickly become somewhat of a Detroit institution. The only group of their kind in Michigan, DPMB is actually among other renegade marching bands across the country. Founded by Molly, Rachel Harkai and John Notarianni, the band is made up of a rotating cast of players who show up, unannounced, when they can. They crash bars, parades, concerts and music festivals, and we hear they do weddings too! Really, it's a blast.
Best Reason to Wait in Line
The Moth at Cliff Bell's
2030 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-961-2543; themoth.com/storyslams_detroit
The Moth StorySLAM — which happens monthly in New York, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles — is a communal throwdown of hopefully artful orators. The gist is this: Participants drop their names in a hat and 10 are chosen at random. Judged by audience members, storytellers have five minutes to tell a true tale that somehow relates to the evening's theme. WDET's Alex Trajano starts the show at Cliff Bell's around 7 p.m., but people — and this is how it's been since Day One — start lining up around 4:30 p.m. Call it a public confessional or some booze-fueled group therapy session, there really isn't anything like the Moth. And it's worth the wait.
Best Bar to Take Your Parents
17324 John R St., Detroit; 313-867-9722; dakota-inn.com
The Dakota Inn is no secret to Detroit faithful, who've been coming to this family-owned German rathskeller for 78 years for traditional hearty fare, heavy brews and festive German music and dancing. But for many metro Detroiters, this diamond in the rough remains a hidden gem — one whose long history and distinct character deserves recognition from both young and old. Billed as Detroit's only authentic German bar, Dakota Inn was opened in 1933 by German immigrant Karl Kurz. Now run by the third generation of the family, the place hasn't altered much in the intervening years — creamy potato salad, potato pancakes, spaetzle and pork are still on the menu; heavy wooden tables are still crowded with large glass mugs of seasonal German beers; and tipsy revelers still chicken dance, waltz, polka and sing the traditional Schnitzelbank drinking song. Many of the patrons are old-timers who've been coming to Oktoberfests and holiday sing-alongs in the obligatory chicken hat for years, which makes it the perfect spot for new Detroit boosters — hipsters, young professionals, artistic transplants — to bring their parents to show off some tradition in a place that's survived the city's ups and downs. Not to mention giving moms and pops an old-school, foot-stomping, waltz of a time.
Best Drunken Secret
Maybe we're exposing somewhat of a secret here, maybe we're not, but, hey, Metro Times is all about transparency. So, check it: There are a few bars around the city (we won't out 'em) in which you might overhear someone order a beer "C.O.D." — a password that pays. What they're implying is that they're a resident of the city, have the I.D. to prove it, and would kindly accept the bar's offer of taking a cool buck off that drink. And people say there aren't perks to living in the city. But it's also pass code for "I dig your establishment and come here often" and "I give a shit about my community." If it weren't free already, we'd totally offer MT, C.O.D.
Best Bar For Pressing Flesh
Roast's Happy Hour
1128 Washington Blvd., Detroit; 313-961-2500; roastdetroit.com
Readers voted Roast the Best Happy Hour in Detroit this year, but we felt the need to dually note that between the hours of 4:30 and 6:30 p.m., its bar offers absolutely exceptional networking opportunities, professionally and socially. Detroiters from a bevy of mostly interesting working backgrounds meet there in small groups Monday through Friday. Conversations bounce among friends and strangers as fast as the beer, wine and tacos can flow. You'll see smiles and business cards swapping amid the crowd. City initiatives are discussed, debated or flat-out dissed behind the polite clank of bourbon shots. Behind the bar, you'll meet your host, director of wine and service Joseph Allerton. He's a courteous chap and a seasoned pro with a sick palate and a sturdy handshake. His wine list is calculated, but his beer list is tastefully ambitious, featuring the Midwest's best brewery, Jolly Pumpkin.
Best Bar for Michigan Beer
Grand Trunk Pub
612 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-961-3043; grandtrunkpub.com
We hear there's actually a group that's petitioning Lansing to riff on our Great Lakes State title and promote itself, via billboards, license plates and some sort of media campaign, as the Great Beer State. Amen! You name the style and we can point you to a bar that carries 14 Michigan Beers on tap and a whole slew of top-shelf farmhouse ales and I.P.A. and E.S.B., stouts and porters, wheats, reds, pilsners and Belgians by the bottle. The famed former ticket office that serviced the Grand Trunk Railroad, the space has gone by a few different names (Foran's, Eph's). Its current body, so very Detroit, is a little bigger but totally beautiful. Having absorbed the deli next door, there's now also a slimmer food menu and more room to drink beer. And they have an incredibly eccentric crew of people there: Brian, Amy, Pauly, Susan and Melissa are all awesome. New upstairs neighbor Motor City Wine is the froth on Grand Trunk's Pure Michigan pint.
Best Alt Venues - 3 way Tie
The Bakery Loft
4304 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 248-379-0194
The Park Bar
2040 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-962-2933; parkbardetroit.com
Northend Studios, 2937 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit
This past year saw a resurgence of popularity in awesome programming from alternative venues. Mexicantown's Bakery Loft, Foxtown's Park Bar and New Center's Sparklewood haven't only carved out places for themselves in our sprawling and, um, always-splendorous community, but each houses other artful events and enterprises, as well, and maintains certain charms and milieu.
Best New Music Venue
The Bakery Loft
Above Mexicantown Bakery, 4304 W. Vernor, Detroit
Home of the Detroit SOUP phenomenon (monthly dinners that provide mini-grant funding to worthy projects happening in Detroit), the Bakery Loft has also become the sweet under-the-radar spot to catch shows from both local and touring up-and-coming indie acts. The high-ceilings and exposed brick walls make the small space feel roomy but still intimate, cozy but not stifling. Chandeliers provide appropriately dim lighting, while a smattering of small tables add to the homey vibe. Tucked in a corner and decked out with sparkling lights, the stage provides ample room for both performer and spectator to shimmy and shake. At a recent Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas show, a packed house nearly busted through the wood floors thanks to their fervent dance moves (and despite being pleasantly stuffed on complimentary Mexican grub). Other acts that have performed at the Bakery Loft include the Growlers, Dark Dark Dark, DOM, Dolphins into the Future, Zoos of Berlin and Child Bite.
Best Hope for a Jazz Temple
New owners at Baker's Keyboard Lounge
20510 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-345-6300
Jazz fans and followers watched with dismay the sinking fortunes of Baker's Keyboard Lounge. Begun in 1934, it had seen see-saw ups and downs at least since the late '70s, undergone a major revival in the late '90s with owner John Colbert, then slowly let its musical mojo ebb away in the '00s. Came the recession and other woes, and the club ended up on the bankruptcy block last year. But Hugh Smith and Eric Whitaker have said their aim is to preserve their $395,000 January purchase as a jazz spot. They've yet to give the club a physical makeover, or, more important, put the sizzle into the lineup that the club needs to get noticed again and make itself consistently competitive with Cliff Bell's, for instance. But besides nostalgia, Baker's has sight lines and acoustics that makes it a first-rate listening room (and a romantic one at that with its cozy wall booths). After their big investment, the challenge for Smith and Whitaker will be closing a new deal with the jazz audience as well.
Best House Bar
2363 Yemans St., Hamtramck
Hamtramck is the densest city in Michigan, and you don't get that way with late 20th century zoning rules. Houses are jammed together, people live on top of each other, and bars — well, sometimes a bar will be in a house ... in the middle of a neighborhood. One of the last survivors in this regard is the fixture at the corner of Brombach and Yemans, formerly Roadrunner's Raft, and, before that, Joe and Carol's Bar. Under new management for more than a year now, some of the blue-collar atmo has given way to a lounge feel, and the schedule of weekend entertainment has certainly picked up. But, on a late night in Hamtramck, it's still one of the best places to go around closing time, if only to meet some characters before moseying on — to your own "house bar."
Best New Outdoor Concert Venue
New Center Park
Second Avenue and West Grand Boulevard in Detroit; newcenterpark.com
While the demise of City Fest was and is lamented by those of us who enjoyed gorging ourselves on samosa and quesadillas while watching free show after free show, New Center Park is no small consolation. Located in the shadow of the towering Fisher Building, the brand-new green space — complete with an outdoor stage, concession venue and full bar — opened last Fourth of July weekend with a four-day mini-fest of local music and continued providing free, kick-ass entertainment for the next 14 weeks. The spot hosted weekly weekend rock shows, a jazz and blues happy hour every Thursday, Saturday kids activities, reggae lunchtime concerts, a fashion show, a fall music fest, dance parties and picnics. And did we mention that it's all free? And that the shows featured stellar local bands? When the weather (finally) turns warm, expect more of the same, as well as a Wednesday night film series and a harvest market.
Best Combo of Sights & Sounds
Held at various Ann Arbor locations; visit hottlava.net
At its core, Hott Lava is a film event showcasing new and old experimental, avant-garde and obscure offerings. But really, it defies easy definition thanks to the myriad elements a Hott Lava happening always involves. Usually, the odd sights are matched with intriguing live soundtracks provided by experimental and avant-garde musicians — past performers have included Jesus Lizard bassist David Wm. Sims, ambient duo Mountains, jazz experimentalists Chicago Underground Duo, psychedelic group Moon Duo and multimedia musician Flying Lotus. Then, after the screening, the audience can shake off the brain-bending visuals with some visceral body-bending at dance parties featuring some of Detroit's and Ann Arbor's worthiest DJs. But refusing to be boxed into the film-plus-music-plus-dance-party formula, the tastemaking provocateurs of Hott Lava have also hosted midnight movies, concert afterparties, touring film festivals and multimedia installations.
Best Antidote to a Beer Belly
There's nothing like working on your beer gut and working it off at the same time. The new trend that popped up in the last year of racing on stationary bikes in bars allows for just such a thing — drink, race, drink some more. Bikers who usually hibernate during fall rains and winter snows can stay in shape, maintain their skills and show-off in front of bar flies and curious first-timers. It's a new way to pick up chicks, settle scores and challenge friends and strangers for free beers. The Hub bike shop hosts races — Hubsprints — every first and third Thursday at Third Street Bar in Detroit. It's $5 to race for prizes, and $2 to restore your pride with a grudge match. They've even introduced tandem races so teams of two can pedal hard and fast against each other. And in a run up to this July's Criterium Detroit City — a USAC sanctioned bike race through the streets of downtown — the organizers of the CDC have been hosting roller races timed to coincide with Detroit's monthly Critical Mass bike rides at various bars and restaurants in Detroit. Next up is this Friday at Foran's Grand Trunk Pub. Race to nowhere, beer in hand.
Best introduction to opera
Dr. Wallace Peace's pre-performance lectures at Michigan Opera Theater
Show up one hour early for the free Opera Talk by Dr. Wallace Peace, aka Dr. Opera. You get the historical and musicological context for each opera — which is to say you get all that high-art stuff. But Peace underlines the real reasons that opera was a popular entertainment in its heyday: glorious, soaring melodies in the service of over-the-top, improbable stories of love, lust, betrayal, mistaken identities and mayhem. Playing his examples on a boombox cassette machine (so populist), Peace delivers excerpts of the operatic greats. But even here his inveterate sense of humor can come in — for instance, playing the trio of Joan Sutherland, Dinah Shore and Ella Fitzgerald to illustrate The Mikado's "Three Little Maids from School." The next MOT production — the last for the spring season — is Verdi's Rigoletto, May 14-22. Details at motopera.org.
Best Venue Idea for 2011
Quarantine the "Patients"
An open letter to bars and venues with semi-discrete patios, decks, back yards, and the like:
Please consider subtly designating a space where those carrying proper credentials can huddle up and pass a couple joints around. What if DTE Music Theatre, Meadowbrook Amphitheater, Hart Plaza or even New Center Park had designated areas for card-carrying tokers? Would people put up with such a public cloud of weed smoke? Alley Deck? Hockeytown Cafe? Old Miami? Crofoot? Charge extra to smoke in peace upstairs in the horseshoe at St. Andrew's? Get in on the green economy, ya'll. Find a way. You're missing out. — Times High Council
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