Corktown Rises: Michigan Ave. Has a New Shine
Michigan Avenue has a new shine, driven by drinks, food and neighborhood spirit.
Published: February 4, 2014
The dining room is wide open at 1 p.m., but we take seats at the bar. That’s because Bradish sees his co-worker, bartender Paige Glennie, working there. They shoot the breeze on a new menu of cocktails while Glennie mixes up a few favorites. In seemingly moments, she presents me with one of Bradish’s creations, the Julius Julep, a cocktail of muddled basil, unrefined sugar, bitters, rye whiskey and ginger beer, all topped with two basil leaves and a light drizzling of balsamic glaze. Well, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, as they say. And thank goodness for that, because the drink is like nectar, like the Kentucky Derby taking place during a Tuscan sunrise. The vinegar works surprisingly well, and the basil as fragrant as grandma’s kitchen.
While this concoction is pulling me apart, Bradish chronicles the building’s many lives. “Originally, it was a bank. Then it was a bakery. Finally, it was a pawn shop. They had their soft opening here in July 2013, so it hasn’t even been a year yet.”
As for the customers, Bradish says, “We get a lot of business folk, kind of white-collar office workers. At night it’s usually couples and groups coming in for a nice dinner. Before there weren’t a lot of options here that felt comfortable for that crowd. They’re not going to go down to Corktown Tavern and tie one on after a coney dog! They want to sit down, have a place that’s comfortable, not overly raucous, have a nice calm, collected time and a decent meal. But it can be surprisingly varied. We also get a really strong group of service industry folk from around town on their nights off, and some local younger people or the hip crowd.”
Thinking it over, I wonder about the coming culture clash, when revelers drive in from the suburbs for the St. Patrick’s Day parade and find this upscale island in a sea of green beer and Jell-O shots. It would seem all concerned are in for a bit of a shock.
We order some meats and cheeses, and they arrive attractively plated. Having not had bresaola in years, I’m excited when it arrives. Bradish finds the air-dried beef a bit too dry for his liking, so I show him a trick learned from a Milanese, squirting it with lemon and adding a dab of olive oil. The next slice goes down better. The house-made mozzarella is light and fluffy, and comes with a bundle of arugula and a peach-and-honey marmalata. It’s just enough food for lingering, so we have another drink to wash the rest down. By the time that’s done, we’re behind schedule and rush out again.
It’s fucking freezing outside, and so we’re relieved to get inside Astro Coffee, the hip artisanal coffee joint opened by Daisuke Hughes and Jessica Hicks in 2011. The spot is a smash hit thanks to its emphasis on quality coffee, and the house-made and locally sourced specials on the chalkboard don’t hurt. People regularly jam into the cozy coffee shop just down the street from the Sugar House and Slows, and today is no exception. In fact, it’s so popular today, there is nowhere to sit, stand or even levitate if you could. Confident that the place is a success, we reluctantly head back out into the cold.
We cross the street and head inside the Mercury Burger Bar. One of the more established new businesses, the Mercury seems our kind of place. Compared to where we’ve been, its clientele is the most diverse, both on the floor and behind the counter. The sound system roves between Motown and classic rock, and the restaurant’s throwback tweaks, such as oversized vintage-looking M’s and a giant Mercury grill pictured on the rear wall, dovetail neatly with the building’s historic landmark sign.
There are plenty of places to sit, along the windows, downstairs, even on a heated patio, but we naturally belly up to the bar. Our old buddy Grant Mitchenall is there to serve us, and we take a shot and a beer from the burger house’s full bar. To keep us from getting too sloppy, I order a basket of garlic fries. It turns out that these hand-cut fries are a revelation to me, so crispy and chewy, dappled with tangy crushed garlic and herbs, that I can’t stop eating them.
Bradish pays no mind to the fries, saying, “You get some spillover from Slows here, but you also get a lot more longtime city residents. Maybe it’s the menu, which is kind of like “refined” bar food — burgers and such, but actually done well,” he says with a laugh. “They also have tater tot nachos! Can you beat that?”
Another server, Gabriel “Gino” Issac, checks in on us and recognizes Bradish, quickly finding out that they’ve had the same roommate. “I’m so sorry,” Gino says with a laugh, adding, “Let me get you a shot on me.”
The disdain is a joke, but the shot is real enough. Bradish pours it back. I remind him about the booty dance party he’s supposed to DJ later that night. “No problem,” he says. “I’ll have myself a disco nap, wake up, do a shot, and get down to business.” I remind him about the garlic fries, and he hesitantly takes a handful of starches to appease me.
By the time we leave Mercury Burger Bar, we’ve become pals with Issac, who promises to meet us at our next destination, Two James Distillery. With the help of a grant from the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, a duo of entrepreneurs cranked up their small-batch stills last spring, unwittingly getting the first distillery license in Detroit since Prohibition was enacted. Now they bottle Old Cockney Gin, Grass Widow Bourbon and 28 Island Vodka in their distillery’s tasting room.
Hurdling the streetside snow banks, we walk up to a long, squat, brick warehouse almost smack in front of Michigan Central Station. We stomp the snow off our boots, pull open a plain metal door and troop into sudden elegance. In an open, airy space, the walls decorated with art, sits a circular bar. Above it all, high windows frame the beaux-arts facade of Michigan Central Station in all its glory. It’s kind of breathtaking seeing it framed next to art like that, a majestic colossus linking you to the past.
After drinking that in, we pick our poisons. The tasting room’s cocktail menu includes a few mixes made with “shrubs” made with McClary Bros. drinking vinegar (for our second taste of it today), including a rich-red beet-and-carrot concoction we sample. I try some bourbon, and it’s so smooth it hardly kicks. But I settle on something I’ll sip, a Negroni. When the drinks arrive, Bradish already has a bottle in a bag to go. It’s the joint’s “Rye Dog” whisky, and he almost seems to be guarding it.
One of the partners in the distillery, Andrew Mohr, is on hand to explain the whiskey’s appeal, and it’s a little amusing to hear rye whiskey pedigreed as if it were a boutique local cheese at Whole Foods.
“That’s our unaged Michigan rye whiskey,” Mohr says. “The grain is 100-percent rye, all locally sourced from an Ann Arbor farm. But we’re putting most of it ‘in barrel,’ and hopefully our first small batch of the rye whiskey will be out in about 12 months.”
Why Two James? Mohr’s business partners, Two James co-founders David Landrum and Peter Bailey, named the distillery after their fathers, both named James. It only makes sense to build a shrine to forefathers in the shadow of the past. (Even if Chicago-born Bailey is a Michigander by way of U-M, he’s lived in Detroit for a decade, and Landrum’s and Mohr’s families have Detroit roots.)
Mohr says the distillery will be hosting a number of events, ranging from receptions for the rotating art displays to a three-day distilling workshop with master distiller David Pickerell. But Mohr anticipates things will really get hopping when warm weather returns and the tasting room can throw open its roll-up door to Michigan Avenue to air and sunlight. I hardly can believe it. Ten years ago, most doors on Michigan Avenue were closed and opened on a buzzer, and most open-air drinking came out of a bottle in a bag. What a difference a decade makes.
The after-work crowd starts tumbling in the door, including our new pal Issac. Wine blogger, Slows server and just plain ol’ neighborhood guy Putnam Weekley comes in with a friend in tow. The voluble Weekley grows a little wary when asked about the changing neighborhood.
“Isn’t the standard question, like, ‘Is it good or bad?’ I don’t have an opinion on that as much. I tend to think more people is better than less people,” he says. “I have a selfish interest in Michigan Avenue, being that I like to see communities being bridged together via service and security. And all these little businesses are part of the glue that brings it all together.”
But at the center of Weekley’s neighborhood life is the thing he can’t stop talking about: that focal point, Michigan Central Station, now staring at him through the window in the fading sunlight. He’d rather discuss that.
“I meet so-called enlightened people who say, ‘We should bomb that place and raze it to the ground.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, what are you going to replace it with?’ I kinda like the economy that’s built up around the train station. I mean, my whole life revolves around the train station. I’ve got my bank, the place I work, the grocery store, my house, my bar. It just circles me, and it’s beautiful.”
At dusk, we enter Motor City Wine. Husband-and-wife team Melissa and David Armin-Parcells only moved their wine bar, shop and music venue from downtown to Corktown last year, into the former Express Bar. The move is so recent that the couple is still hard at work building it up. David is screwgunning part of the bar together, and we actually help him lift a small refrigerator and drop it into its new home while we’re there.
After successfully operating their business on Woodward Avenue, above Foran’s Grand Trunk, they were able to purchase the new Corktown space, with its commodious parking lot. The two love urbanity and density, but, in transit-poor Detroit, parking is something they had to grudgingly consider, the better to pack folks in for pop-up dinners and music nights. Best of all, they landed smack in the middle of a neighborhood they love, and they’re making the most of it, aiming to provide a peerless gathering place. Come springtime, their outdoor courtyard should have lovers of wine and music gathered around their outdoor fire.
When asked, David agrees with my rough estimation that the new start-ups employ at least 100 people, and the economic activity, even not counting Slows, is in the millions of dollars. “And everything along here is an independent business, which is great.”
I try to catalog all the places we’ve been, let alone all the places we’ve missed that are off the avenue, such as St. Cece’s and Green Dot Stables. All day we’ve heard scuttlebutt on who’s opening what when, including the new Bucharest Grill in the old Great Wall Chinese joint, the deli named Rubbed in a former nail salon, a new bar called UFO Factory down by the old taxi garage. We even hear a new microbrewery is in the works.
David the third Canadian-born Corktowner we’ve talked to today, and his upbringing in Toronto seems to have left him with a healthy understanding of neighborhood life. “Toronto was full of small, independent businesses, and you did as much shopping as you could three blocks from your house, and you went to the restaurants that were right there,” he says. Speaking of Michigan Avenue today, he says, “There’s more of a neighborhood culture, which didn’t really exist in Corktown before. Now it’s thriving. People are actually walking.”
Glancing out the window at the dark and cold, he quickly corrects himself: “OK, not today! But people actually walk. They’ll start at one end, just like you did, and they’ll have a drink down there, they’ll have some dinner, they’ll walk up here and have a drink. And that’s great.”
> Email Michael Jackman