Detroit: 10 Aug - 09 Sep 2019
Updated: Apr 4
Interviewing for possible residence.
1. Lodgings: stayed at an Airbnb, downtown on the corner of Grand River and Washington. Great location, with a fine view of Comerica Park and within easy walking distance of the river. Downtown Detroit is undergoing a rebirth. New buildings are going up (including the tallest building in Michigan at the former site of the tallest department store in the world) and old ones are being renovated. Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers (and at least three other teams) appears to be the driving force.
- where I spent my time reading the books on the President's Summer Reading List and
binge-watching House (I think it's something about his sense of humor).
- The Republic Tavern: Happy Hour (Tues-Thurs: 4-6, Fri: 5-7), $5 premium cocktails - need I say more? When I say premium I mean the good stuff (Rittenhouse Rye and Beefeater).
- Johnny Noodle King: Visited this place based on positive reviews, the name, and that it reminded me of a good friend. My instincts didn’t fail me: excellent ramen soup served with a portion of gritty ambiance and a chaser of an icy cold Sapporo draught. Click here for all the sordid details.
- Coney Island Hot Dog: steamed bun + grilled hot dog + bean-less chili + onions + yellow mustard = a Detroit institution
*Duly's Place: Tony Bourdain recommended this 98-year-old establishment, so I went (to paraphrase Newton "I stand on the shoulders of giants"). Quite simply the best Coney I ever had.
*Lafayette vs. American: If you want a Coney closer to downtown, then these are two very good options. There is a whole backstory about these two places, a real brother vs. brother thing. They both make a similar product, but Lafayette has a more authentic ambiance (and bathroom). Recommend you get one at each place and make your own determination.
- Monarch Club: Good place for a (very) pricey cocktail and a nice view of downtown. Guess what I had?
- Mabel Gray: Once again Tony Bourdain did not steer me wrong. A small space, so either make a tough-to-come-by reservation or get there early and get a seat at the bar. I like sitting at the bar: the bartender is close by for questions, service, and conversation, and you can talk with adjacent drinkers/diners. Also, bartenders seem to have a better line on what's going down with the menu, on the street, and in the kitchen. The menu is updated daily and I have a strong feeling there is not a clinker on it, though I can only personally vouch for the griddled broccoli and the fettuccine with wild boar bolognas.
3. Pizza: Who would have thought that getting a slice in Detroit would be so complicated?
- Detroit-style: I'm familiar with NY-style pizza, and Chicago-style, but didn't realize there was also a Detroit-style. It's a square pizza, whose slightly thick, crunchy crust has the toppings and cheese baked into it, with sauce on top. After an extensive review of the internet and street sources, I decided to confirm if Loui's Pizza in Hazel Park was the best Detroit-style pizza. It's confirmed! A crispy but chewy crust, containing a mix of tomato sauce and mozzarella, all washed down by the coldest Bud Lite I ever swallowed. This is a quintessential pizza joint — hundreds of straw-covered chianti bottles signed by diners fill virtually every inch of wall space, the tables are covered with glass-protected red-checked cloths, and the food is served on plain plastic tableware. So authentic I should have sat with my back against the wall. I kept expecting to see Jackie Giacalone walk through the door.
But then heard there is a . . .
- Windsor-style: Made a day trip to Windsor, Canada to get to the bottom of this. It's a NY-style pizza with shredded pepperoni and canned mushrooms (at a minimum) layered on the cheese and tomato sauce, creating a Domino's like matrix. To be honest, there was just too much of everything (and not enough zip), so in the end I realized what I should have known all along, the best pizza in Detroit is . . .
- New York-style: Was visiting The Belt (an alley with restaurants and art) on a very hot and humid afternoon when I found myself needing air-conditioning and a cold beer, so I ducked into The Mootz and chatted with the owner Tony. He mentioned that he made the best New York-style pizza. Now that's a bold statement, but since his name was Tony, I felt we were off to a good start. In order to perform the most basic veracity check, I asked him if he was Italian. He was, things were getting better and better, so I decided to get a slice at his adjoining pizza parlor. When asked what his favorite kind of pizza was, he replied "Cheese", he's on a roll I thought (I was thinking about asking him a trick question "Do you serve it with pineapple on top?", but didn't want to insult him). After one bite I realized my newfound paisan was right all along.
- Foxtown Liquor: Extensive selection with very reasonable prices ($2 over State Minimum Price).
- Food: If you are staying downtown, Whole Foods (in Midtown) is your only option. If you're an Amazon Prime member you can get a discount, which makes the prices merely "Wow!".
- Comerica Park: Though the Tigers are stinking it up, they are doing it in style in a beautiful ballpark. Sit in section 132, rows 25-35 to get a good view of the action and the Detroit skyline (@$29: Aug 28, vs. Indians).
Need to have a drink before the game? There are three generally recognized places to go (and a bonus spot):
*Bookies: The bar moved to this location a few years back and the new place lacks a certain amount of soul. When I was there it was visited by two pedal pubs which together disgorged about 20 middle-aged revelers who seemed to delight in drinking putrid-looking red and blue concoctions out of plastic shot glasses (you'd think they'd know better). Instead go to nearby Bucharest Grill: Two beers and two large delicious shawarma/shawarmi (beef & lamb) for $26.00 (with tip). Why is it called Bucharest Grill when it serves shawarma? It's something about the cabbage.
*The Elwood: Built in 1936 at the current location of Comerica Park, the building was moved to its current location in 1997. The Art Moderne exterior is interesting, but the inside is quite ordinary and drinks are served in plastic (need I say more). Though it is located directly across E. Adams Street from the ballpark.
*Nemo's: The Best for Last. This place looks exactly like a bar should, a tin ceiling, a long wood bar worn to perfection, a beer in a glass, and a bartender that has seen it all. A bar since the 30s, and Nemo's since 1965. I could easily imagine Charlie Gehringer (after a game) or Babe Ruth (before), beer in hand, at the bar, at the exact spot I was standing.
*The Bonus: Nick's Gaslight: What intrigued me about this bar was the sign on the door that read "$5.00 - @ For use of bathrooms ---- Payable in advance.", the fact I never saw anyone entering it and the crazy reviews on Yelp: "decor is from the 70's", "freakishly desolate. Kind of like the bar in The Shining", "sarcastic manner", "the flame at the Gaslight is . . . rude" and my favorite "must be a front for the Greek mob." All completely accurate, making this the most interesting bar in Detroit. The owner/bartender/licensed pilot Savvas is from Cyprus and serves Greek beer with a helping of blunt sarcasm with a hint of bigotry that is actually kind of refreshing in this day and age. We hit it off immediately and I was rewarded with engrossing banter and a free shot of ouzo (Opa!!). A Tony Bourdain moment. BTW: he actually makes a couple of bucks on the restroom (sometimes people just gotta go!).
-The Packard Automotive Plant: Located on 40 acres in Eastern Detroit. The most modern automotive manufacturing facility in the world when opened in 1903, closed in 1958, then comprehensively looted, and is now a post-apocalyptic ruin (some may say "ruin porn"). The city has recently been moving forward (slowly) on redeveloping the site, so visit it soon before it's all gone. A Must See.
I met its only resident, Alan Hill, who lives in the factory's old machine shop. He's a local legend and prominently featured in Tony Bourdain's Detroit Episode (see below Misc.) We spoke at length about the history of the plant and Jesus Christ. I then joined him for some churchin' at 5322 Chene Street (the street is the church, the north side is the pulpit, and the south side is the congregation, with traffic running in between). A solid hour of Jesus music followed by some one-on-one proselytizing (I almost didn't make it out with my Catholic soul intact). Services every Saturday @ 5:00 pm.
-Motown Museum, Home of Hitsville U.S.A.: Well worth the $15 pp admission charge for a one-hour tour. At the end of the tour, I was able to sing "My Girl" in the footsteps of David Ruffin (unfortunately for you, the session was not recorded). Then walk down the street to . . .
-The Fisher Building: Think back to 1975, you're in the passenger seat of your Father's Oldsmobile. You open the door to get out, look down, and what do you see? Well, this is the building built by those rocker panels. The Fisher Brothers sold out to GM and devoted their time to building this masterpiece, dubbed "Detroit's largest art object". Go inside and poke around. Pop Quiz: Name the greatest rocker panel movie ever made?
Note: From downtown, use the 16 bus, which leaves you off directly in front of Motown. $2 round trip. Ask the driver for a transfer, which you will use for the return trip back to downtown, then have some shawarma at Bucharest Grill (see above).
-Michigan Theater: This Renaissance Revival theater was built in 1926 to seat 4,050 patrons and in the '70s was converted into a parking garage, which had a bit part in the movie 8 Mile. The upper floor of parking, where the movie was filmed, is now closed to vehicles as the suspended ceiling is crumbling. Eerie, but quite beautiful (watch your head!).
-Mariner's Church: This is the church mentioned in the Gordon Lightfoot classic The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: "In a musty old hall in Detroit, they prayed in the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral. The church bell chimed 'til it rang 29 times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald." The church was originally built 800 ft away and was moved in 1955.
-John King Bookstore: Over a million used books aggregated in a 100-year-old, four-story former glove factory. No smoking!
-The Guardian Coffee Shop: The coffee is nothing to write home about, but the setting is spectacular. Located in the Guardian Building banking hall ("The Cathedral of Finance"), which is a soaring three-story art deco masterpiece about the size of a basketball court. The overhead, made of canvas and horsehair, and may be the largest suspended ceiling in the world. Completely inspect the main lobby and exterior of the building.
Note: Use the gizmo at the cash register to sign up for Ritual Rewards, then download the app, and get $10 in free coffee (if there are two of you . . . ).
The Cathedral of Finance (closeup of alter on left)
-Urban Bean: A flat iron of a building erected on a sliver of land next to a parking garage. Buy your coffee downstairs, then enjoy it on the balcony and people-watch. When I was there I saw Pulitzer Prize-winning Detroit journalist Charlie LeDuff, who was nice enough to give me the word on the street (bottom line: things in Detroit are worse than they look).
-Dilla's Delights: After ordering a lemon glaze donut and a cup of joe, I asked about the photo of Roberto Clemente on the counter. The owner explained that his respect for Roberto helped him progress from "a youth spent smokin' dope and chasin' skirts". "At least it wasn't misspent" I replied (it got a laugh from the barista). I mentioned I was a Met fan and that we had Rusty Staub (who was not an equal of Clemente in talent, but in heart). He reminded me of Staub's Detroit connection - it was a nice moment. As I settled in and listened to some tunes and looked at the photos on the wall, numerous customers requested Dilla paraphernalia (shirts, magnets, etc). I thought the owner might be Dilla (and these were all hardcore donut fans), but he informed me his name was Herman and the shop is named after his nephew J Dilla, the influential hip-hop artist and producer who died way too young (he was only 32). His most famous "album" is "Donuts" (take a listen). The shop is covered with photos of Herman's sports heroes: Greenberg, Koufax, Gervin (the best sports nickname ever), and Earl Wilson.
7. Transit: Detroit has two light rail systems:
-Q Line: runs directly north out of town. It uses the honor system for payment - can you believe that?!
-Detroit People Mover (DPM): Yes, that's what it‘s called. It's an elevated train that runs clockwise in a circle around downtown Detroit (@45 minutes per revolution). Why? I have no idea. Popular with tourists as it's not so much transit as an amusement park ride (think the railroad that runs around Disney World). The circle is so tight and the stations so frequent, that in most cases it's faster to walk, though it does offer a unique way to become familiar with downtown Detroit. Oh yeah, it must be the last transit system in the world that still uses a token, which costs $0.75.
Bottom Line: Detroit is a possibility, but it may be a little too gritty.
1. Required Listing:
-Motown, of course. I'm going to go with "Papa was a Rollin' Stone" and "Love Child".
-MC5: "Kick Out the Jams" - parental guidance suggested.
2. Required Watching: Tony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" season 2, episode 8.
3. Detroit Experience Factory offers free downtown tours.