In the second installment of MDM’s Great Drinking Cities tour, correspondent Nick Plumber throws down in the booziest bars and bowling alleys of Motown.
Denver International Airport
After closing down the speakeasy at the bright and early hour of 5 a.m., the photographer Steve and I headed for the airport. The reason we stayed so late was we were planning our journalistic assault on Motown. The plan was so magnificent and grand it had to be continually saluted with drinks. A whole bunch of them. That’s how magnificent the plan was. Weaving and burping like bullfrogs on bourbon, we checked our bags and headed for the terminal. The trip through security sobered us up and to our mutual horror we discovered all the airport bars were closed. And the photographer, who’s supposed to take care of these things, hadn’t packed any liquor. We’d have to tough it out until the flight, and it wasn’t pretty.
In Flight: Denver to Detroit
Moment by evil moment the booze wore off and it felt like a million long, awful years before we were airborne. By the time the beverage service rolled around, we were slavering like wolves waiting for the kill. Just to be safe we ordered our drinks two at a time.
Detroit Metro Airport
We stumbled off our flight and, shielding our eyes from the vicious rays of a cheerful sun, we grabbed a taxi to our downtown hotel. Once we checked in we realized that we were sobering up again, and we meant to do something about it.
Greektown Casino, 555 E. Lafayette
1 Bud, 4 Scotch and sodas
The Casino is like the rest of its mercenary ilk; free drinks if you’re dropping large at the high roller tables, expensive drinks if you aren’t. After losing badly at slots, we made a quick exit and wandered down the street searching for a kinder watering hole.
Detroiter Bar, 655 N. Beaubien
7 Buds, 4 Scotch and sodas
The Detroiter is a fairly average blue-collar sports bar with food. I switched to beer once I noticed the most accursed thing a drunkard can see at a bar and I’m not talking about your ex. It was the insidious pour-control liquor spout. If you ever want proof Satan is moving amongst us, examine one of the diabolical devices. It took all my moral strength to remain at the bar and as a secret revenge I brutally violated their beer specials until last call. After they chased us into the night, we wandered around a bit, trying to get a feel for the town, searching for hidden truths, and also because we forgot how to get back to the hotel.
The Mean, Yet Well-Stocked, Streets of Detroit
1 Champale from Art
Downtown Detroit is a bleak ghost town. Every other building is abandoned, wrecked and ruined, an urban photographer’s dream. But where were the bars? The after-hours parties? The Girls Gone Wild? Just when we thought the night was finished, we stumbled upon a nice fellow named Art who sold us a Champale from his backpack. Normally I wouldn’t touch a such sickly sweet drink like that, but I was on assignment, after all, and the liquor stores were closed. A drunk drinks what is available, right, sir?
We rolled out of bed at the crack of three and decided we would need fuel for the day’s drinking. We headed back over to Greektown.
Music Menu, 511 Monroe
2 Buds, 2 scotch and sodas
The Music Menu is a small blues/jazz bar in Greektown that’s serves a decent gumbo. We sat over lunch and drinks and scoured the local magazines, plotting our course for the evening. First we’d head over to old Tiger Stadium to see what happened to the row of sports bars that used to thrive before the stadium closed down, we figured their desperation might have bred cheap drink specials, then we’d zip over to the Majestic Complex for some live music. And drinks. Let’s not forget the drinks.
Lager House, 1254 N. Michigan
1 Harp, 1 scotch and soda
Lager House is a dive bar trying to find salvation as a live music venue since the stadium closed. At five in the afternoon, however, it is still an old man bar. We had a drink, then were told they closed between 5 and 8pm, but to come back later because it was dollar drink night. On the recommendation of the bartender we headed down the block to another crippled sports bar.
Oblivion’s Corktown Cafe, 1800 N. Detroit
3 Guinness, 2 Bass, 2 Stroh’s, 2 scotch and sodas
The Corktown is the kind of nice clean bar your mother always wanted you to go to. The bartender Chris was also nice and clean and became even nicer when he found out we worked for the Drunkard. I assure you he had to ferociously needle that information out of us. It’s not like we walk in and start waving the magazine in people’s faces. We merely stick the issues in our back pockets, where they tend to fall out a lot and we have to pick them up and knead out the wrinkles on the bar and sometimes people notice, that’s all.
Anyhoo, he gave us free drinks and a tour of the partially remodeled upstairs. Corktown is going where Lager House went—transforming into a music venue. With the Great Drunk Magnet, the stadium, long gone, a lot of bars in the area are turning to music. The area around the old Tiger stadium will soon transform into a super fantastic place to see Detroit’s booming music scene, or so Chris told me. And I for one wasn’t about to argue with the guy running the Free Drink Machine.
When Chris heard what hotel we were staying at he was horrified. “Why, that doesn’t even have a bar in it, and you’re writing for a drinking magazine!”
Guilty of a crime we hadn’t even realized we’d committed, we swore to the Free Drink Machine that we were prepared to examine any hotel he was kind enough to recommended. He got off work, had a drink with us, recommended some hotels, which we promptly forgot most of the names of, then told us he was heading down to the Magic Stick to see some music. We swore to catch up with him later.
The Lobby Bar, Rock & Roll Ramada Hotel, 400 Bagly
2 Johnny Walker Blacks, neat
The one hotel that had stuck in our heads was what Chris described as the Rock and Roll Ramada. It’s where most bands coming through town stay, and has three, yes, count them, three, bars in it. We sat at the one bar that was open and chatted with the bartender Harold.
The hotel is quite old, has a mysterious closed off fourth floor that used to be Jimmy Hoffa’s nightclub, and is supposed to be haunted. Perfect. We told the front desk clerk filthy lies about how our awesome rock and roll band was gigging at the awesome rock and roll clubs down by the stadium, so we got rock and roll rates. Fifty five bucks a night for a two bedroom with a kitchen, which was a much better than our current hotel. And did I mention the three bars? The other two bars, we discovered, we’re actually clubs and only open on specific nights, but as my daddy always told me, “Son, you can only drink in one bar at a time.” And our one bar was the magnificent Lobby Bar, which was open every night. We finished our drinks and decided to walk over to the Magic Stick, with the idea of hitting a few bars on the way.
Nick’s Gaslight, 441 N. Grand River
Nick’s was just around the corner, and hey, what a name. It was dark and evil, but alas, not too friendly. I mean, I dropped and kneaded smooth my copy of the Drunkard so many times the cover was starting to wear off. And not one goddamn free drink fell into our laps. We slammed our beers and huffed out.
Town Pump Tavern, 100 W. Montcalm
1 Bell’s Amber, 1 scotch and soda
The Town Pump is on the first floor of a hotel, and was a little rich for our blood, and in case we weren’t able to figure that out by the five dollar well drinks, the staff and clientele politely and figuratively spelled it out for us. Enraged, my photographer asked a little loudly if he should piss on the floor—did I mention he’s a Philistine? I told him no he should not, and we left. The night was still early, and it was already getting ugly. I reckoned I did the right thing, and I wondered if Steve would be getting in fistfights and crapping on the bar by the end of the evening. It seemed a smart money bet.
Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward (Upstairs)
2 Buds, 2 scotch and sodas
The Magic Stick is a large spacious music venue with a medium cover ($8) and rather pricey drinks. We ran into Chris who bought us another round (the mark of a truly great Free Drink Machine is he will continue to function outside his bar), watched a couple of bands, then found out they had free bowling and buck PBR’s downstairs.
Garden Bowl, 4120 Woodward (Downstairs)
Garden Bowl has the reputation of having the most warped lanes in the Midwest, and I would like to think that that explained our bowling scores. What warped lanes couldn’t explain was the dropped balls, the falling down, or Steve’s habit of keeping his fingers in the ball after he threw it, allowing him to follow it down the lane with comical Three Stoogesque lunges. The Man asked us to behave only once, which says a lot about the amount of tolerance available in Detroit.
When we were sufficiently drunk, we called Mary from local rock sensation The Detroit Cobras, who had promised to show us around. She showed up after another few rounds of PBRs and lane lunging and we retired to the bar to watch a hardcore punk band play. Three songs into the set, the photographer started shouting: “Enough of these pussy love songs, play some fucking punk rock!” I suspected the band may have included some of Mary’s friends, because she suggested we go somewhere else.
4 Labatts, 4 Stroh’s
Mary claimed that the two best drinking spots on a Monday were the Garden Bowl and the Lager House, and who were we to argue with a local? She drove our sloppy asses over to the Lager House and we decided, yes, it was high time for some real drinking. Mary and I sat and discussed music while the photographer ran amok. I saw him give the DJ our band’s CD, slap him on the ass, then walk right off the stage and do a face plant in the middle of the dance floor. I tried to recall the magnificent plan we’d painstakingly assembled at the speakeasy, and I couldn’t remember that being part of it. At one point I walked into the men’s room to find the photographer passed out on the floor, with his head resting comfortably in the urinal. At least he’d made it to the restroom. Time to go, I thought, then saw how truly comfortable he appeared. There was even the ghost of a smile on his face. I went back to the table to have just one more, which turned into three, but hell, he’d looked extremely comfortable. I believe eventually Mary drove us to the hotel, but don’t hold me to that.
We woke up in pain, and stumbled down to the hotel bar for some first aid. A beer later the pain had subsided into a raw throbbing so we decided to really test the tolerance of Detroit. Considering the gravity of the previous night’s debacle, we thought it a good idea to return to the scene of the crime, just to see how they took their medicine. We would just walk in, clear the air, tell a few jokes, then take it easy for the night. Just hold down the bar, lick our wounds and mend the fences we may have knocked over a little.
3 scotch and sodas, 8 pint-sized screwdrivers, 2 Wisconsin Lunch Boxes, 2 Flaming Dr. Peppers, 1 PBR, 2 Shelly Shots, 1 French Whore
We walked into the bar with the sheepish look characteristic of the blackout drunk. I half expected them to chase us out of the bar with sticks. We sat down at the bar and . . . nothing. Curious. Then I started noticing the occasional sidelong glance and snicker. The bartender Aaron walked up smiling, then commented on how he hadn’t seen us around before. I explained our mission and showed him a copy of the magazine.
Andy: Ah, that explains the candy.
Me: Candy? What candy?
Andy: Yeah, the bartender from last night, Adrienne, saw you guys come in and said: “Oh, those are the two assholes who were throwing candy at people last night.”
I looked at the photographer. He wouldn’t meet my eye and mumbled that he barely remembered asking pretty girls if they liked candy, then whipping M&M’s at them. I made him apologize, then ordered another round from Aaron and, for the love of God, it was free.
Detroit passed the tolerance test. I went into the men’s room and examined the floor. Leper colonies have cleaner floors. When I brought it up to Steve, he replied, “I wasn’t passed out, I was resting.”
Needless to say, we drank there all night. I mean, if we could treat them like that and still get free drinks, well, we knew a good thing when we had one. Another Aaron showed up behind the bar and he too began buying us drinks. It was like something out of a really badly written science fiction novel.
Aaron and Aaron began pushing all manner of horrible concoctions towards us, and I began to suspect they were intentionally trying to make us follow last nights performance with an encore. Some were on fire, most were pint sized, I began wobbling horribly, I lost the ability to speak English while talking to a pretty girl. Well, I’m not sure how pretty she was, but I was pretty damn sure she was a girl.
We tried to sneak out when the bar closed at 2am, but one of the Aaron’s grabbed me and said, “No, not you, you stay.”
It was then I began to understand, their whole evil plan became very clear to me: They were trying to punish us for our transgressions from the night before.
Repentant and deep down knowing we deserved such torture, we stayed there for a few more drinks then headed to an after hours party with the bar staff, Kenny from the Detroit Cobras, and a handful of the regulars.
After Hours Party, God Knows Where
6 PBRs, 1 bottle of some kinda wine
This episode isn’t easy to write about. Not because I’m filled with shame, never, sir, but because I am filled with . . . nothing. And my tape recorder isn’t much help, because one of the few things I even faintly remember is weaving over a toilet, trying to hit the bull’s eye, then flinging out a hand out to steady myself, at which point the tape recorder jumped out of my pocket and landed with a plunk in the toilet.
I left it there. Some instinct told me, yes, it was a good thing, all the treacherous machine ever did was malign my good character, and what’s worse, it usually did it in my own voice. The rest of the night ran by in a blur. I woke up the next morning on the bathroom floor in the hotel.
Wednesday: Devil’s Night
Devil’s night is something very specific to Detroit. Every year for the last twenty or so years some of Detroit’s more rambunctious citizens have been getting together on the night before Halloween to gleefully attempt to burn the city down. A few years ago, the mayor instituted an “Angel’s Night” policy, gathering volunteers to patrol the streets in an attempt to thwart the arsonists. Tonight we would see if this noble plan worked, or if we got to watch the city burn while enjoying cocktails. After vomiting in the shower, I was ready to go.
We needed our vitamins, and we queasily forced down our medicine while waiting for our tour guides, Liz and Emily, to show up. We’d met the pair the night before, and they’d promised us a full-fledged tour of bars in some of the more outlying areas of Detroit. In the car Liz mentioned she’d found my tape recorder in her toilet. I assured her that I had no idea what she was talking about, that it couldn’t possibly be mine, and please could we get to the first bar.
Double Olive, 15130 Mack Ave
4 pint-sized screwdrivers, 2 apple martinis, 2 Detroit River Waters
The Double Olive is a pleasantly dark lounge with punk rock karaoke. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, especially since they didn’t have lyrics for many of the songs, so there was a lot of ad-libbing by drunken punk rockers, including myself. They were giving away free apple martinis, so I had one. It was vile, except it was free, which made it good vile. We ran the Drunkard routine past the bartender Jay, who promptly cranked up the Machine. That said, Jay is the most violent bartender I have ever seen. It’s like watching a matador skewer a bull, the way he wrestles with the bottles, then slams your drink on to the bar. What’s more, I was beginning to notice a nasty trend, bartenders were using the chance meeting with a wholesome representative of the Modern Drunkard as an opportunity foist off their most vile creations. They knew I would drink them; I had the magazine’s reputation to uphold, after all, and they were free.
Jay passed me a gray-green frothy shot he called a Detroit River Water. He insisted it tasted better than it looked. It had too. I downed in quickly, in case he was fibbing. But he was right, it did taste better than it looked. It had looked vile, but it only tasted like shit. On our way out, the owner, Mitchell, stopped us and bought us another round and I paused to think: I wonder what rent is like around here?
Ye Olde Tap Room, 14915 N. Charlevoix
2 Two Hearted Ales, 1 Jameson rocks, 2 kamis
The Tap Room has been around since 1916, and used to have a speakeasy in the basement. My kind of place. I started to order a beer, then froze. There were chalkboards up with literally hundreds of beers listed. The bartender handed me the beer list, which is an 8 1/2 by 17 inch sheet of paper printed on both sides. I wanted to cry, I wanted to jump for joy, I wanted to hug the bartender, I wanted to start at the top of the list and drink my way to the bottom. The bartender calmed me down and poured two local brews on the house. And I thought, I’ll bet the rent around here is cheaper than Denver. We did a round of shots and the suddenly professional photographer insisted we fulfill our magnificent journalistic plan. It took him and both the girls to pry my fingers off the bar.
Small’s, 10339 Conant
2 PBRs, 2 Hamtramck Gatorades
You’ll find Small’s in the Polish neighborhood of Detroit called as Hamtramck. It’s yet another local joint recently converted to music, a trend probably instigated by Detroit resurgence as nationally recognized source of rock and roll. A comfortable dive with friendly bartender named Jeff who foisted another evil concoction on us. We knew how it was going to go from there, so we left. As we drove into the city I looked for signs of burning buildings. Nothing. It looked as if the Angels were winning the war. We were coming up on last call, and there was only one place where we wanted to be.
2 Drax beers, 2 Labatts, 2 shots of Jager
We stumbled in to the Lager House like conquering Huns drunk on French wine. The Aarons poured us beers, and I was able to talk them into serving a simple shot that didn’t involve funny names and weird liqueurs and strange colors and vomiting in the urinal. We stayed for a round after hours, got a sixer to go and headed back to the hotel. The front desk clerk stopped us on the way to the elevator.
“Sir, there’s a message here from a Mr. Billy Bloodbath,” she said, handing me a piece of paper. I’ll be back later, the message read. Ominous portents for Devil’s Night.
The Ramada, Room 1818
I sat like a hopeful Nero, looking out the eighteenth floor window. Not a fire to be seen. Could good really conquer evil, with something so simple as a name change? Could it really be that easy? Could we change Al-Qaeda’s name to something like “The Fuzzy Bunnies” and make everything all right again? I had no answers. I didn’t understand how angels could be devils, I didn’t understand why there were no entertaining fires to watch from my excellent vantage point, I didn’t know what a Mr. Billy Bloodbath wanted with me. There was one thing I knew for certain: I was very, very drunk. Keenly secure in that knowledge, I passed out in my chair.
2 Scotch and sodas, 2 Buds
Since we had paid for so few drinks over the trip, we had money to gamble and we meant to take back what the Greeks had stolen from us last time. Needless to say, they stuck it to me again, but Steve picked up $40. After a few cocktails we felt ready to face our last night in Detroit.
Labyrinth, 1703 Cass Ave
3 Buds, 1 scotch and soda
The Labyrinth is a goth bar in the basement of the Ramada hotel. We figured Halloween would be a good night to mingle with the vampire set. We were dead wrong. The liveliest group in the club were the four people passed out on the “nod couch”. The rest were trying so hard to pose they could barely move. Disgusted, we left.
2 scotch and Sodas, 2 screwdrivers, 4 Washington Apples
We went upstairs to the Lobby and pondered our next move. Everyone had told us the show to go to was at the Lager House, but we had spent one hell of a lot of time there in the last few days. The photographer had the idea that we should go back upstairs and go to sleep. I reminded him of our magnificent journalistic plan and he said some very nasty things about the plan. Just then Harold the bartender stopped by to pour us large, bright-red shots as an early going away present.
“No, they’re good, really,” he said, but his weird smile told me he was a liar. We choked down two each to see how big a liar he was then decided to spend the rest of the night in familiar territory.
2 scotch and sodas, 2 Labatts, 2 shots of Jager
The staff was surprised, but glad to see us. We drank like old Mormon ladies and watched the Lantern Jacks, a Stooges style band, fuck with the audience. When they came off the stage the bass player dove off the bar and landed on his head and the guitarist stumbled about, knocking patrons over like bowling pins. I suddenly understood why our first night’s crapulence had gone over so well — it was par for the course. Our behavior may have even been a little sub-par compared to the local musicians. When last call came, we did farewell shots with the Aarons and stumbled off.
In Flight: Detroit to Denver
I look out the window at the farmlands below, feeling like someone had hit me with the whole city of Detroit. In retrospect, it seemed a city of contradictions. The bartenders were extraordinarily generous, yet strangely sadistic with their choice of shots. The bar staffs treated you like a king, yet were eager to test you, to feel out and gain knowledge of your weaknesses. They punish you with alcohol and reward your bad behavior. All in all, I loved the goddamn place, even if there weren’t any cool fires to watch.