Special Issues » Annual Manual

The Detroit drinking matrix

A bar for every purpose under heaven.


  • Photo via Lindsey G, Flickr Creative Commons

Note: Each category is on a sliding scale, and your mileage may vary.


Divey: If dive bars tend to be classics, it’s because nobody says, “Hey, let’s open up a dive bar.” Usually, these are historic spots where the bad behavior is grandfathered in. But nobody told the owners of My Dad’s Bar, who’ve given the joint a retro makeover that’s perfect for a little slumming. Best of all, when anybody asks where you’re going, you’ll be able to sound like a real old-timer.

Quirky: Quirky new hip spots for drinking and a little dining have sprouted up all over metro Detroit within the last few years. There’s MotorCity Wine and St. Cece’s in Corktown, Maccabees in Midtown in Detroit, One-Eyed Betty’s in Ferndale, Imperial Taco Bar in Ferndale, and Toast in Birmingham. Expect retro style, quirky dishes, creative cocktails and maybe a healthy cohort of twentysomethings.

Upscale: Given today’s economic outlook, not a whole lot of new drinking establishments are going to have chic trappings. Most watering holes want to seem approachable and not scare off drinkers with fancy settings. But some upscale restaurants, such as Jefferson House and the Grille Midtown in Detroit, do have bars where you can drink in some sensational surroundings.

Posh: There’s a posh bar on the 33rd floor of the David Stott Building in downtown Detroit. It’s called Skybar Lounge, and the fixtures are top-notch, the drinks are top-shelf, and it’s all topped off with 360-degree views of downtown Detroit from right in the heart of it. The prices are almost as high as the bar’s perch, so one drink will probably be the limit for all but the spendiest customers.


Divey: Classic dives? Detroit has you covered. You’ll want to peruse this whole column naturally, but let’s just say that, from Abick’s to Z’s Bar & Grill, from Jumbo’s in the old Cass Corridor to Ye Olde Tap Room on the far east side, Detroit is a treasure trove of old-fashioned shot-and-a-beer joints. Going out to Ann Arbor? You’ll want to see the Eightball Saloon, in the basement of the Blind Pig.

Quirky: On the corner of Second and Canfield in Detroit’s Midtown, Traffic Jam and Snug, tenderly known to regulars as TJ’s, has been serving the neighborhood and patrons of the various nearby sports and cultural institutions for more than 40 years, and it looks it, judging by the wealth of history in its dining areas. They brew their own beer on-site, and the “Snug” lounge in the back is the place to sample them.

Upscale: It’s hard to find a classic upscale bar, given the way drinking has just changed so much in the last 10 years. Metro Detroit was a shot-and-beer town with a few three-martini lunch spots. No more. A good way to split the difference is to hit a place that’s grounded in the classics, such as Cork Wine Bar in Pleasant Ridge. The craft cocktail bars in Detroit, Ferndale and Ann Arbor also hark back to drinking’s elegant past.

Posh: Can you become a classic in less than 10 short years? You can when you’re Centaur. Back when everybody was building new, Centaur made its home in a 1920s building, once the Iodent toothpaste factory. It was gutted by owner Sean Harrington (who also owns the Town Pump Tavern across the street) and refurbished in a ’30s Art Deco style of his own design. That’s how you become an instant classic.


Divey: One of Detroit’s oldest bars, the Two Way Inn, is getting a boost from a younger crowd, especially on the first Friday of each month. Nestled in a depopulated neighborhood north of Hamtramck, the building that dates back to the 1870s, and beer has been poured there at least that long. In recent years, the longtime tavern had been losing business, and owner-operator Mary Aganowski had considered selling the bar. But the nightspot has been winning converts. First Fridays have drawn tipplers from all over town.

Quirky: Jacoby’s German Biergarten is one of the oldest continuously named establishments in Detroit. Opened way back in 1904, when most Detroiters were German farmers, Jacoby’s started serving the neighborhood beer and Old World vittles. With its thoughtful beer list and German dishes made with the old family recipes, today Jacoby’s the last of what used to be several German establishments downtown, because it has changed with the times. That’s how you last 110 years.

Upscale: Originally a Belgian bar catering to the pigeon racing crowd, Cadieux Café is one of the oldest bars in the city. Belgium has some of the best beer in the world, and this Belgian café has a decent selection. On tap, go for a glass of Hoegaarden, a zesty white ale spiced with coriander and orange. Or try one of the high-octane abbey-style beers in the bottle. Rank-and-file beer drinkers will be pleased to find an abundant cooler. Choose from the Michigan-based Bell’s to cans of PBR.


Posh: It’s ancient, and it even was closed for a long time, but in 2012, the London Chop House reopened. The restaurant’s classy atmosphere remains intact, with plenty of original LCH furnishings. Once the restaurant of choice for Detroit’s 1 percenters, the London Chop House in its new iteration will eschew some of the fustier touches of yore. There is a dress code for customers, but not as demanding as in the old days. A drink at the bar is one of downtown’s more affordable pleasures.


Divey: Meant, as always, in the most loving sense of the word, Tom’s Tavern is a true dive. Open mostly on weekends, the bar opened when founder Tom Lucas bought the building in 1928, back when Prohibition was the law of the land, and when Seven Mile was still a dirt road. An astonishing 86 years later, Tom’s survives, despite a host of problems, including a car crash that caved in the front of the tavern. Over the years, the bar has been built and rebuilt so many times that it’s uneven enough to make you feel you’re drunker than you are.

Quirky: Not many Detroit restaurants have been around for more than 70 years. Even fewer have been owned and operated by the same family for as long. The Dakota Inn Rathskeller can claim both. The German beer garden at the crossroads of John R and McNichols is busiest on a Saturday night. Then, inside and through the heavy wooden doors, is the din of mirth as friends and families assemble to celebrate birthdays and other life events, or just grab a beer and sausage. Mandatory sing-alongs are a highlight.

Upscale: Tucked away behind a garden gate on Woodward Avenue just north of McNichols, La Dolce Vita has only a cryptic neon sign (reading LDV) to herald its presence. But those who slip behind the building, often for valet parking, can have one of the most romantic, secluded experiences in this urban oasis. Add the friendly, accommodating waitstaff, a well-stocked bar and good food, and you can see why this restaurant is a favorite. Call ahead to find out about their live DJ parties or inventive brunches.

Posh: With its 52 rooms, 10 bathrooms and 20 fireplaces, the three-story pink-granite edifice built for a lumber baron in 1894 has been one of Detroit’s most celebrated restaurants since 1986. In 2006, Bud Liebler, a former automotive public-relations executive, bought the place and began making renovations in and around the building and, especially, in the kitchen and the wine cellar. Now you can visit the Ghost Bar on the top floor of the ostentatious manor, and maybe say hello to the Whitney ghost that’s rumored to prowl the building.

Outdoor Drinking

Divey: Perhaps thanks to the smoking ban, even some of the grittier bars in the city have some outdoor seating, ranging from the fairly simple fenced in space off the alley at Whiskey-in-the Jar in Hamtramck to the outdoor oasis at the Old Miami. The Miami was a Vietnam veterans bar, and is still decorated with Vietnam memorabilia, but out back is an out-of-sight rear garden that you must see to believe.

Quirky: Classier joints often have places to enjoy yourself al fresco, and lots of recent urban spots, such as Corktown’s Mercury Burger Bar, Slows Bar-B-Q and Ottava Via all have ways to enjoy drinks outdoors. But our favorite is the Tashmoo Biergarten, a pop-up spot that takes over the corner of Agnes and Van Dyke, creating a family-style European vibe where drinking in the open air is fun for all. 

Upscale: Detroit’s suburbs boast all sorts of restaurants where you can enjoy a craft beer in the great oudoors, from Ann Arbor’s Dominick’s or Milford’s Palate. But there’s probably no grander outdoor drinking place than Beach Grill, with 5,000 square feet of deck, a full tiki bar, and a dance floor. After a few fruity cocktails you may actually start believing you’re in Mexico and not St. Clair Shores.

Posh: Sure, lots of other spots have pleasant water views, but none can match the fine-dining experience of the Rattlesnake Club. Alas, dinner at the Rattlesnake comes at a steep price. The best way to sample the fare and lower the bill is to go for lunch, when some of the same dishes appear in smaller portions and at a lower price, or to simply have a drink on the outdoor patio in what once was a bustling warehouse district.

Good Food

Divey: Divey spots have really kicked up their grill offerings in the last few years. Midown’s Bronx Bar has its wonderful sandwiches, Kelly’s in Hamtramck has its bacon burger, but it’s hard to beat PJ’s Lager House for its brunches. You can start the day right, with the hair of the dog, and have a rather healthy and often vegetarian meal, with offerings ranging from barbecued tempeh to vegetarian biscuits and gravy.

Quirky: Forget the onion rings of yesteryear: There are a host of places that have opened or revamped over the last 10 years that now offer excellent and creative small plates with their drinks. Try the tacos at Ferndale’s Imperial, the full menu of creative, locally sourced sandwiches at Foran’s Grand Trunk in downtown Detroit. One favorite is the Park Bar, where Bucharest Grill serves falafel and fries out of a space in the rear.

Upscale: Good food and upscale drinks intersect at restaurants more than bars. And Detroit’s Union Street fits the bill pretty well. The full bar has drinkers covered, but the kitchen turns out reliably good food, including excellent calamari and the one-of-a-kind “Dragon’s Eggs”: battered and deep-fried chicken breasts wrapped around Gorgonzola and topped with “rasta sauce.”

Posh: At Michael Symon’s Roast, the wine and beer lists are insane, the interiors are swanky and the food is awe-inspiring. They offer several cuts of beef, all naturally raised and dry-aged for a minimum of 21 days. The same amount of gastronomic attention is paid to the poultry and seafood dishes. Even the optional sides have their own unique signatures. Also a great spot for a date.


Divey: When it comes to dive bars with music, Hamtramck is the place. They pack them in for punk and other niche metal shows at New Dodge, the Painted Lady and especially at Small’s, where you can catch local and international acts.

Quirky: One of the more unusual spots in the city is Udetroit Café, in Detroit’s old Harmonie Park, where you can watch live groups strut their stuff. An impressive string of residencies at Detroit’s Northern Lights Lounge make that a popular spot some nights too.

Upscale: Not only is historic Baker’s the oldest continuously operating jazz venue in the world, it also hosts terrific live bands. But it also has a bar that one national magazine declared among the best in the country, with its stylish piano keyboard design.

Posh: The gloriously art deco splendor of Cliff Bell’s recalls the 1930s, smacking of a more sensuous era, when patrons haunted such smoky little cabarets with relish. With their nattily attired staff and live jazz, it’s easy to get lost in the illusion of Detroit’s bustling past.


Divey: Take a date to a dive bar? Well, when the dive bar is in swanky Royal Oak, as Gusoline Alley is, she’ll know you’re unpretentious and enjoy having fun. Between the jukebox, the pinball machines and the busy weekend crowd, Gus’ is a terrific refuge from (and antidote to) Royal Oak’s overheated dining scene.

Quirky: This neighborhood biergarten known as the Berkley Front always has several local brews to choose from, matched up against a genuine selection of German and Belgian ones. The bar also features an uncarbonated pull, which draws cellar-temperature beer into a glass without all the CO2. The bar gets busy, but the booths provide intimacy.

Upscale: Detroit’s Majestic Café is right in the heart of the Majestic entertainment complex. With the theater in the back, the Magic Stick upstairs, the pizza place to the side and Detroit’s oldest bowling alley in the back, the café and bar of the café make a great place to meet, with choices for an entertaining evening all around you.

Posh: The 24 Grille is a beige-and-brown oasis decked out in leather and wood, with cushioned stools and benches all set off with low-key lighting from creative fixtures. The mood is set by the artistic illumination, which includes ribbons of Swarovski crystal. They decorate the bar and play well against the restaurant’s dark, sexy tones.


Divey: Voted by our readers the Best Bar to Hook Up With Someone, Ferndale’s Boogie Fever is Ferndale’s mecca of salacious cougars, meandering sugar daddies and armies of bachelorettes. The neon lit dance floor and the bellowing tunes of yesteryear, help troves of drunken lady trains and crooning men to start snagging the night’s fun. It’s not too divey, but … divey enough.

Quirky: When BlackFinn opened five years ago, our readers named it Best Pick-Up Bar. There were always so many miniskirts and shiny-shirts waiting in the freezing cold in a line on a Thursday night, we knew it wasn’t the fish and chips packing the nightly crowds in. As of March 2014, the joint reopens with a new interior design and an updated menu. But the main draw should be the same.

Upscale: When it opened more than a decade ago, Ferndale’s the Bosco was like that one club with frosted glass and a stylish bar that looked straight out of Brooklyn. On some nights, the place is packed with good-looking twenty- and thirtysomethings mingling in front of the marble-backed bar, spilling out onto the enclosed patio area. Now the Bosco is a classic in the midst of a refreshed dining scene.

Posh: If anybody at Corner Bar is slumming it, it’s the jet-setting celebrities who choose (and can afford) lodging at the plush Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, where a generation of moneyed suburbanites have staked their claim at “urban chic.” With movie theaters, upscale eateries, shops and parks within walking distance, you can get hammered with stylishly dressed people and, perhaps, a celeb or two.