For a few years now, metro Detroit has seen the new cocktail culture slowly creeping in from the coasts. From the East Coast comes an emphasis on classic recipes and exclusive, almost candlelit interiors; from the West Coast, it's more an emphasis on fresh ingredients and complex flavor profiles. Luckily, we seem to be getting the best of both worlds, as cocktail joints informed by both trends have opened their doors this year, such as Detroit's Sugar House in Corktown, and the Oakland Art Novelty Company in Ferndale.
The Ferndale spot, better known as "the Oakland" to its guests, is the creation of thirtysomething husband-and-wife team Sandy and Heather Levine. Sandy Levine says he's no stranger to food service, having worked in restaurants "pretty much my whole life," at such upscale establishments as Chen Chow in Birmingham, and Atlas Global Bistro in Detroit.
But how did they get hip so early to the resurrection of pre-Prohibition cocktails? Sandy and Heather, both originally from metro Detroit, had traveled widely as a couple, moving around quite a bit in their 20s, living in San Francisco, Chicago and Philly. In their journeys, the two bore witness to the resurgence of the cocktail, visiting notable bars riding the trend.
"One thing they all had in common was elements that make you feel like you're in a different time and place. ... Milk & Honey is one of the places we really love in Manhattan. It has a totally nondescript exterior and you walk inside this incredibly dark, almost candlelit, tiny little bar — after half an hour you're just sucked completely into that world. ... Or in Chicago, there's a place called the Violet Hour, one of the earlier modern speakeasies, and we frequented it quite a bit and fell in love with the concept."
When the couple moved to metro Detroit for good in 2007, they kept in touch with the people they'd gotten to know at the Violet Hour.
"We were trying to get them to do something out here, because we didn't have anywhere to go to drink. We started talking, trying to work together on it, and they basically said, 'Just start working on a business plan and looking for spaces.' After a couple of years, we found a space we really liked and started moving forward.
"As it turned out, the people from Violet Hour opened many more bars — a couple places in New York, Minneapolis, Nashville — and we didn't wind up working with them because they were blowing up to the point where it didn't make sense for them to work on a 50-seat bar in Ferndale. But they'd already helped me go so far along that it was kind of natural to keep going."
And go they did. This July, the Oakland quietly opened along West Nine Mile Road. It's a moody, atmospheric spot decorated with candles and chandeliers a la the 1920s, a time Sandy calls "the most stylish period of time in history. It's timeless." This is definitely not a sports bar.
"When you come in, you forget that Ferndale in 2011 is on the other side of that wall. We don't have any TVs, for instance." The music, kept low for conversation, ranges from raunchy 1920s blues to Mazzy Star or the Black Angels. And, with few distractions, good chatter has a way of blossoming.
"That's a huge topic in terms of feedback. People say, 'It's nice to be in a bar where I can talk to my friends and actually hear them.'"
In addition to the classic mood, everything is done the old-fashioned way. "We don't keep any soda — except homemade — no Coke or Red Bull, no cranberry juice. ... Basically anything that comes in a box or a jar, we don't have. All the juices are squeezed daily, we make the syrups and bitters in-house here; we get produce deliveries almost every day, several times a week. We don't even make a sour mix — we do it fresh by the drink. There are a couple drinks we even scrape our own fresh nutmeg over the top of."
The attention even extends to the ice. "We have several different types of ice. A lot of the ice is chiseled by hand from large blocks. We have a special ice machine that makes perfect cubes so they stay colder and dilute the drinks less. All of our crushed ice we crush ourselves with a hammer."
Sandy points out, "It's very costly; you don't make a ton of money on it, but it shows through in the product. And, the overhead is fairly low in terms of other things. On product? We spend a helluva lot of money on produce relative to most places — but we also don't have three managers walking the floor. It's just me and three bartenders."
In order to preserve the mood they've worked so painstakingly to create, they do have some house rules that are slightly more involved than the usual bar.
"We originally didn't want to have rules, but we found very quickly that you can't expect people to observe them unless they're posted.
"Be seated: It's a really nice atmosphere in here and it would be lessened by having somebody elbow you in the back of the head, or shout in your ear while yelling at the bartender.
"We don't enforce our cell phone rule in a militant sense, but cell phone use is not encouraged, because your guests would value your company more than your mobile device."
And many of the Oakland's customers enjoy dressing up, but that's something the rules are decidedly relaxed about.
"I like the idea of having a place you could dress up and not feel out of place, or you could come in with shorts and flip-flops and not feel out of place," Sandy says. "We have a certain amount of service people coming in at the end of the night, and we kind of encourage that, we're casual in interaction with the guests. Most people dress up enough while they're working. When I go out, I would prefer to wear jeans and a T-shirt."
And what goes better with relaxing than a well-balanced cocktail.
"We encourage drinking. In those days of Prohibition people drank from the time they woke up until the time they went to bed, so, those drinks are really solid recipes."
Also, given the Oakland's emphasis, there are some things they cannot do.
"We can't serve dirty martinis because brine comes in a jar. For a cosmo, we don't keep cranberry — but we do make a fresh raspberry syrup. We'll mix that up instead, and most people say it was the best cosmo they ever had.
"We're trying to push people a little bit just to expose themselves to things they haven't had 1,000 times before."
And there's a certain level of trust with a bar that is determined to create the perfect cocktail. "We measure every ingredient, everything we know, to 1/16th of an ounce — but if you order a Manhattan at another bar five nights a week, it won't turn out the same. ... Consistency and quality of product, overall it makes a really big difference."
And, similar to a speakeasy, Sandy is relying on customers to spread the news.
"We've been open for three months now, and I've stuck to the plan of not doing any marketing or promotion aside from Facebook and Twitter, so we can spread through word-of-mouth. That way the people who are really interested in drinks and food are our starting crowd. ... We thought they'd be really receptive to it and we were right."
Is concentrating on quality a workable business plan?
Sandy says, "I'm not really in this to get rich. I've been in the business long enough to know better. We're operating at a profit and that's all I really care about." In fact, he takes to heart the motto of Pappy Van Winkle's bourbon: "We make a fine bourbon, at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always a fine bourbon."
If the concept's success elsewhere is any indication, the Levines indeed stand to profit by it.
The Oakland Art Novelty Company is at 201 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-291-5295. Opens at 5 p.m., closes between 12:30 a.m. and 2 a.m.; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Credit cards and debit cards accepted; handicap accessible.