The first beer ever served at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café was poured for its owner, Gretchen Valade, as she leaned against the bar last week with final work continuing around her.
She snacked on peanut brittle — a homemade gift from the piano tuner — while directing the placement of decorative vessels above the bar and discussing the upscale jazz club she's built in the heart of the Grosse Pointes.
It opens today, Feb. 13, with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony followed by two reservation-only performances later in the evening by bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen, who will be joined by singer Jennifer Sanon, whom Valade likens to Billie Holiday.
Valade, whose grandfather founded the clothing company Carhartt, Inc., is a longtime jazz and music lover, herself a pianist since the age of 8. In the 1990s she started Mack Avenue Records, which has produced about three dozen CDs. Two years ago, Valade endowed the struggling Detroit International Jazz Festival with $10 million, which has ensured its survival as a Labor Day institution.
She wanted to bring jazz — good jazz performed in an upscale setting with fine food in an English pub-like atmosphere — to suburban Detroit. So when a florist vacated a building she owned in Grosse Pointe Farms, Valade pounced.
It wasn't simple. Builders, plumbers and decorators have followed the plans of the kitchen designers, architects, mechanical engineers and electrical engineers who "will be here for the next year," as Valade jokes. She's hired a house manager and a chef, who developed a menu fitting for the atmosphere of the Dirty Dog.
It's taken nearly a year and a half of work, but the jazz club officially opens today.
Named in honor of Valade's affinity for canine companions, the Dirty Dog Jazz Café has drawn attention in the tony Grosse Pointes, the east side suburbs not necessarily known for their music venues.
"One or two people have said, 'I'm not sure I want to come to a place called Dirty Dog,' and I said, 'I'm not sure I want you,'" Valade says.
But nearby restaurant owners are happy, she says, as they expect some increased traffic from Valade's patrons.
In what's considered a unique plan for the Detroit area, the Dirty Dog will offer two performances a night, Wednesdays through Saturdays. It's reservation-only seating, in two-hour blocks beginning at 7:30 and 10 p.m. The club will turn over completely between the two shows. Following the late show, the bar will stay open. (Whitaker, Allen and Sanon play through the opening weekend. Pianist Charles Boles plays for pre-show diners starting at 5:30.)
"It will take some getting used to," admits Tom Robinson, a construction company owner who also runs Mack Avenue Records and coordinated the club project.
But Robinson predicts the venue will become nationally known.
"When people come to Detroit, the first thing they'll ask the concierge is where the Dirty Dog is," he says.
The deep-red walls of the café — actually one-inch thick acoustical panels behind the colored veneer — are decorated with prints of jazz musicians and dogs.
"The decorator wanted beige walls," Valade says. "But that's not me. I don't want beige. I want red."
A painting of a spaniel family hangs behind the bar, and two large canine statues are posted inside at the entrance.
Valade insisted on the pub theme, but when she first saw the dark wood beams, she admits she wasn't happy. "Why were they hanging from the ceiling?" she asked.
Robinson answered her by flipping a switch. Lights are concealed in the beams and shine upward onto the ceiling making possible full club-like lighting without the clutter of the visible bulbs.
Flat-screens in the back of the 65-seat restaurant will televise the performances so people seated at the tables and not facing the stage can easily view the artists.
They'll dine on menu items created by the executive chef and general manager, Andre Neimanis. He says he needed to make the food good enough to stand on its own while complementing the music. He went for smaller dishes with quality ingredients, prepared with simpler cooking methods like braising and roasting. And don't expect fancy garnishes on the plates.
"The food needs to speak for itself," Neimanis says.
Valade expects to be around the café a fair amount during the first few weeks before heading to Florida in March.
But don't look for her at a "reserved" owner's table up front. She likes to observe the patrons, musicians and staff of 15 from her bar stool.
"It's better here," she says.
The Dirty Dog Jazz Café is located at 97 Kercheval Ave. in Grosse Pointe Farms. Call 313-882-JAZZ or see dirtydogjazz.com.Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or