Detroit abounds with so many ironies you finally stop noticing them. Among them is the fact that the neighborhood that has the sports bars with the longest histories is about a mile away from the actual stadium. At least such is the case at Nemo's Bar, the Corktown fixture that marks a half-century on the block this year.
This put me in the mind of dropping in, and I order a burger and fries and get to talk to Pat Osman, who's worked at the bar for more than a decade. What makes Nemo's special?
Osman tells me, "Well, the burger's the best there is."
This is where I get a bit argumentative. I mean, this is Detroit. Everybody says theirs is best. Coney Joe's in Brighton says it's the "World's Greatest." Motz's Hamburgers and the Telway both say they have the "best coffee in town." Everybody says they're the best. I realize this is no way to conduct an interview even as I'm telling Osman: "Everyone claims to have the best of everything, but — I used to be the bar back at Miller's bar, so —"
"Well," Osman says, "you know, he comes in here every once in a while."
"Oh, he does?"
"Yeah, he goes to hockey games, so ..."
"The older guy with the push broom mustache?"
"You got it."
Well, that cooled me down.
"It's no secret," Osman says. "It's just the meat. It's a great burger. And I'm not slagging anyone else, but there's so many Anguses, Piedmontese this, Waygu that, you know what I mean?"
Even the source of the meat is no secret. "Ours has got just enough fat in it, just enough meat in it," Osman says. "It's juicy. It's good. It comes from Rex Packing on Miller Road, on the Dearborn-Detroit border, just behind Woodmere Cemetery. Same place we've gotten it for years."
Turns out the place is owned by the Springstead family. The family patriarch, Nemo, whose portrait hangs over the main bar, bought the place in 1965. He and his son, Pat, used to run a place on 22nd and Bagley, but it was taken via eminent domain for the interstate construction. (His bar was roughly where the western end of the Bagley Pedestrian Bridge is today.)
Osman says, "He and Pat decided a good place to open a place would be where there's traffic — and that's the ballpark area. So this was a place that had opened and changed hands and then closed again and some work had been done ... so they purchased it, and they've been here ever since."
It's been just 50 years, but the place feels much older — and it is. There is not just a tin ceiling, but tin walls as well. There seem to be newspaper clippings going back at least 40 years on the walls. Osman says the building went up in 1883, "So we're on a buck and a quarter here."
"You know, I hate the term 'old school,'" Osman says, "but we're the old burger. We've been here 50 years. We still have our baseball customers, even after the ballpark moved. We shuttle, and that's why we have our baseball customers. And we do Lions, we do Wings, we do Tigers, we do concerts at those same venues. It's a great sports bar, it's a downtown bar. We get lawyers, police, neighborhood people ... it's a big, long, big, wide range of people. We get all walks of life. There was a guy who was in here last night who said, 'Yeah, I used to come in here when I just turned 18, and I could drink.' And he was here 40 years later."
It's exactly that kind of place, where the family owning it is the same, the employees stick around for decades, and a family might have several generations as bar patrons.
Another tradition that lasts into the 21st century is the bar's Opening Day festivities. Osman says, "It used to be great when it was right around the corner, and it's still great now that it's a mile away at Comerica. We open early, so we open about 8:30 a.m. We shuttle to the game. We got a heated tent outside in the parking lot. The Polish Muslims are playing here at 5 p.m., after the game, depending on how long the game takes. And it's Opening Day as usual for us. I mean, they've been doing Opening Day 49 years. Here's another one."
Getting into Nemo's on Opening Day is $5. Get your hand stamped and board a bus when you can; no reserved seating. Nemo's is at 1384 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-965-3180.