Jayson Blair wasn't the first New York Times reporter to fabricate his stories. In 2002, one of that distinguished newspaper's staffers described the Ivanhoe Café, aka the Polish Yacht Club, as being located "along the Detroit River." The venerable Polish restaurant on the corner of Joseph Campau and Frederick is more than two miles from the river. So what is a "yacht club" doing so far inland?
Legend has it that the club was invented in 1961 so that reprobate husbands could tell their wives they were attending an important meeting rather than merely swilling boombas of beer at a tavern. And the owners have maintained the fiction by lining the walls with photos of commodores of the club, along with autographed glossies of historic local celebrities and politicos like Sonny Eliot, Jerome Cavanaugh, Dick Purtan and Jack Kelly. And, of course, the Ivanhoe does specialize in seafood served on tables covered with nautically correct oilcloth.
The homely redbrick building housing the club is in an especially desolate area of Detroit. There is, however, a security guard who stands watch over patrons' cars during the brief business hours 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, with last-call for dinner at 7:30.
Little appears to have changed inside since Stanislaus Grendzinski founded the place in 1909. The bar and three adjoining dining areas can accommodate around 100 guests. In the unlikely event that 100 people did pile in at one time, the wait for dinner would be interminable. Diane and Darlene in the kitchen make just about everything to order and there are only two server-bartenders, co-managers Tina Marks and Patti Galen. Galen is the daughter of Lucille Sobszak, the fourth-generation owner of the Ivanhoe.
But, if you have to wait for your food, all is not lost. It will give you time to linger over a $3 pint draft or a generous house wine pour ($5) and take in the historical artifacts, photos, maritime trappings and Detroit memorabilia that adorns the walls.
The dinners, served at lunchtime as well, come with a sour pickle and hot-pepper relish tray, crisp broad-cut fries, creamy coleslaw and soup, which often is an old-fashioned underseasoned chicken noodle. If that doesn't seem like enough food, though it should, a table of four could easily share a Cobb salad, overflowing with chunks of chicken, Swiss and cheddar cheese and bacon, or a simpler Greek salad. Other appetizers include grilled Eckrich kielbasa or a platter of fried pierogies, both of which also appear on the dinner menu in a traditional Polish combo ($9).
The most popular entrée has always been pan-fried perch ($14), a hearty portion of moderately breaded little fish that are surprisingly delicate. If you want to try an imported variation, the African Lake Victoria perch is certainly of unusual provenance for these parts. The sweeter and more succulent walleye, the second most popular main, is the most expensive item on the menu at $15.
Smaller portions of walleye, perch and catfish are available in "lite" dinners ($9.49), but in this case, it doesn't mean low-calorie, since they also come with fries, slaw and soup.
Not all the seafood is pan-fried. The Ivanhoe offers baked, onion-crusted wild salmon and broiled rainbow trout, in addition to deep-fried shrimp, crab cakes and grilled kielbasa. Not much here for vegetarians, aside from a platter of steamed pierogies with broccoli.
There is also a full sandwich menu anchored by a quite respectable large burger ($5.95) that comes with lettuce, tomato and onion. I grimaced slightly when two of our luncheon companions ordered their burgers well-done but was pleased to see that they somehow retained their juiciness despite, from my perspective, being burned almost to a crisp.
Aside from the burger, you could also savor perch on a bun with fries, several Reubens, and liver sausage with raw onion, among 14 sandwiches. I doubt whether founder Grendzinski would understand one of the Ivanhoe's few genuflection to modern healthy cuisine, the turkey burger.
Most of the time, the Ivanhoe doesn't bother with dessert. But as a gesture to sweet endings, Tina or Patti will show up with a plate full of wrapped chocolate candy with your modest bill.
There aren't many places left in Detroit, or any city for that matter, like the Polish Yacht Club. (I reviewed the timeless institution in 1983, and little, except for the prices, has changed, and even those have not kept pace with inflation.) And there aren't many yacht clubs anywhere without snooty membership restrictions or exorbitant dues. Of course, don't come to the "club" expecting white linen, a candelabra or a place to dock your boat, even though the Detroit City Council once entertained a petition to build a canal from the river to the most famous inland yacht club in Michigan.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].