Erik Olson is the epitome of "salt of the earth." He's just a guy who was raised in Detroit who always wanted to open a bar. Opening a bar, he says, is every guy's dream. And Olson made his own dream come true.
Not even a year ago, Olson opened Thomas Magee's Sporting House Whiskey Bar next door to Michigan Artisans, across the freeway from Eastern Market and a street over from Gratiot, where Inner State and Trinosophes are located.
It hasn't been easy, but Olson's made it work. He had to, really. He quit his corporate job and cashed in his retirement in order to finance Thomas Magee's. This place is his heart and soul, and he'll tell you as much.
The bar focuses on whiskey, with a huge selection of over 100 different brands. Olson says the bar has one of the biggest selections in the city, and will soon have the biggest. He carries local brands like Two James' Grass Widow, Valentine's Woodward Whiskey, and selections from Traverse City Whiskey Company, along with national stuff like Jim Beam. Of course, he offered us a shot when we stopped in.
The bar doesn't have a huge selection of craft beers, which is kind of refreshing, to be honest. Instead, you'll find staples like High Life and other national brands. There are a few tap handles, but most beer is served in a bottle or a can.
And that pretty much sums up the menu at Thomas Magee's. There isn't a kitchen, so we suggest eating before you visit, or hitting Supino's after. Olson says a restaurant will soon open up next door and, eventually, he'd like to add a service counter in the wall between the two establishments. He has no plans of ever opening his own kitchen.
It's that simplicity that will likely help give Thomas Magee's its staying power. It isn't gimmicky or "hip." In fact, it looks like it's been there forever. Honestly, we walked by this place a couple of times this summer wondering why we'd never noticed it before.
Of course, that was Olson's intent. He says he never wants to be trendy. He wants the bar to feel old, like it's been there forever. Which it has. In fact, the space has been a bar since the very early 1900s. The interior reflects its history: Olson removed 18 inches of paneling from the walls to reveal the original wood interior. What he couldn't save from the wall he turned into the tables that line the bar.
Olson's dad used to bring him to the bar, which is one reason he chose the space. Family also influenced its name, which comes from Olson's grandmothers' last names: Thomas and Magee. Grandma Thomas had stopped in just before we visited, but, sadly, we missed her. Mrs. Thomas, who's in her late 80s, came in for an Irish coffee after a night of hitting the slots at Greektown Casino. Maybe we'll run into her on our next visit.
Other than whiskey and family, the bar focuses on sports. They play "every sport, every game, every fight" on their assortment of flat-screens. The place was a pretty big hit during the World Cup. So big, in fact, that Buzzfeed named Thomas Magee's one of the best bars in the country to watch the matches.
And, well, we did, too.