For many people, Detroit is synonymous with its downtown. But there's a whole city outside there, one that's wilder, weirder, a little less safe, but a lot more interesting.
Whether called the "inner city" or simply "the neighborhoods," it makes for a great unplanned tour, with no itinerary other than finding unexpected gems — an amazing meal, a cheap antique, a place to park and watch the pheasants feed in a field.
There are countless ways to put together a day in Detroit, because there's so much out there. The Motor City is so vast, so sprawling, that you'll never run out of places to go. But here are five solid suggestions for a day spent at the kind of places you won't find in a guidebook.
Eat breakfast at Dave's Drive-In
This used to be a real drive-in restaurant, back when the neighboring Milwaukee-Junction area was crowded with auto factories and parts suppliers — where the empty lots are now. A drive-in, where a tray of food was brought to your car, fit well in an auto-manufacturing neighborhood. These days, Dave's is a home-cooking, soul-food diner, with its original curved counter and rotating stools, and booths along the wood-paneled walls. It's still owned by the same family that started it back in the '50s, serving breakfasts and lunches made outstanding by absorbing flavors of countless meals that've been cooked on its ancient grill. Meals are served by the charming Juanita Thompson, which is as close to being fed by your doting grandmother as it gets. Open weekdays 5:30 a.m.-3 p.m; Saturdays 8 a.m.-1 p.m.; 112 Piquette St.; 313-873-3850.
Get a shimmer at Red's Jazz Shoe Shine Parlor
It isn't just an old-fashioned ritual worth experiencing at least once; the real reason to go to a shine parlor, or to a barber shop, is the atmosphere — the easygoing banter and the snickering wisecracks, and the laid-back camaraderie; it's like stepping into a scene that hasn't existed for decades. The shoe shine, which costs a mere few dollars, may take only minutes, but most customers end up staying much longer than that, watching TV, listening to soul and blues classics on the jukebox or talking with everyday folks from all walks of life about what's going on in the city. Places like these serve as community gatherings for those from the blocks around it, but outsiders are welcome. Open daily; hours vary; 9148 Oakland St.; no phone.
Get a meal and a deal at the Mexicantown Flea Market
This crowded old warehouse is found up a crooked road off a hidden turn. It's got two quality, full-service restaurants inside where you can sit and eat a no-frills Mexican meal. There are several dessert and smoothie stands scattered throughout the stalls, and vendors selling everything from clothes with Mexican wrestlers and the Virgin Mary imprinted on them to a massive selection of Latino music CDs and films on DVD to everyday dollar items like clothes hangers and mousetraps. It's like a Juarez street market under a tall roof in lively southwest Detroit, the one part of the city that has more people coming in than moving out. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 5700 Federal St.; 313-843-6666.
Place a bid J-B Auction
A name-your-own-price resale shop on most days, on Friday nights it's showtime at this auction house. And they'll auction anything: A sock. An empty box. A clothes hanger. Yet mixed in are potential treasures, like a box full of mystery records or an unopened safe. This auction is one of the few where the price goes down, not up, as the bidding proceeds. The real draw is auctioneer Mike Brevard, whose often sarcastic give-and-take with the crowd makes this more of a show than a simple sale. Most of the audience comes from the surrounding neighborhood, regular folks who don't have the money to go to a movie or the bar, and instead come here faithfully every weekend for guaranteed entertainment. Because the simplest fun is sometimes the best fun. Friday nights, 7-11 p.m.; 4381 Central Ave.; 313-433-5958
Cap the night at Casey's Bar
Casey's is an Irish watering hole in a Mexican neighborhood where the black and white Southern customers mingle with holdovers from the Polish population that used to crowd this part of town. It's like a meeting point of the city's shifting demographics, in one of its most diverse neighborhoods, along a tangle of railroad tracks and shipyards in a grimy industrial corridor. On most nights it's got drinkers of all ages and hues, surprisingly cheap drinks, burgers sizzling in grease, Motown hits playing on the jukebox, Detroit sports on the little TVs above the bar and a pool game being played in the middle of the room. Just about all the basic elements of a good bar. It's blue-collar and unpretentious and hard to put a finger on. A lot like Detroit, in other words. Open 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. every day; 7677 Dix Rd.; 313-842-0666.
Ultimately though, the most interesting day spent in Detroit is the one in which you stumble upon places yourself, where an unexpected turn leads to a strange little discovery, like the cuisine of Chef Kenny French, whose Highland Park Buffet carry-out restaurant is inside a Valero Gas Station on Woodward at McNichols, or the Bali Barbershop, located in the front of a no-tell motel on Eight Mile just west of Dequindre, where Joe Castiglione, its 83-year-old lone barber, is entering his sixth decade inside what's become an old-time barbershop museum.
Even without a destination in mind, some of Detroit's simplest elements are worth seeing along the way, like an exhibit of things long gone elsewhere but still in place here because nothing ever came along to replace them. There are places that still have century-old Victorian streetlamps hung on wooden poles. Countless streets have homes with no driveways because they were built before cars were invented. And a few of the older houses even have an iron hitch out front to tie a horse to.
Most times, the best things Detroit has are the ones that aren't in tours or books. They're the ones you find when you're out looking for nothing at all.Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org