Lurid elegance

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Café D'Mongo's Speakeasy is the kind of place that cries out for one of those "x meets y" metaphors. The Detroit News called it "a cross between Liberace's living room and an ode to jazz musicians and Detroit gangsters." A Metro Times staffer extolled "an interior that could belong to an eccentric jazz musician with a pimp-daddy lifestyle and a healthy taste for Victorian antiques." My companion dubbed the decor "New Orleans bordello grasping desperately for where jazz kitsch and organized crime movies meet."

Yeah, all that, and more chandeliers than you can shake a teardrop crystal pendant at. There are wall chandeliers and table chandeliers, besides your common ceiling chandeliers, not to mention an upside-down gold piano with a picture of Billie Holiday suspended from said ceiling. Forest green walls, salmon-colored cloth napkins, fringed lampshades, tufted velveteen chairs and a mature hostess in sequins help create an atmosphere of lurid and cramped elegance in the two small rooms. Old photos, even newspaper clippings, of jazz greats and Mafia anti-greats are scattered everywhere.

Open since June 2007 on Friday nights only, the "speakeasy" achieved critical mass late last fall, attracting a crowd of young, mostly white hipsters — like the recently shuttered Amsterdam Espresso — but at night. What brings them? The drinks list is ordinary, and owner Larry Mongo is less than exacting when it comes to recruiting musicians. With some exceptions, such as classic country-western singer Jenny Knaggs, the players have been regulars who, shall we say, wouldn't get paid for their labors elsewhere.

One night in February, for example, "Chuckie Cash" was doing Motown covers on guitar, mixing them up with a coffeehouse version of R. Kelly and a folk version of an Outkast tune (another "x meets y").

So it's not the drinks and it's not the tunes, and most patrons don't hang out for late-night food, either. They could, though. The limited soul food menu features some very fine sides at $3 a la carte, and if the ribs and half-a-barbecued chicken aren't world-class, they're at least decent, served in a standard sweet-smoky sauce.

Black-eyed peas are exceptional — firm and minty, served with a raw onion ring on top. Corn muffins are the authentic not-so-sweet kind. A lofty and generous serving of mac-and-cheese has a fine crust and plenty of cheese. Greens are cooked in the less-done style, so that the leaves still have some texture as well as bite. A flaw one night was lukewarm temperatures, but service is quick and good-natured.

So it's not music, drinks, food or even the decor that packs the D'Mongo's every Friday (because once you've goggled at it, you've got it). It's the fact that everyone else is there, which is reason enough.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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