Maybe it’s the oyster overload from my recent trip to New Orleans. Maybe it’s the ungodly cold weather bringing out the spring fever in me. Or maybe it’s just my usual foolhardiness. Whichever, or whatever combination of the three it is, I’ve come up with a brilliant plan. At least, I think it’s brilliant. But again, it could just be my frozen brain misfiring.
A couple of weeks ago, I got suckered into doing another Drunks of Antiquity tour for the Detroit Bus Company. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love Detroit bar history (obviously), and I love to share my knowledge. But I got pretty burned out wrestling drunkards on and off the bus while trying to prevent them from stealing historic artifacts or puke on the bus. Yes, both things have happened. Repeatedly. So I took a hiatus and stepped behind the bar at some of my favorite places for some cash while I wrote about what I knew. Anyway, the tour was an absolute delight: fantastic people having a great time, interested in history. Plus I got to drink for free at some of my favorite historic bars, so not a bad day’s work all in all. We ended the tour at Tom’s Tavern. Haven’t been there? GO NOW.
It’s a magical, magical place. I have yet to meet a single person who isn’t positively delighted by Tom’s. It’s also very difficult to describe, truly one of those places that you have to see to believe. Operating hours are irregular, as are the patrons and the musical choices. And there’s not a single right angle in the entire ramshackle, slapped-together-with-plywood-and-a-prayer building.
Anyway, hopefully I’ll devote a full post to the wonder that is Tom’s, but for now, I have to get back to the prompting for my brilliant scheme. Kim and I finished the tour at Tom’s, sent the bus on its merry way back to Rochester full of happy drunks, and sat down to have a whiskey with Ron, the caretaker of Tom’s (these kinds of bars don’t really have “owners”: more a series of devoted acolytes). We chatted about post-bus life, he showed us a video of the Babe Ruth Day craziness, and we eventually stumbled out into the daylight. Then, the next night, I got a text from a friend: “I’m at Tom’s. Honky Tonk Night. Get here.” Okay…twist my arm. So I ended up chatting with Ron for a bit longer, and he asked, “So when am I going to get you behind the bar here?”
What?? This is when the choirs of dirty angels starting clamoring in my head, and I realized: I have a mission. Okay, yes, the mission is primarily writing the history of Detroit during Prohibition. But hey, a great side-quest is the following: what if…what iiiifff…I could work at every bar in Detroit that dates to before Repeal?
Tell me this isn’t a brilliant scheme. I’m a trained professional (of sorts) and I do love me a good old bar. And this isn’t a get-rich-quick plan, because if you’ve ever been at Abick’s at 11 on a Friday night, you know these great historical places aren’t exactly rolling in the riches. Old bars don’t need “saving”, but they do need advocacy. And me? I need knowledge, the kind you can only gather when you’ve had to track down the last bottle of Jezy in that weird space under the bevnaps and behind the Cointreau that’s been aging for decades.
So here’s my challenge: tend bar for a shift at each bar in Detroit that dates to before 1933. I don’t want this to be a gimmick, and I do plan to work, and hopefully work hard, each time I do so. If we’re lucky, lots of folks will get on board and I’ll be too busy making the bar money to lounge around, but will definitely have a smile and hopefully some historical tidbits available for all visitors. And I’m hoping to glean some stories from the regulars, staff and visitors while I’m at it. So far I’ve got three bars out of the way without even planning it: Two Way Inn, Abick’s Bar, and Tommy’s Detroit bar. I plan to devote one post to each bar, giving the background and history of the bar to the best of my knowledge and bugging everyone I see for stories. Like I do.
Below is a cobbled-together and probably incomplete list from the top of my head of what bars qualify. Some I know all too well, some I’ve only been to a couple of times. I’m sure there are some bars in Detroit that qualify that I don’t know about. So please, if you’ve got an in with anyone at these great places, put in a good word for me and tell them I’m not a complete crockpot. And please find me some bars that I don’t know about! Leave a comment below with any and all suggestions.
See you at the bar.
Two Way Inn
Tommy’s Detroit Bar
Ye Olde Tap Room
Charlie’s on Springwells? (I think this may be mid-to-late 30s)
New Dodge Lounge
Detroit Athletic Club-do private clubs count?
Carbon Athletic Club?
Andrews on the Corner
Okay, what am I missing??