Hole In The Wall Nightlife

A hole-in-the-wall bar has poor signage. A lot of them smell kind of bad. When you mention a hole-in-the-wall bar to your friends, some stare at you blankly while others will make a face like you just brought gummy vitamins to a potluck. Hole-in-the-wall bars aren’t necessarily dives, but they can be one and the same. The bar stools are held together with duct tape, the bartenders are ornery, and a thin layer of God-knows-what clings to every surface. These are the bars that it probably took you a little while to find and when you did, took a little while to feel comfortable in. Every town's got them, and the regulars can spot a tourist from a mile away.

Here’s a quick primer to help you get started on finding and appreciating some of Ann Arbor's and Ypsilanti's best hole-in-the-wall bars. Let's just hope they never renovate these dumps.

The 8-Ball Saloon (208 South First, Ann Arbor) is Ann Arbor’s most infamous hole-in-the-wall. There are no special days of the week here, but enough variations from night to night to make it interesting. The 8-Ball is like the Blind Pig’s coatroom, but a coatroom where you wouldn’t want to leave your jacket. The Pig rests above the 8-Ball but because it doesn’t have any bathrooms, patrons descend into the 8-Ball to take care of business. This allows 8-Ballers to mingle with the Blind Piggies each night. If a shoe-gazing band is in town or Reggae Fest takes place, the 8-Ball will absorb the spillover and become unique for that night. If it’s a Saturday night and The Bang is going on upstairs, then the 8-Ball will be packed with costumed freaks peeing and ordering pitchers of beer. It’s always an interesting social experiment.

That’s not to say the 8-Ball doesn’t have its own charms. It has cheap, cheap beer ($1 bottles of PBR on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday), complimentary popcorn, an internet jukebox, pool tables (free Sun-Tues.), dart boards, pinball, air hockey, board games, and dirty hipster eye candy, if that’s your thing. Sure, it smells like stale beer and decades of cigarette smoke, but they recently reupholstered the booths and you won’t get a better scowl from any bartender in Michigan than you will here.  

Circus (210 South First Street, Ann Arbor) is one of four theme bars in the old Ann Arbor Central Roller Mills building. The theme is evident. A stuffed lion jumps through a blazing neon hoop behind the bar while the bartenders work under a makeshift big top. Behind the stage is a giant Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey mural painted on the wall. Funhouse mirrors and the (fake) heads of circus animals hang all over the place.  

Circus is at its best on Bluegrass Wednesday. Live bluegrass bands play in front of the giant circus mural, as one of the most diverse crowds of any Ann Arbor establishment enjoys $1.25 cans of PBR and free popcorn. Old drunks from Old Town, white guys with dreadlocks, fellows wearing white hats and white sneakers, girls with orange skin, girls with translucent skin, tattoos, crosses, flannel shirts, puffy jackets, UGGs, Crocs, a guy in a suit, and a guy in coveralls - they mingle and dance together and everyone is in a great mood. There’s free pool, Big Buck Hunter, and Golden Tee.

On this Wednesday, the Luke Winslow-King Trio from New Orleans takes the stage with a guitar, a tuba, and a washboard. The drummer’s grandma is in the crowd.  “We’re gonna sing all the songs Richie’s grandma might want to hear,” the guitarist yells. Check out bluegrass night, and for God’s sake dance.

By 11 p.m. the place is packed with pompadours, dreadlocks, shaved heads, weave, Yukon Jack hats, young executive haircuts, and bandanas bouncing unselfconsciously in front of the band. In case you didn’t know, you’re allowed to have sex with one white person with dreadlocks per lifetime. You’ll meet that person here, at a 311 concert, or at Burning Man, and we know you’re never going to make it to Burning Man. Choose wisely.

If the Ypsi Citizen published a crime map for Ypsilanti like the one found in the Ann Arbor Observer, the area surrounding Arthur’s (817 E. Michigan Ave, Ypsilanti) would be so full of colors and symbols denoting burglary, car theft, and prostitution that the editors would run out of crayons. Arthur’s is not in the best part of town. It’s a block away from a fleabag motel, sandwiched between a crappy apartment complex and a Burger King and across the street from a big, old vacant murderey lot. A sign outside the bar advertises giant burgers and carryout wine. No one should want to enter but heaven awaits within.

On Friday and Saturday nights Arthur’s advertises DJ/Karaoke which is a progressive hybrid where the DJ plays three songs by T-Pain followed by two girls doing karaoke to Alanis Morissette’s “You Outta Know”. It’s captivating.

It’s a sprawling space with a plush red armrest on the long bar, booths, tables, and an actual pool room. They have a dance floor, a jukebox, and one of those punching bag games where you can test your power (1010 is the high score). It’s got some strange touches. A sign on the wall reads “One drink minimum, Thursday, Friday, Saturday”. A menu advertises $2.50 grilled cheese and $2.50 bowls of soup, and on this Friday they offered two jello shots for $1.25.

It’s the kind of place where all demographics are represented. A deaf guy, a 62 year-old, jerseys, neck tattoos, a man in a sport coat playing some game on his iPhone. You can roll in here, pile into a booth with your friends and have a really good time. The bartender, Sandy, has been working at Arthur’s for 26 years and remembered me even though I had only been there once - more than six months previous! That’s service.

Bab’s Underground Lounge (213 South Ashley, Ann Arbor) is the classiest hole-in-the-wall bar in Ann Arbor. Fancy pool tables, sophisticated lighting, intimate seating and skilled bartenders. It’s the kind of place you should frequent so you can build a rapport with the staff for the day when you start dating that classy paralegal. That way, you can look like a big shot when the servers call you by your first name and not the guy who works at the Build-A-Bear Workshop in the mall.

Weekends are packed with good looking people, young professionals, and a sprinkling of bros, but Tuesdays are when Bab’s shines brightest. Tuesday is movie night, where for $4 you can get a 40oz bottle of beer tastefully wrapped in a brown paper bag while a new release plays on one of two big screens in the bar. Bab’s also offers a scotch and cigar special – see, I told you it was classy. I’ve known people to go to Bab’s just for their photo booth but they also have a VIP area that can be rented for special events or when Jay-Z is in town.

Full disclosure, The Elbow Room (6 South Washington, Ypsilanti) is my favorite bar in Michigan. It has a mix of great theme nights and live music unmatched in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. It also competes with the 8-Ball for the dirtiest bar in Washtenaw County. The architect of the Elbow Room is owner/bartender Andy Garris who has assembled an eclectic staff to work in downtown Ypsilanti. It has a magician as a doorman. Folk singer/songwriter and onetime Starbucks Pick of the Week Chris Bathgate works part-time as sound man and sometimes barback. Nina Cislaghi, front woman for the hardcore/metal band Bloodlined Calligraphy serves drinks during happy hour five days a week.

The Elbow Room offers a number of popular nights including Elbow Deep (Ypsi’s premier gay night), Tiki Tuesday, Thursday night MoFo Karaoke, as well as a wide range of live music and events. They’ve got one pool table that gets a lot of action and some video games and pinball, but it’s the personal connections you’ll come back for. It doesn’t take long to become a regular and before you know it, Andy will be handing you your favorite drink before your eyes even adjust to the low light. Happy hour is underrated and the Elbow Room is where I picture my dad feeling comfortable at 4 p.m. on a Monday.

The giant sign on the Heidelberg (215 North Main, Ann Arbor) reads "Dine, drink, dance and be merry". The basement Rathskeller (German for council cellar) is Ann Arbor’s premier German-style hangout, which in the year 2010 includes a Megatouch game machine, hookahs, and a CD-style jukebox offering Fleetwood Mac and James Brown. Okay, maybe it’s not Berlin.

The basement is claustrophobic with faux brick arches, packed tables and booths. Back-lit stained glass scenes featuring the names of prominent cities in Germany are a nice touch. Nearly everyone drinks from large glass boots of draft beer available for $10 (one liter) and $20 (two liters). You can choose from seven German beers on tap and a number of domestic options but don’t sully the boot with Budweiser.

There aren’t a lot of distractions - two dart boards, the aforementioned Megatouch and the juke box. It’s a social basement bar for social people. Friends sit in groups and order delicious German food from the restaurant above, sipping Warsteiner and sharing the Kassler Schlachtplatte or the slightly more American super nachos. The Rat offer hookahs, but please don’t smoke a hookah in a German bar; that’s just confusing.

They have two nights of gluttony (Thursday taco day and Friday wing day) that gets you unlimited food with a two beer minimum, but get there early because it gets a little gross around hour number two. Sundays are industry night, where Ann Arbor bar and restaurant workers get 30% off their bill with proof that they toil in the industry.

Be sure to say hello to Monica the bartender. She might be the fittest server in all of Washtenaw County (not in the Brit-lad magazine way but in the “she’d kick your ass in an ultra-marathon way”). I’ve seen her at the YMCA and she can tear a treadmill up.

Richard Retyi is Assistant Director for Athletic Media Relations at the University of Michigan. He writes a biweekly(ish) column for AnnArbor.com called "Lie to Your Cats About Santa". This is his first article for Concentrate.

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All Photos by Dave Lewinski


The Elbow Room-Ypsilanti


Circus-Ann Arbor

MoFo Karaoke Night-Elbow Room

Babs Underground-Ann Arbor

Andy Garris-Elbow Room

Die Hard Elbows