The "dive bar" is an American institution. Known for cheap drinks and eats, regular customers, and a bit of grit and grime, they all have their own quirks and can defy easy categorization. Maybe the ultimate defining factor in a dive bar is a total lack of pretension. People come to drink, eat greasy food, shoot darts, and chat up their friends and neighbors. To many a dive bar regular, it's a place that feels like home.
Hazel Park is home to a slew of such spots, scattered across the tiny 2.82-square mile city. But as the city changes and whispers of "gentrification" and "hipsterification" are overheard, Metromode wondered how the city's dive bars are faring.
We visited three: The Kozy Lounge, House of Shamrocks, and Max Dugan's. What we found is a still very much thriving dive bar scene, with proprietors who are honoring the past while embracing the future.
The Kozy Lounge
Michele Haskell grew up in Hazel Park's Kozy Lounge, where her mother worked as a waitress.
"I used to play in the parking lot, sweep it up, pull weeds," Haskell remembers, "I still remember the smell of the Kozy and my mom coming home at night with it in her hair. So many great stories from here."
These days, she owns the place, along with her husband Robert. It wasn't something Haskell had planned for.
"The previous owner's health was failing and she was ready to get out of the business. She was friends with my mother; they had a 30-year friendship," says Haskell. "So my mom called me and said, 'Do you want to buy a bar' And I said, 'absolutely not'."
Michele Haskell, owner, The Kozy Lounge.
But entrepreneurial-minded husband Robert saw it as a good investment, and so in late 2017, Haskell left behind her job as a medical technician with "no weekends, no holidays" to take over the bar she'd known all of her life. For her, it felt like coming home.
The Kozy Lounge was built by a mason worker named Kozlowski in 1962, and many of the regulars date back to that time as well, says Haskell. The night I visited, Haskell pointed out a group of patrons that have been playing together on the shuffleboard table since it was first installed in 1980.
The Haskells put some money into renovating the Kozy when they took over, including overhauling the kitchen and installing an entirely new HVAC system. They redid the parking lot and painted the brick exterior with a fresh coat of midnight blue paint. Inside, they added TVs but plan to keep the legacy paraphernalia, like the 1975 women's Hazel Park softball jersey that was worn by the mom of fellow Hazel Park bar-owner Mike Wilds. They plan to punch a window into the front to let in some light (your eyes will need some time to adjust after emerging from the Kozy in daylight), but for the most part, the interior decor is staying the same.
Shuffleboard at The Kozy Lounge.
The kitchen is open until 2 a.m., and Kozy just won top prize at the Battle of the Burger 2019 in Eastern Market for a burger topped with grilled onion, jalapeno, Swiss cheese, and bacon. This was Kozy's first time at the contest, and it beat out some heavyweight competitors like Frita Batido's, Henry Ford Village, and American Burger Bar.
Haskell says the happy hour crowd is dominated by the "old-timers" who are very friendly to newcomers, while the late evening sees after-hours restaurant works from some of Hazel Park's newer establishments like Latido's and Mabel Gray, who come for the late-night eats. Haskell says the bar is even starting to see some hipsters, who come in from Phoenix Cafe which has moved next door.
"We have all different walks of life," she says.
House of Shamrocks
Lifelong Hazel Park resident Michael Wilds had been in the bar business for 18 years before he bought and renamed a bar on John R to match his Irish roots.
"I never had the thought of opening my own place in my city, but this became available back in 2000 and I pursued it," he says. The bar had been called the Rainbow Inn and had a regular clientele, who eventually accepted the change in name. "I'm Irish, and I wanted to have my Irish bar. This was it."
Michael Wilds, owner, House of Shamrocks
Wilds took over in May of 2001 and began riding Michigan's economic rollercoaster.
"In the beginning, it was really tough making it work," he says. "I knew a lot of the people in the area, but a lot of people didn't live here at the time. After the recession started, I had to figure out ways to generate business."
He recalls a time when it was hard to give away dollar drafts, but times have changed. Shamrocks receives a regular daytime and happy hour clientele, opened an outdoor bar and patio, and has added some upscale items to the menu, including burgers and steak bites from Ferndale's Farm, Field, Table.
And Wilds is in the midst of building a whole new kitchen to replace the tiny griddle-and-fryer right behind the bar. It's something he's been looking forward to for years; he'll be able to expand the menu while increasing prime barstool real estate. He expects the new kitchen to be up and running within a month.
House of Shamrocks.
Other changes include more live music, including acoustic and karaoke, and more football jersey giveaways. Longer-term, Wilds is looking to create a speakeasy in the currently vacant house that he purchased right behind Shamrocks. Guests would access the venue from the rear via a narrow path, so they feel like they're sneaking in.
Wilds has definitely noticed more hipster clientele, and he's more than happy to serve them "Pabst, Black Label, Hamm's, and $12 whiskeys." He acknowledges that he's playing a bit of a balancing act between welcoming the new while keeping the regulars happy.
"I don't want to make the regulars mad, but you're getting upgrades," he says. "You're getting newer chairs and a brand new kitchen. I just want to be known as the local establishment owned by a local guy that's moving with the times."
Max Dugan's Saloon
When Steve Sawyers' daughter Alexei and niece Skye purchased Max Dugan's Saloon in May 2019, it was "pretty rundown" says Sawyers, who manages the bar. So they've been working on fixing it up and decided to turn the place into a blues bar. Live blues music is currently booked in the venue through January for Friday and Saturday nights, and once per month on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Steve Sawyer, manager, Max Dugan's
"The Blues Society received us very well, and the crowds are starting to come out," says Sawyers. "So it's exciting to see it transform."
The bar's clientele was mostly concentrated on daytime regulars, according to Sawyers, and was not doing very well. So he decided to focus on building up the nightlife while realizing his dream of opening a blues bar. During Hazel Park's first-ever Roots Festival on September 28, Max Dugan's has lined up bluegrass artist John Henry and blues band Jeff Grand and The Grandmasters.
Although Metro Detroit has several blues establishments, Sawyers says, there are none in or nearby to Hazel Park.
"I figured that we'd bring a different kind of clientele into Hazel Park and they could see the other buildings and all the different bars and eateries we have," he says. "I thought that would be a good mix for Hazel Park."
Sawyers has lived in Hazel Park his entire life and is encouraged by the changes he's seen in the last several years.
"I think it's going in the right direction," he says. "We definitely need more foot traffic, and more entertainment for people to come and explore."