What defines a "neighborhood bar"? Is it that sense of belonging? The desire to go to a place "where everybody knows your name"? Is it a bar unique to its time and place in history, or is it defined by its patrons and surroundings? Is it a bar you can easily stumble home from or a place that reflects the unique identity of the neighborhood itself?
A neighborhood bar is any and all of those things. It isn't the assembly line sports bar with 50 flat screen TVs and enough flashing lights to induce an epileptic seizure. Nor is it a glammed-up joint with "see-and-be-seen" people in black flashing duck faces for Facebook photos. A neighborhood bar tends to avoids trends, is perhaps a bit off the beaten path, swarming with locals, and above all else comfortable and welcoming. There is a certain level of dive bar je ne sais pas quoi
appeal. These places can be over 100 years old or barely opened a year. What defines a neighborhood bar is not the number of people who have reviewed it on Yelp but the crowd of local regulars that keep it vibrant, making it their second living room.
Neighborhood bars in the truest sense proliferate throughout Detroit. These are the bars located in predominantly residential neighborhoods, bars that existed before there was such a thing as zoning, bars that are located in houses right next to the very same houses where its patrons live.
My Dad's Bar
On the far east side of Detroit, where the Alter Rd. fault line separates Detroit from Grosse Pointe as dramatically as the black-and-white Kansas Dorothy left for Technicolor Oz, is My Dad's Bar
. Located on Kercheval just east of Alter (a block south of another pre-Prohibition-era gem, Ye Olde Tap Room), it is quite literally 20 feet inside of Detroit's boundary lines, an indefinable tween-town outpost that announces the border between Motown and the shoreline suburbia of GP.
Formerly the old City Limits and reopened as My Dad's in July 2010, the bar is owned by Ilya Snyder (who formerly owned the Karras Bros. Tavern in Detroit's Rivertown) and Frank Gegovic (general manager of Detroit Beer Company), and is intentionally no-frills, that is: no food, no fancy drinks, just a good honest working man's drinking spot. Like your dad would have wanted. They've got $2 Schlitz and Blatz and go through a whole lot of Jameson's, but what makes My Dad's so great is the entirely retro interior. Pastel blue vinyl bar stools, rickety dinette sets, classic board games, an old record player, and paraphernalia you might find in your parent's 1970s basement (the light-up Jesus painting included).
My Dad's has also got a great old-school jukebox loaded with music appropriate to the era -- the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, a veritable who's who of classic rock. The crowd is representative of the area's transitory socioeconomic state -- blue collar old-timers looking for beer and conversation (like the current Bob Beshara murder scandal that has Eastsiders' tongues wagging), and younger professional folks with an affinity for comfy dive bars. It's small, it's comfy, it's divey -- it is the essence of the neighborhood bar.
The Eastside Tavern
If you want REAL small and REAL divey, head north. Over in Mount Clemens lies a neighborhood bar so committed to its identity that it's in the basement and the owners actually live in the house above.
That owner is Frank DeBruyn, and his historic little hidey-hole of happytime drinking is the Eastside Tavern
. Located in the basement of an old white farmhouse built over a century ago, the bar has been slinging drink since 1909, and earned its moniker in 1933. Despite the area's residential zoning, the Eastside Tavern pre-dates zoning laws by almost 80 years, and so was grandfathered in, allowing it to remain a neighborhood fixture.
You can enter the Tavern through the front or rear entrances and descend a narrow staircase into a tiny 33 x 14 foot space lined in wood paneling with a ceiling so low a person over 6' tall would need to duck. The place is filled with the usual bar bric-a-brac as well as hand-written signs on Post-Its and index cards announcing Frank's 76th birthday party and whatever else might need to be communicated to the crowd in lieu of chalkboard signs or table toppers. The space is tiny but not claustrophobic; there's no blasting music and the TV is more for background. It's the kind of place you go to with the intention of speaking to the other people at the bar (retirees by day, including DeBruyn himself, and younger folks at night), a place to be social with strangers and discuss life, the universe and everything. You are literally a guest inside Frank's home and are made to feel that way. Plus, they've got some of the best damned burgers in metro Detroit (DeBruyn buys the meat - juicy sirloin -- fresh daily), and they also serve liverwurst and fried bologna sandwiches.
The Gold Star
Older metro Detroit neighborhoods are littered with joints leftover from a time when people wanted to be able to walk home from their local bar; bars that simply couldn't, wouldn't exist anymore if it weren't for the fact that they'd already been there forever, withstanding time like stubborn mountains. Wyandotte is full of such places, but the Gold Star
is the oldest and best.
Wyandotte is an old neighborhood, and it has the old bars to show for it. Once in the Guinness Book of World Records
for having the most churches and bars per square mile of any city in the world, many of Wyandotte's historic old watering holes have since closed, but those that remain retain their Old World charm.
The Gold Star is located smack-dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood, an old house itself that has been operating as a bar under the same name since 1923. It is Wyandotte's oldest bar (also grandfathered in under non-conforming use once zoning regulations were established), and to this day still has the basement with dirt walls that once served as a blind pig.
Until about 10 years ago, the Gold Star was owned by the Bozymowski family. Val, the niece of the previous owners, still effectively runs the bar and maintains its family identity, so much so that after one trip you'll become fast friends with all the regulars and will have been indoctrinated into all their stories and inside jokes. It still has the original tin ceiling and there's a single pool table where traveling and in-house pool leagues play, but otherwise this is simply a great place to sit up at that bar and swap stories.
The Liberty Bar
Not all neighborhood bars are old-timer dives with tattered vinyl bar stools and wood paneling. One step inside the Liberty Bar
in downtown Pontiac and you would never know that it is one of the most venerable establishments in Pontiac. It has been regularly updated over the years with its most recent renovation coming about a year ago and inspiring regulars to call it "the Apple bar" (think Steve Jobs, not Snow White). Interactive electronic screens at every table allow customers to look at the menu or watch music videos; at night the party atmosphere prevails in this sleek space, but by day it is a popular lunch spot with some of the best sandwiches in town drawing in diverse crowds. This is an "everyone" bar, but after the popular Club Flamingo in Pontiac closed, the Liberty became the go-to gay bar of northern Oakland County. If downtown Pontiac seems an unlikely spot for a gay-friendly watering hole, consider this: it is the only bar of its kind for miles in every direction, with Royal Oak closest to the south, absolutely nothing to the east, and to the north and west ... uhhhh, how far is Saugatuck again?
Valentine Vodka Distillery
Sometimes a neighborhood bar reflects less the neighborhood itself and more the demand within the community for a certain kind of place. Ferndale is not without its all-walks-of-life dives, but the Valentine Vodka Distillery
represents the ways in which the Ferndale community is transforming its urban identity.
After trying to open his distillery in Detroit for two years, Rifino Valentine finally approached Ferndale. He was immediately met with overwhelmingly positive response and support, and was able to launch his distillery and tasting room in April 2011.
"Once Ferndale came on [they] said, 'This is great, we love this project and want you here,'" Rifino says. "They really made the process with the local government enjoyable, which is pretty unique."
The distillery is just one building away from residential addresses, but after government officials and neighbors understood the nature of that place (and that it wouldn't be an unruly nightclub), Rifino says that everyone was behind it. Valentine has a distillery license that allows him to serve the spirits he makes on-site, which means hand-crafted cocktails made with local products and his own hand-crafted vodka.
"The cocktail lounge is an extension of the brand," he says. "Everything is hand-made, from the cocktails to the vodka. When you come in we want you to enjoy the cocktail experience, which means talking to people at the bar you might now know."
This is why they have no TVs and no loud music; the décor is dramatic pre-Prohibition-meets-pin-up-meets-contemporary urban chic, but it suits the persona of forward-thinking, ever-evolving Ferndale. Valentine might not actually be a 100-year-old bar, but it aims to have that same welcoming vibe and longevity.
"Everything we try to do here is [as] the classic bar that's been there forever. We want that feel of 'this is going to be here 50 years from now' … this is a throwback to the old times where you went to a bar to relax and hang out. People here are not afraid to strike up a conversation with the person next to them at the bar." As Rifino is fond of saying, great cocktails make great conversation.
A neighborhood bar doesn't have to be old to reflect the spirit of the community it is in. While century-old bars have a character that simply cannot be recreated, other bars cater to a diversity that signifies the different identities of the community. Old or new, these neighborhood bars both define and are defined by the communities they serve, which are just a few happy steps away.
Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer, regular contributor to Metromode and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.eatitdetroit.com
ALL PHOTOS BY DAVID LEWINSKI