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Nightlife & Speakeasies | Detroit Attractions

Speakeasies Cliff Bell's

 

Let it flow

Like a little history and nostalgia with your drink? It’s said that Detroit’s waterways may have funneled three-fourths of the country’s booze from Canada during Prohibition, sometimes even by driving it across a frozen Detroit River.

Many of today’s metro-area bars had origins as speakeasies during Prohibition. Order your favorite cocktail and immerse yourself in a story.

Cadieux Café
With roots as a Prohibition-era speakeasy, Cadieux Café opened in the early 1900s after first operating as a general store. Owned by two different families (both Belgian), the current Cadieux Café celebrates its Belgian roots and may be the only place in town where you can feather bowl, a game transported from you guessed it, Belgium, in the 1930s. (DD)

Cliff Bell’s
If only the walls of this Albert Kahn-designed building could talk. Former owner John Clifford Bell opened three speakeasies during Prohibition before opening his crown jewel and namesake on Park Avenue in 1935. Although Prohibition had just ended when Cliff Bell’s opened, the history and feel is alive and well in this lovingly restored venue with original brass and mahogany appointments, live jazz, stellar food and drinks and great stories. Speaking of stories, Cliff Bell’s is also home to WDET’s The Moth StorySLAM each month, which packs the house. (DD)

Tommy’s Detroit Bar & Grill
On Third Street between Fort and Congress, Tommy’s occupies a historic 1840s building that shares a history not just with Prohibition, but also with the Underground Railroad — a recent joint venture between Wayne State University and Preservation Detroit recently verified Tommy’s Prohibition-era roots. Great food built on local flavor (Better Made chips and Faygo pop are served) and a friendly atmosphere prevail today. (DD)

Whiskey in the Jar, Hamtramck
Dimly lit, friendly, diverse and unpretentious, Whiskey in the Jar is in the historically Polish city-within-a-city Hamtramck and once served as a speakeasy during Prohibition. A favorite of locals and on more than a few lists of “best dive bars.” (DD)

Tom’s Tavern
Opened in 1923, ramshackle Tom’s Tavern on the outskirts of the city has more than a history — its former owner was legendary, serving (or wresting into service while he ran off to gamble) local celebs and politicians. Prohibition was a minor hiccup here, where rumor has it that the infamous Purple Gang delivered Tom’s liquor in limousines. Love keeps this pieced-together joint standing (or, in many places, leaning). (DW)

The Gold Star, Wyandotte
Downriver’s own Wyandotte made the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most churches and bars per capita — approximately 56 bars at its peak, according to one local who dug through city archives to come up with the count. Tucked into the neighborhood (and just blocks from a church, of course), local hangout The Gold Star was established in 1923 and boasts a dirt wall basement that was a speakeasy during Prohibition. (DW)

Eastside Tavern, Mount Clemens
Likely the only basement bar you’ll find, Mount Clemens’ Eastside Tavern operated prior to and throughout Prohibition in a basement dug underneath a little farmhouse near the Clinton River. It’s little (really little), so prepare to get friendly with the locals in this homey, cozy basement bar. (M)

Nancy Whiskey, Corktown
Established in 1902, survived Prohibition with a thriving speakeasy, and today boasts one of Detroit’s oldest liquor licenses. Even a fire in 2009 didn’t dampen Nancy Whiskey’s spirit or reputation as “Detroit's. Oldest. Party.” Featuring Friday fish-fry’s and Saturday live music.

 

Keeping the era of Prohibition alive in modern-day speakeasies

Looking for a modern establishment with a bygone-era feel? Craft cocktail perfectionists and mixologists are cropping up across the Motor City. Try The Oakland on 9 Mile in Ferndale, serving up drinks that pre-date Prohibition and feature homemade syrups and bitters. Corktown’s Sugar House, whose name is inspired by the notorious Sugar House gang of Prohibition era infamy, offers handcrafted Prohibition-style cocktails with homemade liquors, syrups and fresh-squeezed juices. Two restaurants — Roast, in the Westin Book-Cadillac, and Wright & Company in Campus Martius Park — are taking the craft cocktail service to new heights in downtown Detroit.

 

Distilleries, tasting rooms and the like, no hideaway required

Recent entries into Detroit boozery, these distilleries are churning out top-shelf liquors that are highlighted in hand-crafted cocktails served up in their tasteful tasting rooms.

Valentine Distilling, Ferndale
Detroit City Distillery in Eastern Market, Detroit
Two James Spirits in Corktown, Detroit

 

Want the scoop on Detroit’s Prohibition story? Try one of these tours:

Feet on the Street Tours
Prohibition and All That Jazz Tour
See Prohibition-era landmarks and learn about the Purple Gang. Top off the tour with a visit to a former speakeasy for some live jazz.

The Detroit Bus Company Tours
Scofflaws and Speakeasies: Detroit Prohibition Tour
Check out smuggling tunnels, haunted bars and gangster hangouts while you party like it’s 1929.

Motor City Bike and Brew Tours
Prohibition History Bike & Brew Tour
Hop on your bike for a 15-mile cruise through Detroit’s bootlegging, rum-running and Prohibition gang history.

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