By Amber Hunt • Photos by Marvin Shaouni (unless otherwise noted)
If you really want to get to know Detroit, explore its nooks and crannies outside downtown. The city proper is dotted with a bunch of culturally rich areas that are full of art galleries, barbecue havens and the best dive bars you’ll ever dive into.
Midtown is just north of downtown.
|We’re leading with it and giving it a little extra attention, because, like downtown, it’s been smoking hot when it comes to new stuff popping up in the see, do, buy and eat categories. Midtown boasts unique art galleries, quirky independent retail shops and some of the best don’t-want-to-miss cuisine you’ll find in The D.
Let’s start with Avalon Bakery, a Detroit institution that’s been serving up Michigan-made and organic goodies since 1997 (aka before it was cool). Try the Bite of Bliss for breakfast. This sandwich features eggs baked with love and a slab of white cheddar on a 313 whole-wheat bun. In between bites, chat up the employees and ask about Avalon’s “Eat Well. Do Good.” motto. You’ll love the story behind the statement. After you’ve had your fill (and likely walked out with a freshly baked baguette to snack on later), head over to the newly renovated …
Detroit Historical Museum. Stroll along the Streets of Old Detroit exhibit, and be transported to 19th century Detroit, complete with cobblestone paths and storefronts that offer high-button shoes or a safety bicycle to gaze at. After you’ve experienced the past, kick it up a notch and check out the new Kid Rock Music Lab, which explores the lasting influence of Detroit music — from gospel and Motown to rock ‘n’ roll and everything in between. You’ll leave feeling educated, inspired and craving more.
Walk across Woodward Avenue and you’ll find the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Yes, Midtown hosts two incredible museums just a few steps away from one another. The DIA boasts 100 galleries, 650,000 square feet of exhibition space and the Rivera Court — a 27-panel tribute to Detroit industry completed by Diego Rivera in the 1930s. Look for staffers — they love answering questions about the DIA’s collections — and be sure to shop the DIA Museum Shop for the perfect takeaway. Psst … there are lots of Detroit Industry mural items to choose from.
Looking for something a little more edgy? The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) can be found about five blocks south on Woodward and always has something surprising in store. Experimental films, pop-up kitchens, fascinating lectures, crafts for kids — the list goes on and you’ll want to come back as often as possible to take in its ever-changing exhibits.
And when that snack time baguette from Avalon can no longer hold back the belly growls, end the day dining in a 115-year-old mansion. At The Whitney, you can sample the eggplant bruschetta, and don’t miss the chocolate mousse, while admiring the delicate, ornate woodcarvings and Tiffany stained-glass windows of this 52-room manor. We suggest you stay put for the after-dark hours, too. The Whitney has a newly remodeled lounge called the Top Floor, which features live entertainment nightly. But if you decide to venture out and look for a change of scenery, you won’t be disappointed. Magic Stick or Majestic Theatre are top Midtown choices, but if you want raw Detroit after hours, hit the area’s classics like The Old Miami or Bronx Bar.
• 24: The number of restaurants, stores and services that opened in Midtown through fall 2013.
• Midtown is home to the city’s first Whole Foods Market.
• Web surf or just hang out in Kresge Court, known as Midtown’s cultural living room.
• Emerald is a jewel of a gift shop in Midtown with vintage-inspired keepsakes.
• Nora isn’t the name of a chick. It’s a Midtown house of Scandinavian housewares, Japanese pottery and Detroit jewelry.
• Run Detroit — housed in a former Detroit Public Schools warehouse — is the city’s first running store.
|Snag this Diego Rivera treasure in the DIA Museum Shop. At four inches tall, he’s a magnet, a finger puppet and the creator of the finest example of Mexican mural art in the United States — the Detroit Industry murals. There’s also a Frida Kahlo version — double score! $5.95|
Whole Foods is going local with its Detroit store, featuring metro D touches like Motown-themed checkout displays and shelves stocked with goods from 50 Michigan vendors.
You can print out a great list of all the shopping and dining that Midtown has to offer at shopmidtown.wordpress.com.
Mexicantown is about five miles west of downtown, so you’ll need a ride.
|Word of advice if you head this way: Go hungry. In Mexicantown, the service is always fast, and the food is always beyond affordable, big on portions and equally as phenomenal. So you can overeat on the cheap. The no-frills restaurant Taqueria Lupitas, for instance, offers an incredibly authentic experience for about the same price you’d pay at Taco Bell. Try el pastor tacos wrapped in corn tortillas and topped with onion and cilantro. Get the pozole, a pork shoulder stew loaded with spices and hominy. Pro tip: Ask for extra onions, cabbage and spices, and season it to your liking. And, yes, there’s more to Mexicantown than just awesome eats. Appreciate the divine architecture at Sainte Anne’s. Built in 1886, it’s one of the most stunning churches in the Midwest. Or strike up a conversation at Café con Leche (we suggest sipping on a Mexican hot chocolate between sentences), and admire the community-created art adorning the walls.|
Greektown is within walking distance of downtown, or take a People Mover ride to the Greektown Station.
This is the perfect spot if you like a little culture and shouting with your cuisine. Stop by Pegasus Taverna Restaurant. Try the grape leaves, flaming cheese (feel free to yell out “OPA!” in unison with your server) and eggplant-layered moussaka. If you’ve got room left or want a sweet treat for later, walk into Astoria Pastry Shop, which is overflowing with baklava, sweet egg bread and tortes of all sorts. Then walk it off on the crowded streets and take in the people, the atmosphere and the authentic feel of Old World Greek.
Hamtramck requires a drive from downtown; north about six miles.
|This Polish enclave is full of good ethnic eats — think pierogi, paczki (super-dense, jelly-filled doughnuts), kielbasa, kraut and dill pickle soup. It’s always hard to choose between Polonia and Polish Village Cafe, but trust us, you won’t be disappointed with either. Heck, try both. After a hearty meal(s), visit the Planet Ant Theatre. This intimate 60-seater located in a former residence will give you a taste of the burgeoning theater and improv scene happening in Detroit. Rather take in some tunes? Hamtramck is the quintessential underground hangout for live music. Try Small’s, the Painted Lady or New Dodge, just to name a few. Prefer the playback? Head over to the main drag on Jos. Campau, and check out Lo and Behold! Records and Books. It’s easy to lose yourself flipping through the vinyl, antique books and other vintage items.|
|If you’re in town on Fat Tuesday this year, March 4, make a pilgrimage to Hamtramck and indulge in a paczki — a super-dense doughnut filled with jellies of many flavors and fried to perfection. People stand in really long lines at every bakery in town to get their hands on these authentic Polish confections. That’s how evil they are in the delicious department. The day — as well as the doughnut — is so celebratory in these parts, we actually call it Paczki Day.|
Corktown is just west — about a mile and a half — of downtown.
|This Irish-turned-hipster haven features lots to do, with tons of friendly pubs and dive bar hangouts. We’d be remiss to mention Corktown without talking about Slows Bar BQ, the notorious restaurant serving up barbecue paradise with offerings such as the Yardbird sandwich (mustard sauce-soaked pulled chicken breast tossed with mushrooms and cheddar and topped with bacon), a mouthwatering treat that was a finalist in the Travel Channel’s hunt for the best sandwiches in America. Tip: There’s extremely affordable parking behind Mercury Burger Bar, located right across the street from Slows. Speaking of, Mercury is surely a contender in the tasty cuisine department. Try the fried bologna sandwich with grilled onions. Don’t be afraid — it’s a far cry from anything your grandpa would slap together when you were young. For post-meal fun, check out PJ’s Lager House, a Corktown fixture since 1914, where you can catch some of the best local music Detroit has to offer.|
Amber Hunt is a Detroit-area writer, content strategist, improviser and self-proclaimed karaoke queen. You can usually find her performing with her improv troupe on Sundays at Go Comedy Improv Theater in Ferndale or belting out R. Kelly songs at a dive bar in Detroit.
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