Will Lee, Beverage Director, Grey Ghost at Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails
Where Do Those In The Know Go?
Story by Biba Adams | Photos by Gerard + Belevender
We asked, they answered: Detroit trendsetters give up the goods on their favorite city go-tos.
Talk to most Detroiters and they’ll tell you the city has changed, significantly. And it’s still changing.
We’ve got lots more great restaurants and plenty of cool things to do, especially after dark. While the mainstream has certainly gained momentum — like the Detroit International RiverWalk, Campus Martius Park and The District Detroit — some of the best late-night dining, drinks and nightlife in The D takes place off the beaten path.
If you want to have a well-rounded Detroit experience, you want to go where the pros know to go, right? That’s why Visit Detroit chatted up a few of the city’s insiders and influencers, persuading them to share some of their after-the-sun-goes-down secrets about where they like to eat, drink, dance and just be.
Recently named one of the “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America” by The New York Times, Max is a shining star on the Detroit food scene. The owner of COOP Caribbean Fusion in the Detroit Shipping Co., he serves up amazing jerk chicken and Brussels sprouts that are some of the best in the city.
A former private chef to the stars, Max moved back to his hometown from New York City to make an impact not just on the restaurant scene, but on kids who aspire to enter the culinary arts. A mentor to youth, he regularly hosts workshops and events to share the good, bad and ugly truths about owning a restaurant.
After COOP closes at 10 p.m., Max has a few places he likes to go for a late-night bite and a cocktail. “Honest John’s definitely comes to mind first,” he shared. The relaxed eatery serves breakfast all day and has a kitchen that stays open until 2 a.m. every day.
Cutter’s is another one of his favorites. Located in Eastern Market, Cutter’s is open until 2 a.m. on Friday nights. It’s sure to be crowded, so be prepared. Touting some of the freshest meat in the city, Cutter’s is known for its legendary steak bites.
On the west side of the city, Max recommends Chops Bar & Grill on Grand River, which is open until 2 a.m. every night except Monday, when the restaurant is closed. Chops is known for its friendly party atmosphere, as well as for the huge quesadillas and savory lemon pepper wings.
Like most Detroiters, Max knows that there is a place in Detroit where great food is always served up hot-off-the-grill late at night: the Coney Island. “Coney Island restaurants are classic Detroit,” he said. He’s also no stranger to the friendly Coney dog competition decades in the making between next-door neighbors American and Lafayette Coney Islands in Detroit. “Every Detroiter has their favorite,” he said. “If I’m downtown and have to choose one, I usually pick American.”
Dive bars used to be the disreputable hot spots for motorcycle clubs, bad boys (and girls) and manufacturing workers. These days, dive bars are gaining popularity for being true to the aesthetic of their neighborhoods — better known for their cheap, stiff drinks than for a trendy atmosphere.
For Rob, dive bars are all about being cocktail-centric and true to their community and history. Once a drummer and music industry manager, he now aspires to own his own bar and record label. He approaches cocktails with the same kind of artistic flair that he brings to his other creative passions. And while Kiesling is known for its sensational rotating menu of craft cocktails and restored building aesthetic, it still aspires to some true dive-bar traditions — you can get a beer and a shot for $5.
As for Rob’s favorite don’t-miss dives in metro Detroit, he recommends Bumbo’s in Hamtramck. “They have a really nice vibe going on there,” he said of the bar owned by Brian and Tia Krawczyk. Bumbo’s has cheap drink prices, with nothing more than $8. On Wednesday nights, the joint has been known to offer a Polish food pop-up.
Jolly Old Timers is another one of Rob’s picks. This former private club is now open to the public, he said, but remains a well-kept secret with an awesome legacy. “There’s something kinda cool and weird about Jolly Old Timers. The bar, and even the customers, make you feel like you’re traveling back in time.”
Kiesling Detroit once was a cafe turned dive bar called Edith’s Hideaway, a regular hangout for cops, firefighters and autoworkers. According to Rob, the building, which was erected in the 1890s, has had two resident ghosts. “One was a man who was shot by his cousin on the front stoop. The other was Edith’s husband, who actually fell down the basement steps and died,” he said.
After starting his career as a bartender at only 19, Will worked his way up through Detroit’s bar scene by creating unique cocktails inspired by the tastes of the city. He says he often finds inspiration walking through Eastern Market, where, on one trip, he discovered an applewood sea salt that now seasons his well-known cocktail, Strange Cloud.
Co-owner of the popular Grey Ghost in Detroit, Will is also a competitive bartender who has won local and national titles, including Detroit Bartender of the Year in 2018. “The best thing about competing is meeting new people,” he said, “making friends and learning how they come up with their creations.”
When Will isn’t pouring one of his own creative craft cocktails or hanging with his family, he likes to go to Selden Standard or Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails. “Selden and Chartreuse both just crush it,” he said. “Any time I do have a moment to sit down and enjoy a cocktail and a great meal, those are my picks.”
Selden is Will’s former stomping ground, known for its rotating and curated drink selection, which is paired with a highly rated, fresh farm-to-table menu. They do things like churn their own butter here. (See the story on Page 32 featuring Selden’s award-winning dessert diva, Lena Sareini.) At Chartreuse, the menu changes with the seasons. “The food at Chartreuse is high level and amazing,” Will shared, “but the atmosphere is still relaxed and very cool.”
Will is also quick to recommend the Detroit classic, Bronx Bar. Sugar House and Milwaukee Junction’s Kiesling Detroit (where his former colleague, Rob Wilson, is bartender and operator) are on his short list, too. See Rob’s recommendations above.
Will’s Strange Cloud cocktail is an Irish whiskey parallel to the classic Old Fashioned — smoked maple syrup, smoked sea salt, house-made walnut bitters and a bath of Scotch whisky.
Millennials love a themed party. TwerkXTequila combines great music, tequila and lowered inhibitions for an event that is a hot ticket every time. Initially launched in 2018, TwerkXTequila has quickly gained momentum, selling out its 2019 Cinco de Mayo party, for example, in just a day. Lauren knew she had a hit on her hands. Ever since, the event has become a popular pop-up in Detroit and has even taken place in New Orleans during the Essence Music Festival.
When Lauren isn’t party planning, she likes to go to Flood’s Bar and Grille.
“Flood’s is a Detroit nightlife staple,” she said of the city institution that’s been around for more than 25 years. “Most nights, it caters more to what I call, ‘the auntie and uncle crowd,’ referring to the Gen Xers and baby boomers who made the club popular. On Tuesday nights, however, Flood’s is a regular gathering spot for millennials. They have a great late-night happy hour from like 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., which is really cool because you can come late and still get a great, cheap drink.”
Flood’s also has a legendary soul food menu. The macaroni and cheese is some of the best in the city.
Lauren loves to hang with Amber Lewis, founder of Black Women Do Social, and Designer Hack’s Trice Clark, who puts on craft-based DIY workshops around the city where you can fabricate everything from hair accessories to home decor. She also spends time with the Detroit-based collective called The Whlgn, which hosts pop-up events in the city.
Delmar Detroit is on her worth-a-mention list, as is El Club. Delmar is a rooftop venue and popular summer spot, as are its neighbors Greektown and the bar Exodos. El Club in Southwest Detroit is the spot Lauren credits for much of her success, and is known for its concerts, art and outdoor bar.
Lauren McGrier is hard at work promoting Detroit and its potential, looking for more support for city events from national brands. “Sponsors often tell us that Detroit isn’t a priority market, but there are people here who want to have fun and have money to spend. We hope to change their idea of what Detroit has to offer.” Catch Lauren’s spring TwerkXTequila event on May 24.
LAUREN’S TOP PICK:
Flood’s Bar and Grille, 731 St. Antoine, Detroit, 48226, 313-963-1090 or floodsdetroit.com
John is a graduate of the brewing and distillation program at Schoolcraft College, and he is a certified cicerone with a high-level knowledge of beer, beer service and tasting. John even dabbles in some home brewing from time to time.
When John thinks about visitors from out of town looking for great places to drink beer in Detroit, he thinks of Batch Brewing. “They are a fantastic brewery. Their beers are spot on, and I’ve never had a dull moment there.”
The suburbs also offer a lot of great breweries and distilleries. John lives in Livonia, about 15 miles west of downtown Detroit. He strongly recommends a few incredible breweries in his neck of the woods. Liberty Street in Plymouth is owned by Joe Walters, a brew instructor at Schoolcraft College, where John matriculated. “Liberty Street does a lot of small-batch brewing and constant rotating taps,” he shared.
“Canton Brew Works is a larger venue that has something going on almost every night, from trivia to food trucks,” he added.
John can’t hide his excitement about a few new breweries hitting the scene. River Rouge Brewing Co. is set to open the first-ever brewery in Oak Park, previously a dry city.
As for the future of craft beer, he thinks small-batch brewing and local pub-style venues are where we’re headed. “I think we are going to get to a point where every community or neighborhood will have its own beer style and taste, which would be very cool.”
According to a report titled “The State of Craft Beer” from C+R Research out of Chicago, Michigan is in the top 10 for states with the most breweries per capita. crresearch.com
A trombonist, guitar player and singer, Albert plays in several cover and original bands. One of his gigs, The Cufflinks, plays barbershop quartet-style music from the 1800s to present day. He’s also a member of Brother Hallow, a rock and soul band known around the city for its literary storytelling style. A native of Hamtramck, Albert comes from a family that has deep local roots and a passion for music. “When I don’t have music in my life,” he said, “everything turns to chaos.”
When Albert isn’t on stage or strumming a tune with friends, one of his favorite go-to venues is Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. “It’s a pretty mainstream lounge, but the fans who come out are super dedicated to the music.”
Self-proclaimed as the world’s oldest jazz club, Baker’s has hosted greats like John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat “King” Cole, and today headlines local treasured vocalists like Isis Damil. It pairs its live entertainment with tasty soul food.
In addition to Baker’s, an anchor on Detroit’s Avenue of Fashion, Albert recommends his native Hamtramck to see local acts play great shows. “Small’s is a legendary venue. I was playing there when I was just in my midteens,” he said. “There’s also Planet Ant, Ant Hall and the Ghost Light (left), which are great venues for music, comedy and improv.”
Also while in Hamtramck, Albert suggests checking out the Painted Lady and Barter, one of the newer venues in his hometown that regularly hosts open mic nights, jam sessions, art shows, cabaret, comedy and more.
To get acquainted with cool musical acts playing at unique and original locations, Albert recommends connecting with Sofar Sounds. A community of thousands of artists, hosts, fans, travelers and more, this collective puts on hundreds of secret, intimate events per month around the world, including in Detroit. sofarsounds.com/detroit