I have a confession to make...I lied.
Prologue: Like so many others in our community, I'm the product of a Detroit family. My maternal grandmother worked at JL Hudson's. Her husband worked at Wabeek State Bank (now Comerica). My mother would take a public bus from school to meet them and walk home as a family. My paternal grandfather, an entrepreneur, had an ice cream shop on Warren Avenue. These are romantic memories.
Tragically, these are not my Detroit memories. My story, as it relates to Detroit, took a left turn in 1967. The riots accelerated a mass exodus. My folks, like so many others, moved to the burbs. When I went to Hudson's it was within Oakland Mall. Detroit proper was a place to avoid. When my friends and I dreamed of our future urbane lives we had visions of Chicago and New York - never Detroit.
Fast-forward a few years. I stayed.
I had a few opportunities to leave Michigan. For a host of now insignificant reasons I never did. When the holidays brought cards from New York, Seattle and San Francisco I ached with jealousy. I felt as though I'd stayed past closing. The music stopped, the lights came up and the surroundings were gruesome.
But life goes on. I moved to Ann Arbor; close enough to visit, but far enough to declare independence from the decay of Detroit. Yet to the outside world we are one. Describe where you're from to a stranger in Nashville and you'll quickly learn that Ann Arbor is Detroit. So I lied.
"Detroit's really making a come back...There's some great spots...you should visit." Bullshit. I hated Detroit. It wasn't worth a visit. You needed a secret decoder ring to find the "great spots." I lived 30 minutes away and would sooner drive to Chicago than plan a night in Detroit. Yes, I made the occasional pilgrimage east, but it was always with a specific destination in mind and always a chore.
A former boss was fond of saying "change is good." What usually followed was a long refrain about how change is also very hard. It takes time, and work, dedication...and often faith. I'm pleased to report that while I may have lost my faith in Detroit others did not. Detroit IS being reinvented. And this time, I swear, that's not a defensive line of crap.
In December the touring company of Wicked came to Detroit. I had long promised my theater-loving wife that we would go so when tickets became available it was reflexive. Buy. Then came the hard part - making a night of it.
Luckily I have some pretty wonderful friends and they've been steadily feeding me insights about the modern day city of Detroit. One of these friends has even made a habit out of staying the night...in Detroit! How novel. So in what felt like an extravagant move we decided to get a room at the Book Cadillac Westin and turn our trip to Wicked into a weekend getaway.
That's what I have to say about our weekend in Detroit. We spent nearly two days living as god intended - fat and happy. It was not, as I'm accustomed, a one-stop park-and-leave driving trip. It was a "leave the keys in the room, hit the streets and roam" type of weekend. We encountered other people, at times crowds, and not just bums or bar folk.
Yes, the city is in a dire financial situation. Don’t let that detract from the excitement building. While I’m sure to elicit tremendous ire for this statement – I hope the city fails [financially]. I hope the governor get’s to step and hit the reset button, just as President Obama did for the auto industry. It’s time to shed the administrative burden created by generations before us and allow the city to constructively nurture the enterprising individuals who remain.
I am a reformed believer. I've seen the light within Detroit and I am ready to preach to the masses. Here's a quick city guide for a discerning outsider seeking short-term asylum in the Motor City. It’s by NO means a comprehensive list, but perhaps it will inspire you to make a trip east.
Geographic Context: Downtown Detroit is a city of neighborhoods and districts; Indian Village, Heart Plaza, Fox Town, the New Center Area, Eastern Market, etc. For years these were isolated pods separated by decay and vacancy. I'm pleased to report that the new wave of urban development has finally succeeded in connecting many, albeit not all of dots. It is now feasible to travel on foot from the Riverfront to the north meandering through districts without fear of life - and more importantly, stopping along the way at a host of great spots. Yes, there are still holes, and yes there are still islands of disconnected activity (eg Corktown) but these voids are becoming attacked and no longer the predominant theme. Our time was spent in the CBD (Central Business District) contained within the Lodge, the Chrysler and the Fisher Freeways.
Social Population: Concurrent to our stay there were two home games (Wings and Lions), a Wilco Concert and holiday skating at Grand Circus Park. Clearly it was the height of activity. If you visit on a non-event night you're still likely to be greeted by open tables and vacant streets.
You have choices! Inspired by Superbowl XL, Detroit developers have added hundreds (thousands?) of rooms to the CBD over the last decade, many of which are within walking distance to Foxtown and most entertainment venues. Tragically, most are attached to a casino so the hands-down best option is the Westin Book Cadillac. A well-appointed respite in the epicenter of activity, the massively renovated Westin affords all of the benefits of worldly travel without compromise or false airs. If you’re on a tighter budget there’s a new Holiday Inn Express across Washington that offers all the convenience without the luxury.
(enter your own event here) Perhaps the greatest endowment bequeathed to the city by past industrial leaders is the world-class collection social endeavors. There are cultural and artistic museums, a wonderful science center, countless music venues and theaters. And by no means the least impressive, three professional sports teams (Bring back the Pistons!). Add in festivals and the NAIAS and you’ll find no shortage of activity in Detroit. Have at it.
Fine Dining: Roast
Michael Simon’s gift to carnivores, Roast is currently on the short list of most exciting meals in Detroit. House cured meats, bone-nawing chops, aged steaks and every other protein passion up to and including a Flintstones sized presentation of bone marrow, this menu delivers the meat with a modern wit and an inspired mind for flavor. The dining room tends to fill-up with plastic suburban trophy wives – not quite my thing. So if your party is less than four try to snag seats at the bar. You can order the full menu and hanging with the mixologists is endlessly more rewarding than the huddled masses trying to see and be seen in the dining room.
NOTE: For fine dining I’m also a fan of the Prentice Groups Coach Insignia. Unfortunately it resides within the Renaissance Center, an isolating tomb of a building. If you can make the trek you’ll love the views inside and out.
Casual Dining: 24Grille
While the menu is by no means in a class with Roast, 24Grille, also in the Westin, presents a well-crafted contemporary bistro. And the dining room just may be more attractive than Roast. Service, once beyond the host stand, is fitting of a restaurant housed in a landmark building. 24Grille is great choice for a less formal event.
Grub’n: Hot Taco
One of the newest joint in Detroit, Hot Taco opened just after New Years. Housed in the same building as the Centaur Bar on Park behind the Fox Theater, Hot Taco’s location alone may propel it to being one of the 2012 noteworthy spots. I’ve yet to go, still it’s intriguing. Check it out and report back.
Grub’n: Coney Islands
You’ve gotta love a joint where yelling “two loose” in Detroit doesn’t refer to the clientele. Nothing says Detroit like chili cheese fries and a coney topped with onions and mustard. In Phili they debate Pat’s vs Gino’s. When you’re in Detroit weigh in on the great debate between Lafayette and Ameircan Coney Islands – conveniently located next door to one another.
Author’s note: Pat’s and Gino’s are both shitty tourist food. If you want a cheese steak in Phili go to Tony Luc’s.
Sunday Brunch: Cliff Bells
Rarely in life do you get the chance to meet the genuine article. Cliff Bell’s is a temple of a jazz club that dates back to prohibition. It belongs to an elite brotherhood with establishments like the Green Mill in Chicago. It’s the type of place you could image Don Draper drinking martini’s. Miraculously the interior remains intact and today they serve an amazing Sunday brunch. Do not miss it.
Weekly Breakfast / Lunch / Brunch: The Hudson Café
On Woodward across from the former Hudson building, the new French-Inspired café has an awe-inspired pancake. Seriously, aren’t you sick of crepe’s getting top billing? I think pancakes are the bastard step-child of brunch. Most well healed establishments relegate the pancake to kids menus. Why? Even if you don’t order pancakes, you’ll enjoy this menu and the white-washed gallery styled dining room. Huge front windows allow sunshine to accompany diners.
While not a brewery – this is my favorite beer site in Detroit. Another historical site, the building dates back to 1879. The name derives from Grand Trunk Railroad, who made this their ticketing office in 1911. Today it’s houses the best collection of craft beer taps in Detroit. In the summer, their sidewalk tables are a treasure.
NOTE: Beer folks should also make time for Motor City Brewing Works and Traffic Jam & Snugs. Directly across the street from one another, they are both fabulous craft brewers and tasting rooms. Detroit is also home to Atwater Brewery and Detroit Beer Co. Taps galore!
Misc. Points of Interest
Perhaps you’re heard Detroit’s next big industry is farming. As of late, most of those stories are strictly academic. Compuware however, has once again put their money where their mouth is and opened the Lafayette Community Garden on, where else, Lafayette, behind the coney islands. It’s a beautiful and productive plot of land. And not only does this space grow fresh food for local agencies, it create an organic reprieve among cement and steel for outdoor concerts or quiet meditation. The landscape architecture would be brilliant in any setting, being in Detroit makes it epic.
Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Dequinder-Cut & Detroit River Walk
In 2011 I had the chance to bike through Detroit (thanks Motor City Tour Company!). One of the most amazing discoveries was the Diquinder Cut. This former rail line has been repurposed as a pedestrian greenway connecting Easter Market to the River walk. It’s a treasure that magically marries the artistry of graffiti and civil engineering with a naturalist’s eye. If at all possible, make time on your next trip to Eastern Market to walk the 1+ miles down this path to the River walk and back. It’s as good as Sunday in the Arb.
Russell Industrial Center (RIC)
If you still yearn for the gritty, post-apocalyptic rust-belt experience, check out the RIC. This collection of seven buildings, in part designed by Albert Kahn, has endured generations of industrial turnover and obsolescence. A massive shrine to expired industrial might, the property has become re-inhabited with a series of artists, designers and enterprising locals. It’s the home of the Peoples Art Festival in August and many smaller shows throughout the year.
ALMOST FINAL WORD: (warning – the soap box is in session)
Folks, I’m not excessively political. I’m a socially liberal, fiscally conservative independent voter. I don’t like taxes or big government. I believe the private sector and free markets are exponentially more efficient. That said, I desperately believe in funding infrastructure. Can we PLEASE get some mass transit working in Michigan. Imagine how amazing this piece would be if I finished it by discussing the rapid train-ride back to Ann Arbor. Peace.
LAST THOUGHT: As I was in final draft for this piece a minor skirmish erupted over Kid Rock's "Made in Detroit" clothing line. Susan Tompor, an ambulance chaser of a journalist at the Freep, took a lame swipe at Kid Rock because the cotton for his shirts isn’t sourced in Detroit, and in most cases the shirts themselves aren’t even finished in Detroit. Clearly she’s a pathetic mouth-breathing wretch of a writer who’s been caught in the literal net. And while I’d love to spend another 500 words explaining why her piece is shit, I’m enamored with Kid Rock’s own response. If you have time, please take a minute to read it [here]. Well done Mr. Ritchie.
There you have it. Another 2,218 words from Gastroboy. How 'bout you? What'cha gotta say about the D? Click "comments" and let me know.