I love Detroit, which can be a polarizing sentiment depending on who you are talking to. I find myself having to clarify that statement. Maybe that’s because Detroit is still shaking off its reputation as the city automakers built and then forgot. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t have the squeaky clean shine of other Midwestern metropolises. Probably, that’s because anyone who doesn’t love it hasn’t been there.
In my humble opinion, as someone who has eaten and drunk her way through the Midwest, Detroit is unique in that it is unabashedly itself. Where else can you down a Coney Island hot dog, have an award-winning slice of salted maple pie at Sister Pie, and then head down the road to the country’s only feather bowling alley? When it comes to eating and drinking in Detroit, the city is in the middle of a renaissance fueled by longtime natives trying to reclaim and redefine its culinary identity and outsiders who see it as an opportunity to try something new. The result is a sense of tension among the burgeoning culinary and beverage community—not to be named the next hottest restaurant, nor to be included on some top ten bar list—to represent the city the best it can.
The Siren Hotel
Detroiters are a utilitarian people. They use what they have to make something new that exhales history. What they have is an abundance of old, often neglected buildings. In the case of The Siren, one of Detroit’s newest hotels, it is tucked inside the Wurlitzer Building. The former home of the world’s largest music store sat vacant for a decades, until it was saved from demolition and turned into a 106-room hotel. Inspired by ancient Greek mythology, the hotel is the modern equivalent of the Grecian agora, complete with a coffee bar, barber shop, and florist all adorned with romantic accents, from paper lanterns to velvet curtains. But you are here to drink—and possibly sleep—and that’s where Candy Bar comes in. Covered in pink, from the velvet booths to the marble bar and vintage Murano chandelier, the bar specializes in cocktails, but also has a well-curated beer list featuring local options such as Lake Brothers Lager.
If The Siren is Detroit’s new hotel du jour, Kiesling is the bar of the moment, but it’s hardly new. Kiesling can trace its history back to the 1920s, when a German family opened it as a saloon next to a general store. It remained as such until the 1970s when it changed ownership and name, before closing in the 1990s. It took years to renovate this 64-seat bar to its former glory. Part of that glory included a four-panel, hand-painted canvas mural depicting a woodland scene. Other throwback details include the original wood wainscoting, stained glass windows and a tile mosaic spelling out “Kiesling” on the front stoop. As of earlier this year, it’s a cozy hangout with a decidedly modern drink menu. Sip Stillwater Insetto wild ales in one of the leather banquettes or $5 shot-and-beer specials at the long wood bar.
Chefs John Vermiglio and Joe Giacomino sharpened their knives in Chicago before moving to Detroit to open a restaurant on their own. It’s there, in their dark and cozy restaurant—think exposed brick, ornately tiled floors, leather banquettes, and a glowing, open kitchen—that the duo’s creativity exploded into things like Chicago-style oysters and beet poke. If you’ve had a couple beers already, there are few plates of food in all of Detroit more prepared to sop up a little too much booze than Grey Ghost’s fried bologna served on a sharp cheddar waffle. Of course, if you want to keep drinking, you can do that too, via Vivant Farmhand and Dark Horse Boffo Brown. The restaurant does a killer dinner, focused on dry-aged steaks and housemade pastas, but if you want to skip the dinner rush, cheeseburgers are served until late alongside cans of Hamm’s and shots of whiskey.
Imagine your college bar: 40s of High Life, Fireball shots, and a dude getting Iced in the corner. That’s Second Best, the modern dive bar that opened across the street from Grey Ghost earlier this year. The ambiance is decidedly more purposeful that a collegiate watering hole—taxidermy, plaid banquettes, and a Pac-Man machine surround a U-shaped bar. It’s a raucous place that should be the last stop of your evening. Listen to some ‘90s R&B, down some pizza puffs dipped in house ranch dressing, Ice your friend, call it a night. Oh, and that 40 of High Life? It’s served in an ice bucket with Champagne flutes.
The not-so-dirty secret about Detroit is that few people actually live in Detroit. Head 15 minutes northeast by car and end up in Ferndale, a popular residential neighborhood filled with new gems including Axle Brewing’s Livernois Tap. Start another day of drinking at brunch, when cocktails get mixed with beer, such as a Beer-Mary and Beer-Mosa. Or, you know, just drink a beer—personal favorites include the Noble Ghost German Grüngeist hopped blonde and rye whiskey barrel-aged Vernor & Junction—with your Spam hash or McBenedict. And don’t overlook the toaster strudel—oh, the toaster strudel. Forget everything you know about the frozen pastry from your youth and dig into this flakey oversized version filled with seasonal jam and drizzled in sweet glaze. Chase it with Noble Ghost and thank us later.
8 Degrees Plato Beer Company
Every city needs a great beer store. Detroit’s is 8 Degrees Plato. Well, it’s technically in Ferndale, but it’s worth the drive to the tucked-away storefront that is filled with beers from around the world. Michigan breweries are well-represented here, with beers from New Haven’s Odd Side Ales, Stevensville’s Watermark Brewing Company, and Bridgman’s Transient Artisan Ales. Sadly, the original Ferndale store is closing at the end of the year, but the impressive selection will live on at a recently opened Detroit location. There, a taproom and beer store coexist in a bright, warehouse-like space with a subway tiled bar complete with 16 taps and a growler filling station.
Eastern Market Brewing Co.
Detroit’s Eastern Market is a destination in its own right. Oversized “sheds” are filled with dozens of vendors slinging fresh produce, preserves, baked goods, bags of kettle corn, flowers and everything in between. It’s no wonder that Eastern Market Brewing Co. chose the historic market’s doorstep to set up shop. The plant-filled taproom embraces its warehouse location with distressed brick walls, one of which is decorated with a giant elephant mural. Take a seat at the bar in the company of said elephant or at one of the picnic tables with a flight of some Eastern Market favorites. The brewery is not shy with flavors, offering beers such as a White Coffee Stout, Maize Cream Ale, and an exceptionally well-spiced Carrot Cake Ale.
You don’t need to visit the Corktown taproom to get a taste of Batch. The beer is everywhere, from restaurant draft lines to store shelves. But it’s worth a trip to grab a fresh pint in the company of brite tanks and board games. The brewery’s strength lie in its sours and IPAs, with offerings such as a delicate “dessert” Berliner Weisse named Mah Nà Mah Nà—which is best enjoyed alongside an order of seasonal arancini—and a collection of cocktail-inspired beers including the Second to Last Word. Batch was also one of seven area breweries to concoct a tribute to the regional soda Faygo for the Michigan Brewers Guild Fall Beer Festival. (Batch was bestowed with the honor of making a grape version, which kind of tasted like Dimetapp.) Like what you taste? Instead of growlers, Batch offers its beers to-go in 40s wrapped in custom-branded brown paper bags.
When it comes to ups and downs, few restaurants can boast a more exciting and heartbreaking roller coaster ride than Takoi. Originally dubbed Katoi, the Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2017, only to be burned down in an act of arson a week later. It reopened later that year, with a new name, since an article pointed out the original was an offensive slur to Thai transgender people. Despite it all, Takoi is back. Colorful neon lights behind opaque panels make you feel like you are eating in a nightclub, but it works. Somewhere between orders of fried squash rings, smoked lamb Massaman curry, and glasses of Stillwater’s Action Bronson's 7000 dry-hopped sour ale brewed with muscat grapes, I’m struck with the feeling of being somewhere special—somewhere unlike anywhere else in the world. There are no gimmicks here, no stoking the flames of the latest tend. It’s Detroit and it does what it wants.