Detroit Bars & Nightlife
2445 Michigan Ave., Corktown
There are a number of distilleries in Detroit; Two James is the OG. Housed in a warehouse-esque building in Corktown with a garage-door front, Two James has a circular bar that serves the house liquors, crafted in small batches that draw largely on local ingredients, including: Catcher's Rye whiskey, Grass Widow bourbon, Old Cockney gin, 28 Island vodka, Nain Rouge Absinthe Verte. You can take a tour of the distillery itself on Friday evening, or Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
76 W. Adams Ave., Downtown
The Royce moved into the Kales building (designed in 1914 by architect legend Albert Kahn) in early 2016, taking up an expansive two-story space that has become part wine shop, part wine bar. Partners Angela Rutherford and Ping Ho wanted The Royce to reflect both Detroit's industrial and deco background; the result is really lovely. A clean, curved white bar with a shiny white-tile background is situated opposite floor-to-ceiling shelving holding wine bottles from around the globe. The loft-like space perched above the bar is set up with small tables, long couches, and a cozy rug. You can buy the bottle or the glass and there are small food plates and cheeses to match.
2030 Park Ave., Downtown
Cliff Bell's first debuted in 1935, opened by John Clifford Bell, who ran a series of prohibition bars in Detroit before then. (Some say that he was among the first to have bar-stool seating at a saloon.) Bell, who was born in 1886, ran the mahogany and brass bar for the next two decades. In 1985, the club closed for a long spell, with renovation on the space beginning in 2005. Today, Cliff Bell's is known for its live music (particularly jazz) and 1920's feel. Bonus: Beyond drinks, the food menu here is legit.
Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
1439 Griswold St., Downtown
Larry Mongo's speakeasy first opened in the '80s—during those years, his son, Jerome, ran it as a night club with a focus on rap music. The space shuttered for more than 10 years during the '90s and early '00s when downtown Detroit was at its most desolate, but friends convinced Mongo to re-open for a one-night-only event in 2007 and he hasn't closed since. The place, which is cluttered with kitschy antiques and old photos, has live music on Fridays and Saturdays. Mongo himself can always be found somewhere in the restaurant, entertaining visitors with his crazy stories and often jumping on stage to sing karaoke with the band—he's a total character and very much beloved by locals from every part of the city.
2110 Trumbull Ave., Corktown
This place even smells like a dive bar (which you get used to after the first drink). The entertainment here begins with a juke box and a handful of old-time arcade games—there's a pin ball machine, Centuri, Pac-Man (oh boy), surrounded by 70's styles chairs. They have live shows regularly (local bands but also some international players—there was an Aussie band playing last time we were in town) and dedicated movie nights, which all draw a young crowd. They've also got a popcorn maker, and somewhat low-key mostly vegan menu (with the exception of the hot dog) by Laika Dog Kitchen.
The Old Miami
3930 Cass Ave., Midtown
There are entire guides dedicated to the dive bar culture in Detroit—and deservedly so, the city has an impressive collection of classics. One standout is hipster watering hole, The Old Miami, fittingly described by a Detroit native as "reminiscent of your grandparents' basement," albeit pretty rad grandparents. Think: flannel blankets, velvet-ribbed rocking chairs, Vietnam-era posters, Christmas tree lights, pinball. Today, part of the appeal of The Old Miami—which dates back to the 70's and was originally designed as a bar for Veterans—is its live music scene. In warmer months, there is also the unexpectedly large outdoor area with eccentric, mismatched patio furniture.
4114 W. Vernor Hwy., Mexicantown
Music venue El Club opened in 2016 in a renovated space in Mexicantown that is part bar and part concert hall, with a generous outdoor garden and couch-lounge area attached. Their show line-up (most begin at 8pm) gets good buzz, but this is also a fun place to hang outside of show hours, too. It has a slightly throw back vibe; the bar is long with a sole TV in the far corner and DJ set-up in another (this isn't a quiet spot), and a neon "El Club" sign hangs high in cursive. Pizza (not just cheese-only bar slices but margherita, sausage and pepperoni, vegan pie with tahini dressing, kimchi-style, a handful of white pies, and so on) is served by Pepe Z on-site. El Club can also be rented out for private parties.
225 Gratiot Ave., Downtown
The Belt is a short alley downtown (in a former garment district) decorated with wall art, graffiti, and hanging, glimmering lights that connects Grand River to Gratiot Avenue. (It's in part a project of adjacent gallery, Library Street Collective.) Tucked into the Gratiot end of the Belt, is a speakeasy-like bar called Standby that serves flowery craft cocktails and elevated bar snacks (confit duck salad, whisky mushroom pierogi, beets and ricotta with watercress and mint). Spots at the intimate bar are date-worthy, while the tables opposite, framed by a wrap-around booth draw groups.
Green Dot Stables
2200 W. Lafayette Blvd., Corktown
The always-packed Green Dot is situated in a parking lot among warehouses; it looks like an average Irish pub from the outside, but inside it's much more kitchsy—and wonderful. For food, it's sliders with a twist: quinoa burgers with kale and chimichurri, grilled cheese, gyros, BBQ bacon with sweet potato. At $3 a piece, you might expect them to be microscopic—but they're actually quite big. For drinks, there are Detroit and Michigan beers on tap, plus bottles from local breweries like Atwater, and cocktails—all for $3 each (not kidding).
2130 Michigan Ave., Corktown
Sugar House (which has gone by a couple different names) was one of the earlier places to move into this now more lively stretch of Michigan Avenue in Corktown, and it's arguably the spot to go in Detroit for cocktails. (It's owned by Dave Kwiatkowski, who is also half the duo behind Downtown restaurant Wright & Company.) The dimly lit interior is a mix of Victorian style and cabin/hunting decor with a long, wood bar and large chandelier hanging over the table in the front window space. The bartenders here make all the classics (including the Detroit gin signature, "Last Word," with green chartreuse and lime) and seasonal originals (marked on the menu for their Michigan ingredients and Detroit-specific ingredients). Keep an eye out for the mixing of an old-fashioned with smoke in the bottle.