Wednesday, May 16, 2012

[HOT LIST] Prohibition bars

Two Way Inn. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

There is a certain amount of Prohibition-era romanticization happening lately with all the new craft cocktail bars around town looking to be throwbacks to the era. (The Sugar House and the Oakland even take their names from the notorious Purple Gang, the biggest Prohibition bootleggers in the country that were based right here in Detroit.) As much as we love these new bars (and for the love of bourbon and bitters we really truly do), we also love an honest-to-God-and-guns dive bar. These places are the real deal: century-old bars tucked away in residential neighborhoods (each grandfathered in as zoning laws were introduced) that operated as bonafide blind pigs during the days of Prohibition and are still slinging drinks to this day.

#1 Two Way Inn (Detroit)
Many bars claim to be the "oldest bar in Detroit," and probably many of them can fairly lay claim to the title when you factor in shades of difference such as "oldest continuously-operated bar" and "oldest family-owned bar." The Two Way Inn, open since 1876, is one of those bars. Over the course of its lifetime it has been a hotel, brothel, jail, general store, blind pig and bar. Now it's just a damn cool place to hang out. The family that owns it live upstairs and it has exactly that kind of family-atmosphere: stopping in is like dropping by your aunt's house and hanging with your cousins. They have parties and host BBQs and pub crawls, but even if there's no special event going on, the Two Way is the kind of place you can always stop in for a beer (they have Zywiec, aka Polish PBR) and end up doing shots of Jerzy (Polish Jaeger) with the new friends you just made. There's a velvet painting on John Wayne on the wall and they have WiFi (hel-lo new office!). Things to note: you have to be buzzed in through the front door (which is just cool) and it's cash only. Oh, and also, it's haunted.

Photo from Hour Detroit.
#2 East Side Tavern (Mount Clemens)
Located in the basement of an old farmhouse on the outskirts of Mt. Clemens (one of metro Detroit's oldest cities), East Side Tavern feels the most like the century-old bar (and former blind pig) that it is. This place is practically a living room, just with a bar instead of a couch. In fact, it's about the size of one, and the ceiling is so low that even at 5'6'' I felt the need to duck. They like to say, “You’re only a stranger here once," and plenty of would-be “friendly neighborhood joints” claim the same, but this is the kind of place where it’s absolutely true. The bartender knows everyone by name, and if she doesn’t know you, you’ll get introduced into the conversation pretty quickly. (Owner Frank DeBruyn, a 76-year-old who jokes about having a bar in his basement, is usually hanging out too.) Once you get past the novelty of this tiny place in this unexpected location, this is simply a great dive bar chill spot where you can go shoot the shit with the natives and eat (no joke) one of the best burgers you've ever had in your life.

#3 Ye Olde Tap Room (Detroit)
Built in the 1800s as a trolley repair station and operating as a bar since 1912, the Tap Room is a Detroit favorite both for the vibe and for the beer and whiskey - 285 beer labels all total (and some really cool stuff too, both American craft and imports) and an extensive selection of single malt scotches and whiskeys. This is a beer and shot place, but fancy beer and fancy shots (though they do sell plenty of Jameson shots with PBR backs). Despite the impressive selection, there's nothing snooty or pompous about this place. The bartenders are some of the coolest and the customers are a good mix of area locals and workers, Detroit scenesters and hipsters, and beeries from near and far. They also just celebrated their annual Prohibition Party (which, admittedly, was the impetus for this list), and were known as one of the Purple Gang's haunts (the basement was a speakeasy). And they have darts, some cool live bands, and an awesome patio in the summer.

#4 The Gold Star (Wyandotte)
Established in 1923, the Gold Star (in Wyandotte's Polish center) is in an old farmhouse smack-dab in the middle of the neighborhood. To give some perspective here, Wyandotte was once in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most churches and bars per square mile of any city in the world (blame the predominant Polish-Catholic roots for their love of God and beer). The Gold Star hearkens back to the day when bars were part of the neighborhood and people could walk to them, and is still very much a local neighborhood hangout. It still has the dirt wall basement that was a speakeasy during Prohibition, and is said to be haunted after a tragic fire that killed four children (it was also the family home). The Bozymowski family, who were the original owners and ran the place for decades, no longer own the bar but you can still stop in and say hi to Val, granddaughter of the original owners who still runs the show. Plus they've got $1 drafts and $5 pitchers all day every day and free pool on Sundays. (Cash only.)

#5 Whiskey in the Jar (Hamtramck)
Whiskey is kind of an infamous Hamtramck hangout that attracts the die-hard bar flies, Hamtramck crust punks, old Poles and Detroit drunks in equal quantities. Everyone knows to go here every time there is a drinking high holiday held in Hamtramck (and there's one pretty much every month), but even in downtime this place is great dive bar hangout. Once a speakeasy, it's now part of the Blowout circuit and is easily one of Hamtramck's most popular bars (and there are many). Sidle up to the bar for some socializing with strangers, and if it's your first time in you have to do a shot of Jerzy. (Seriously. They make you.)

Bubbling under Stonehouse Bar (Detroit), Abick's Bar (Detroit), Tom's Tavern (Detroit), Jacoby's German Biergarten (Detroit), Kovacs Bar (Southwest Detroit), Nancy Whiskey (Detroit), New Dodge Lounge (Hamtramck)

Note: Places like Cliff Bell's, Foran's Grand Trunk Pub, and the Dakota Inn Rathskeller, while all old themselves, did not open as bars until after the end of Prohibition (1933, 1933 and 1935, respectively).