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Beertown, U.S.A.: Detroit

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In America’s heartland, The D is best known as a motor mecca, but it’s also one of the Midwest’s best places to roll up your sleeves and sip a cool brew.

By Ric Bohy

BREWERIES

The owner of Motor City Brewing Works (Cass Corridor, motorcitybeer.com), John Linardos, was a pioneer who won the fight to legalize brewpubs in Michigan. His signature is Ghettoblaster, an English mild ale with an international rep, but still a favorite of the boho underground that gravitates here. The brewery stands in a neighborhood that is by turns one of The D’s toughest and most insistently resurgent. In Contrast, The owners of Dragonmead (Warren, dragonmead.com) were Dungeons and Dragons freaks as kids and have hung on to the medieval thing in their Warren brewhouse, turning out an extraordinarily varied international roster of ales, lagers and more. They’ve won at the World Beer Cup, beating 29 Belgian brews with their tripel ale, Final Absolution. Tucked away in the epicenter of hipster culture, Royal Oak Brewery (Royal Oak, royaloakbrewery.com) offers a relatively small menu of well-crafted suds, a full complement of generously portioned meals, and a wood-walled terrace that is as relaxing as can be on a summer afternoon. It’s worth a day trip just to check out this Hawaii-themed micro, led by the mysterious Captain Spooky Ron J. Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales (Ann Arbor, jollypumpkin.com) is also one of the only breweries that concentrates all its efforts on using wild yeasts to create naturally soured ales aged in oak.If you find yourself downriver, you can slake a powerful thirst in Fort Street Brewery (Lincoln Park, fortstreetbeer.com), a relatively recent addition to the brewing landscape. Minimalist in design and with a gently priced menu of good bar grub, it focuses on somewhat experimental brew. Example: an inky porter sexed up with port wine-soaked oak chips.

BARS

At the Cadieux Café (Eastside, cadieuxcafe.com) you’ll find the rare entertainment of watching old Belgians cuss each other out in their native dialect while drinking and feather-bowling in a packed-dirt trough. Mussels are cooked eight ways, rabbit is the Sunday special, and regulars know to ask for the Belgian chocolates kept behind the bar. The fact that regulars wear chicken hats says all you need to know about whether they can party at Dakota Inn Rathskeller (Eastside, dakota-inn.com,) a 75-year-old German beer garden. Trendy (in Germany, anyway) beer blends called biermischgetranke supplement a respectable list of dunkels, lagers, pilsners and other imports, and an array of wursts and schnitzels fuels the fun. At Baker’s Keyboard Lounge (Westside, bakerskeyboardlounge.com), the dead-bang winning bar bet in this granddaddy of Detroit jazz clubs is to challenge someone to name a legend that hasn’t played here. Miles, Monk, Trane, Chet, Ella, Dexter, Diz, Fatha—if you don’t know the names, maybe Baker’s isn’t your place. But the list goes on, and so does the jazz. Before newsrooms started to resemble insurance agencies, Anchor Bar (Downtown, 313.964.9127) is where they drank, fought and told their tales with cops, crooks, politicians, bad girls and good liars. Today it’s billed as a sports bar, but the walls are still covered with portraits of local news legends. Ask Vaughn to tell some stories about his dad, Leo, the original owner, a semi-retired bookie and the softest touch on skid row. There isn’t a straight line or right angle left in the entire structure of Tom’s Tavern (Westside, 313.862.9768), and plenty of slack-jaws have found themselves stumbling helplessly down the floor’s incline. The regulars don’t give visitors too hard of a time; and the beer is as ordinary as it gets, but cold. Tom’s is beloved like a mostly benign uncle whose age can’t be guessed and who carries more secrets than Eliot Spitzer’s hooker.

DINE

Sharing a wall on a sidewalk isthmus, American and/or Lafayette Coney Island (Downtown, americanconeyisland.com-American; 313.964.8198-Lafayette) are competing tube-steak temples and the original standard-setters for Detroit-style coneys: natural casing all-beef dogs, smooth chili, yellow mustard and sweet chopped onions on a steamed bun. The rivalry can lead to some heated street side showdowns in warm weather. You’ll never find a plate of Americanized Chinese vittles in Hong Hua (Farmington Hills, honghuafinedining.com). A true wok wizard is in the kitchen cooking Hong Kong style, feeding the largely Asian clientele from live fish tanks and an off-the-menu array of hard-to-find delicacies including bird’s nest soup, shark fin and more. It’s high-end fare at an impressively moderate cost. The Caucus Club (Downtown, caucusclubdetroit.com) is one of the last “old Detroit” restaurants, this clubby dowager (it was men-only until 1971) never bows to froufrou trends. Peerless fried lake perch and broiled pickerel, racks of ribs and old-school London broil share the menu with steak-and-onions, veal marsala and the like. A bit pricey, but the last of its kind. A European country inn, The Lark’s (West Bloomfield, thelark.com) owners are Jim and Mary Lark and aren’t shy about the culinary honors routinely draped on the place. They’re also unapologetic about the high cost of their 4-star fare—including the signature mélange of shellfish and chourico steamed in a copper cataplana. Ask Jim about the large painting of a reclining nude. It’s his sister.

Zingerman’s (Ann Arbor, zingermansdeli.com) is an upscale “deli” that draws food lovers from across the country. Rare cheeses, olive oils, charcuterie, vinegars, condiments and all things culinary are sold out of the tiny brick building beside mile-high sandwiches on bread from its own bakery. Even something as “simple” as chicken salad is made from birds roasted on site.

SLEEP

Reclaimed from the era when lumber barons and other swells poured their wealth into elegant, showy homes, The Inn on Ferry Street (Cultural Center, innonferrystreet.com)is an exquisitely restored collection of six late-19th century Victorians, Offering visitors a chance to taste that lush life, each of the 40 rooms is unique and evokes Detroit’s gilded age, and in this context the rates are agreeable. The Townsend Hotel (Birmingham, townsendhotel.com) is the finest in the region, from the serene, blossom-filled entry hall on through 150 posh rooms and suites. It’s where the rockers, jocks and other celebs tend to hole up, and the reason is simple: swank surroundings presided over with European discretion. A place of grace, Hotel Baronette (Novi, hotelbaronette.com) hosts 153 guest rooms including suites (some with Japanese sunken tubs) featuring king-size four-posters, fireplaces, translation services and international newspapers. It’s also served by the fine No. VI Chophouse, which takes its name from the hotel’s neighborhood. The first of the city’s three casinos to open a luxury hotel, the MGM Grand Detroit (Downtown, mgmgranddetroit.com) spent $800 million to add the luxury digs and a parking structure to its gaming operation, with everything from penny slots to big-bucks baccarat. Occupying the tallest structure in the city’s riverfront skyline, the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center (Downtown, marriott.com) has one thing that can’t be matched by any other regional hotel: spectacular views of the Detroit River; the city’s Canadian neighbor, Windsor (which is still treated like a suburb despite tight border security); and a cityscape that glows golden after dark.

DO

All “new” after a $158 million renovation that required reinstalling every gallery, the century-old Detroit Institute of Arts (Cultural Center, dia.org) has been skillfully transformed to educate and entertain even unschooled visitors who know what they like in art, but may not know why. Also home to the venerable Detroit Film Theatre, a venue for well-chosen movies screened nowhere else locally. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (Cultural Center, maah-detroit.org) is a magnificent domed structure that rose from humble beginnings to take its place as a monument to the history and contributions of African Americans, from their roots in prehistoric Africa through slavery and emancipation in America, to their roles in all levels of 21st century society. As the grande dame of metro Detroit’s toniest and most exclusive academic campus, the former home of founders George and Ellen Scripps Booth, Cranbrook House and Gardens (Bloomfield Hills, cranbrook.edu) is a classic of Arts and Crafts design, built and outfitted by the top craftsmen of the early 20th century. Both are open for formal tours or casual strolls from June through October. The Eastern Market (Downtown, detroiteasternmarket.com) is the place to be on early weekend mornings when outlying farmers bring in their freshest produce, flowers and other well-tended goods. But it also offers plenty the rest of the week. Be sure to visit Rafal Spice Company, if only to find out what it smells like when virtually every known spice is gathered in bulk in one place: heady, exotic, intoxicating. The stark concrete walls of the Holocaust Memorial Center (Farmington Hills, holocaustcenter.org) are meant to evoke the grim concentration camps of World War II and the genocide of the Jews who were exterminated in them. Beginning with a graphic timeline tracing 4,000 years of Jewish history, the museum campus then vividly takes the visitor into and through the Holocaust. It’s unforgettable—and that’s the point.

THE DETROIT RIVER

Throughout history the Detroit River has been an industrial hub for fur-trading, stove-making, shipbuilding and auto-crafting capital. Now it’s being transformed as a recreational, retail and residential showpiece. Hart Plaza (Downtown, michigan.org) is home to an open-air reflection of the city’s diverse musical legacy, from the Detroit International Jazz Festival, Detroit Electronic Music Festival and  Downtown Hoedown to assorted rock, gospel, R & B and cultural events. The brushed steel contrivance at its center is a computerized fountain by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The late Mayor Coleman A. Young once pledged to redevelop the riverfront “from bridge to bridge,” meaning the MacArthur Bridge upriver and the Ambassador Bridge down. It didn’t happen in his lifetime, but now is well underway (to be completed in four years). The Detroit River Walk (Downtown, detroitriverfront.org) has a wide promenade that connects residential and retail developments beside the five-and-a-half mile path. Bigger than New York’s Central Park, Detroit’s Belle Isle (Near Downtown, nps.gov) recreation area makes full use of the water that surrounds it, with fishing piers, a beach, riverfront picnic grounds and a Great Lakes maritime museum. A small population of tiny fallow deer always charms visitors, as does the seductive scent of the country’s oldest botanical conservatory. The state opted to make the riverside more livable by choosing it for the first urban state park in Michigan. Tri-Centennial State Park (Downtown, michigan.gov) is still under development, though it already includes a marina and 63-foot light tower that will remain the most visible landmark in the 31-acre park. Fish for prized walleyes from the shore, picnic or just chill beside flowing water. The main attraction is the 6,000-seat amphitheater at Chene Park (Downtown, cheneparkdetroit.com). Covered by a futuristic dome, this unique venue is unmatched by any other in metro Detroit for its stage backdrop—the river itself and the boat traffic it carries. •

[Photo: Ivan Cholakov]

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