A Self-Proclaimed Dive Bar Coming to Detroit May Be Just What Purists Ridicule

June 27, 2018, 2:10 PM by  Alan Stamm

[This Tuesday post is expanded with context on what qualifies as a dive bar, as suggested by a blunt comment below from a reader named Brandon.]  

If you want to be kind, file this under Trying Too Hard.

Or label it Giving Gentrification a Bad Name if you like ironic understatement.

It has come to this: Detroit is getting a faux dive bar near Midtown.

The Brush Park building at 42 Watson St. before revovations began this year. (Google Street View)

Second Best is expected to open in five or six weeks on Watson Street, a half-block east of Woodward. Sentence three of a Crain's preview make it sound fun: "It will be a casual bar with room for dancing and high-volume cocktail service."

But sentence four makes us rear back like a horse sensing something very wrong ahead: "It's themed after old dives in Michigan's 'Up North' resort towns."

Whoa, there. Let's digest this slowly now.

Two blocks east of Cass Avenue, less than four years into post-bankruptcy recovery, the city will gain add a faux-dive bar with "flannel-patterned booths and taxidermied animals, including a reclining armadillo holding a bottle that says 'absinthe,'" Annalise Frank reports at the business publication.

The owners, who also run Grey Ghost restaurant across the street, describe it as "a hangout bar" with the atmosphere of a VFW hall. A design concept shows sneakers hanging by their laces from a drop ceiling.

When the project was announced last fall, Crain's paraphrased a release:

The space will feature Naugahyde vinyl booths, flat screen TVs, shuffle board and other games, all in a dimly lit, exposed-brick ambiance.

The Old Miami, at 3930 Cass Ave. since 1979.

In other words, a version of The Old Miami or Temple Bar without the authenticity.

Those Cass Corridor classics, each less than a mile away, are genuine dives that've been popular hangouts for decades.

Dive bars are a trend-resisting genre that's easier to feel (and sniff) than to describe precisely. "They’re like porn -- difficult to define, but we know it when we see it," writes Joe Stange in Draft, a national beer magazine. He adds:

There are trendy bar designers who open dive-like bars as concepts. Yet a proper dive has a type of authenticity that cannot be faked. . . . Good dives are grown and nurtured rather than created from scratch.

Common traits, according to online lists, include no beer list, a few cheap wines (if any), neon beer signs, simple snacks only, grungy bathrooms, dated knick-knacks, low light, taxidermy. Also, Stange suggests:

A broad age range, preferably skewing old and grumpy. If it's full of chipper twentysomethings giving meat market vibes, it ain't a dive.  

At Thrillist, a 20-item checklist from senior editor Andy Kryza (MSU, '05) includes mismatched glassware, random fake antiques, old holiday decor, a condom vending machine, vintage beer signs, a jukebox with CDs or records and "a severly limited tap selection, but a well-curated tallboy selection." 

The Old Miami, created in 1979 as a gathering spot for Vietnam war vets, has Naugahyde recliners and overstuffded armchairs. "The decor at Old Miami is what gives it so much character," says an appreciation at Detroit Underground, an indie music site. "The walls are a mosaic of veteran mementos and memorabilia, and the furniture makes you feel at home."

The Temple, a recurring location on the "Detroiters" comedy show, has been in owner George Boukas' family for decades. "It attracts people of all class, race and lifestyle backgrounds," JC Reindl wrote last fall in the Free Press.

Across Woodward on Watson, the two-story building being renovated for Second Best had been rented by artist Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project from 2009-17 for his residence, offices, studio and gallery.

"While we made an effort to purchase the building, the realities of the market are beyond the reach of our nonprofit arts organization," president Jenenne Whitfield says in an announcement of its March 2017 move to Parker Street in the West Village area. 

"Detroit is changing. Its neighborhoods are changing," last year's Heidelberg statement says with unironic understatement.

Changing doesn't always mean improving.  

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