Detroit's Iconic Eateries Flourish In Vanishing Neighborhoods
December 20th, 2012, 6:44 PM
By Allan Lengel
Nestled among the boarded up homes, vacant stores and empty fields in desolate neighborhoods sit some of Detroit’s hidden treasures: Legendary restaurant-bars.
Survivors. Diamonds in the rough.
It’s as if something magical has protected these places from the harshness of time in Detroit.
One is a high-end Italian restaurant replete with black table cloths, valet parking and photos of customers, including Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Ryan Goslin, Paul Giamatti and George Clooney.
Another has been operating for nearly 80 years; another opened in 1909. Some are run by a third- and fourth-generation owners.
Almost all have security or fenced parking lots, but they attract a steady stream of suburbanites for their fabled food and artmosphere.
“In case you didn’t notice, we’re the only building in a two-square-block radius and we’re in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” says Bill Galen, who, with his wife, runs the Polish Yacht Club, a.k.a. the Ivanhoe Café, on Joseph Campau, about six blocks south of the Poletown plant.
“Just don’t give your keys to the valet,” Galen advises. “We do not have a valet.”
Deadline Detroit recently visited some of Detroit’s isolated gems.
KARL Kurz, a third generation owner, says this German beer garden and restaurant, built by his grandfather in 1933, used to be a neighborhood joint. Some of the locals came and spent their paychecks. So once a month, his grandfather would tap a keg and dish out brats for the regulars in the basement.
“They started this club, “The Just Right Club”, he says. “When a member comes through the door and says ‘How you doing?’ the answer is ‘Just Right.’ And this club is still going to this day.”
After the 1967 riots, the neighborhood began to deteriorate. About 25 years ago, they fenced in the parking lot.
Today, customers come from work or from as far away as Ann Arbor and Lansing. It’s no longer a neighborhood bar.
“That’s the number-one challenge is to get people to cross 8 Mile Road,” says Kurz.
“We’ve kept up with taking care of our security needs. We’re relatively crime- free.”
At one time, lunch bustled. Chrysler employee packed the joint -- that was until headquarters moved to Auburn Hills. Now lunch is served Wednesday-Friday, 11-2 p.m.
On a slow day, Kurz says they might serve up seven lunches, and the next day, maybe 30 or 40. Food includes bratwurst and knackwurst and Huhnerfleisch, a seasoned boneless chicken topped with mushrooms and swiss cheese. There’s also potato pancakes.
On weekends, Kurz says, business is “phenomenal,” with a piano player and famous sing-alongs. Oktoberfest also brings in big crowds.
“For Oktoberfest,” he says, “we start booking reservations right after Labor Day.”
Dakota Inn Rathskeller -- 17324 John R. Street, Detroit. 313. 867-9722
Hours: Wed-Friday 11 am.-2 p.m.
Thursday -- 5-11 p.m.
Friday-Saturday -- 5 p.m.-1 a.m.
DRIVE past empty fields and worn homes on a residential stretch of Joseph Campau and you’ll stumble upon a big red-brick structure with a flat roof -- almost like a little home on the prairie.
A security guard jumps in and out of his parked car. Inside, there’s a hand-carved marble bar with a dark wood top, and dining rooms with little lamps on the tables. The walls contain photos of retro celebs like Dick Purtan, Ray Lane and Jack Kelley, the late city councilman.
They call it the Polish Yacht Club or the Ivanhoe Cafe. Either way, there’s no boats anywhere. It’s landlocked.
The neighborhood began to decline in the 1980s, according to the owners.
That hasn’t stopped the loyalists. Regulars come for such favorites as pan-fried perch, fries and coleslaw. There’s also rainbow trout, walleye, salmon, shrimp, crab cakes, burgers, liver sausages and ham. A dish of pan-fried perch, fries and coleslaw and chicken noodle soup runs $16. Meals come with the traditional sour pickle and hot-pepper relish tray.
Patti and Bill Galen run the joint, which is 103 years old. They took it over from Patti’s parents.
Patti’s great grandparents started the restaurant by opening a beer garden. They lived upstairs, and on Saturdays they hosted cribbage games and served salami sandwiches.
At the time, they also sold items like shoes and gasoline. There was a pump out front. In 1961, the Ivanhoe Cafe created the “Polish Yacht Club,” a tongue-and- cheek organization that gave regulars an excuse to meet at a bar once a month.
Her grandparents eventually took over, and in 1988, they sold it to their son-in-law, Patti’s dad, for $1.
That’s when Patti started working there. She says she had ideas for dad. For example: Instead of serving the fish on certain days she told her dad to sell it Monday through Friday.
His response: “We’ve never done it that way.”
“So we tried it and it worked,” Gallen recalled.
Patti’s husband Bill just started working there this year after retiring from the Detroit Police Department. Both praise their manager, Tina Maks, who helps make the place run.
It was never really a neighborhood spot, Patti says. It was more of a businessman’s luncheon spot. Neighbors thought it was a “ritzy gentleman establishment,” she says. “A lot of judges and lawyers came here back in the day.”
Patti Galen says she does, however, have a customer across the street: A lady who gets carry-out for dinner about once a week for her and her sister. And if there’s any leftover soup that day, they send it her way.
The couple admit they’re not getting rich off the place.
“We don’t make a lot of money, but everybody still has their job and we pay our bills,” says Patti. “And really, this is our home.”
Bill Galen says he enjoys helping run the place, and part of that is because of the customers.
“Customers are like friends. You come here once you get treated like a friend and we try to keep you as a friend.”
Her husband adds: “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t enjoy it.”
Polish Yacht Club, 5249 Jos. Campau.
Hours: T-Thu 11 a.m. -2:30 p.m.
Fri. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Also closed Christmas through New Years. Re-opens Jan. 2.
TALK to owner Frances Cannarsa Truant and you quickly understand she is a force of nature, a first-rate schmoozer, and you understand why this Italian restaurant in Southwest Detroit, in the shadow of the Marathon oil refinery, has not only survived, but flourished as a first-rate Italian restaurant.
It’s a rather odd location. The neighborhood is run down and vanishing. Marathon oil is knocking down homes in an area of industrial activity that includes metal smelting, salt mining and oil refining.
But somehow, Truant manages to make it all work, with black table clothes, dim lights and valet parking. Hour Magazine named it the Best Italian Restaurant for 2012.
In the kitchen, they make their own pasta, sauces and salad dressings. The food is gourmet: Cannelloni di Pesce for example, for $24, is made of sheets of spinach and tomato pasta filled with cognac-infused shrimp scallop mousse topped with light shrimp and tomato bechamel. The appetizer, Pizza Margherita, for $13, is made with a spicy marinara sauce, fresh buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil.
Truant’s son, Randy Truant, trained at the restaurant under a chef from Italy, Paulina Taulina Tarducci, and now he helps manage Giovanni’s. Tarducci, who passed away about four years ago, also trained the staff how to make pasta.
While it may be out of the way, it hasn’t stopped some of America’s biggest names from finding it.
On the wall, Truant is pictured posing with Frank Sinatra and Red Skelton, and more recently, with Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Paul Giamatti, who were filming in Detroit in March 2011.
“They were shooting “Ides of March” and they came down on an ugly, rainy night and they had their own little car and they got in the neighborhood and they were a little concerned that something might happen to them,” Truant said.
“And I say, ‘Oh you’re fine, for cripes sake, you guys can handle this.’ I said ‘nothing happens here, don’t worry about it.’’’
Truant grew up a few blocks away from the restaurant.
“It was a beautiful Italian neighborhood,” says Truant, 82. “It started changing 25, 30 years ago. People had gardens, they had wine vineyards, with grapes and stuff.”
The place started as a pizzeria in 1968. It was run by her brothers.
In 1971, Truant bought the place and started an upscale restaurant. She hiked prices. Neighborhood residents stopped coming.
“I didn’t want a pizza parlor,” she says.
“We do a pretty good lunch,” she says, sitting in the back room of the restaurant. On weekends, she says, you almost always need reservations.
She has security guards. A parking lot. Valet parking.
“I don’t have the problems,” she says, referring to crime. “Not at all. I’m really lucky.”
Then the Queen of Schmooze adds: “I think I’ve done a pretty doggone good job being in this neighborhood for 40 years.”
Giovannis Ristorante --33 S. Oakwood Blvd., Detroit, MI 48219, 313.841.0122
Tues-Fri -- 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sat -- 11 am. -9 p.m.
Closed Sunday and Monday and major holidays.
BACK when there was only one Buddy’s restaurant, this is where many Detroiters satisfied their Jones for square pizza. Sure there was competition back in the day, but for Buddy’s loyalists, the choice was always an easy one.
Located at the corner of McNichols and Connant, this neighborhood has seen better days. A stretch of McNichols from I-75 to Conant has boarded up stores and empty homes.
It wasn’t always that way. The streets bustled in 1946 when owner August (Gus) Guerra started serving square pizza. In 1953, Jimmy Bonacorse and Jimmy Valenti bought the restaurant, and in 1970, William (Billy) Jacobs and Shirlee Jacobs bought it, eventually handing the reigns over to their son, Robert Jacobs, who runs it today.
Wesley Pikula, vice president of operations, says the old Buddy’s is “part of an institution in the area. People still do like to visit their old stomping grounds.”
“Unfortunately it’s on it’s own,” he says of the building. “We don’t have retail” in the area.
Buddy’s gets customers from businesses in Hamtramck and some local residents.
“People around there are still part of our clientele within a two- or three-mile radius,” he said. “It’s very spotty, it’s not densely populated. But people in the community sort of adopted the place. It’s one of the thriving restaurants in their community.”
Still, a lot of customers still come from the suburbs, particularly on the weekends, when they’re heading downtown or returning.
“We also get state troopers, police,” Pikula says. “Guards at the prisons. There’s so much vice and undercover” cops who come.
Buddy’s has a fenced-in lot and security guard day and night.
“It’s a safe restaurant,” Pikula says.
Interesting, some people at the cool bar rave about the Long Island Ice Teas, a drink that has a few shots of liquor.
One customer, Cory Harris, raved about the smoked salmon Dijon pizza. He also likes Long Island Ice Teas.
“Everyone in our circle knows about the Long Island Ice Teas. I don’t drink Long Island Ice Teas at other bars but here, I like it. It’s right.”
The Original Buddy’s Pizza: 17125 Conant Street
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. -10 p.m.
Fri. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Saturday 12 p.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 1-9
TAKING friends to Nancy Whiskey for the first time can be an interesting experience. As you head north on Trumbull and make a left onto Spruce Street, all you see is a vanishing, worn residential street. At night, a typical response will be “where are you taking us?”
Suddenly, you come upon a quaint Irish bar at the corner of Spruce and Harrison streets. It’s had a liquor license since 1902.
Nancy Whiskey is located on a struggling street in North Corktown, a community that, more so than the other locations in this story, has experienced progress in recent years.
It’s a big hangout for firefighters and Teamsters (there’s two Teamster Halls on Trumbull) and hipsters and shot-and-beer guys. Customers also come for the blues bands on the weekend.
In the warmer weather, it gets it shares of Europeans from the nearby Hostel Detroit, an inexpensive inn popular with young international travelers.
“They’ll be in my bar for a week,” says owner Gerald Stevens. “The hostel does a lot more business in the summer. Kids travel through the country. The hostel stays booked. It’s no big boon to the bottom line, but it helps.”
“Business is good,” he says. “No complaints.”
The menu includes predictable bar-menu items. But Stevens is most proud of the Irish-style corned beef, which is served daily. On St. Patrick’s Day, he said he sells 750 pounds and another 750 on the day of the parade.
“People come from all over for the corned beef,” he says.
The place had a facelift not all that long ago. A fire in October 2009 seriously damaged the interior. It took 11 months of remodeling, all the way down to the studs, before it re-opened.
The bar didn’t get the name Nancy Whiskey -- the name of an Irish song -- until 1985, when Nancy McNiven bought the place. As she got older, she decided to sell.
In January 2006, Stevens, a regular customer since 1985, decided to buy it.
“I didn’t want anyone coming in and messing it up. I bought it for selfish reasons.”
Nancy Whiskey 2644 Harrison Street 313.962.4247
Hours: M-Sat 10:30 a.m.-2 a.m.
Closed Sundays, except on days the Lions and Tigers play at home.