Food & Drink

Basement Bars and Brothels: Most of Detroit's Oldest Bars Were Once Real-Deal Speakeasies

Published On 11/15/2016 Published On 11/15/2016
The Painted Lady
Courtesy of Painted Lady Lounge
Eric Lakeman/Kit Lindamood

Abick's Bar

Southwest Detroit

Abick’s is the longest family-operated bar in Detroit, now on its sixth generation of the same Polish-American family that founded it in 1907. Not much has changed: The gorgeous tin ceilings and mahogany bar welcome guests into the mellow, relaxed atmosphere. Odds are Shadow, the resident English mastiff, will startle you with a massive guttural bark when you ring the buzzer. (He’s more likely to be afraid of you than you are of him, so don’t worry.) Asked about its speakeasy history, Abick’s former owner Manya generally gave a wry smile and said, "The boys took care of us," and nothing else. The bar likely saw some significant boozing, though: Recent renovations have unearthed some Prohibition-era bottles and two giant whiskey barrels (one still partly full) in the basement that predate 1920.
What to check out: Other than Shadow? If the bartender has a moment, ask to see the Kil-a-Kol crate and old bottles, and the barbershop-turned-cigar lounge off to the side.
What to order: Stroh’s, new or old-style. The bar was funded by Stroh’s to sell their beer exclusively over 100 years ago.

Tom's Tavern

University District

Seeing the ramshackle exterior and topsy-turvy floors, you’d think there’s no way Tom’s Tavern has been in business since 1928. It was built by Greek immigrant Tom Lucas as a lunch counter, but mostly what was on the menu was booze, however Tom wanted to pour it. There are plenty of rumors that the Purple Gang, the premier booze distributors during Prohibition, itself supplied Tom with his hooch, although at this late a date it’s pretty tough to prove. Tom’s has been a longtime hangout for university and journalist types, so you’ll find plenty of folks willing to speculate with you.
What to check out: The fantastic live music. On nights when Detroit Pleasure Society plays or on Honky Tonk night, the raucous cheer looks like it’s likely to literally bring down the house. Don’t worry, Tom’s has survived this long; it probably won’t fall down when you’re there.
What to order: Jack Daniel's on the rocks, in honor of the bar’s new (well, since 1991) proprietor, Ron.

JEFF WARANIAK/Thrillist

Two Way Inn

Northeast Detroit

When Colonel Philetus Norris built himself a general store, stagecoach inn, and jail at what was then the hinterlands of Detroit in 1876, he might not have had any idea of the carousing that would still be going on at the Two Way Inn 140 years later. And the teetotaling Colonel might not have wholly approved of the rumored activities during Prohibition: Since doctors were legally allowed to prescribe “medicinal” alcohol, the dentist who rented the building in the 1920s likely kept the business booming. There are also significant rumors that the second floor “boarding house” did double time as a brothel during Prohibition.
What to check out: The recently recovered tin ceiling, the photos of Norristown in the streetcar days. And ask about the lucky coin toss.
What to drink: Medicinal whiskey, of course! Preferably something old-school to match the Wild-West looking environs.

Tommy's Detroit Bar and Grill

Tommy's Detroit Bar

Downtown Detroit

If Wayne State’s archaeology department spends a whole summer collecting stories, digging up artifacts, and finding a freaking hidden tunnel, you know this must be the real deal. All that fun stuff is down in the basement of Tommy's -- of course, if you have a bar full of Purple Gang gamblers and drinkers, you probably don’t want just anybody to see them. If you ask nicely, and it’s not a Wings home game (it’s across the road from Joe Louis Arena), you can probably persuade someone to take you on a basement tour.
What to check out: The basement. And all the sporting memorabilia from decades past.
What to drink: Beer and a shot, preferably some variety of Crown Royal. It’s become the de facto house whiskey.

Jacoby's German Biergarten

Jacoby's Bar

Downtown

Jacoby’s is an old-style German biergarten tucked in the heart of Downtown Detroit. It opened in 1904 and has served generations of movers and shakers, politicians, and other shady sorts. While we can’t prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jacoby’s served alcohol during the 1920s, it’s pretty hard to imagine that it didn’t skirt the laws in some fashion with a crowd like that. Plus, it has one of the very oldest liquor licenses issued in Detroit, so that’s gotta count for something, right?
What to check out: The gorgeous stained glass upstairs and the beautiful wooden staircase.
What to order: You’re on your own here. Jacoby’s has dozens of German beers, each one as delicious as the last.

Stonehouse Bar

State Fairgrounds

After a recent closure, Stonehouse is back up and running with extended weekend hours. That’s a good thing, because every Detroit bar lover should see this former farmhouse that’s been acting as a bar as long as anyone can remember. The original two-story house, within spitting distance of Ulysses S Grant’s old house, held farmhands, seasonal laborers, and more than a few prostitutes in the upstairs rooms. Not much has changed in the friendliest biker bar in town.
What to check out: The stunning front porch with a view of the old State Fairgrounds.
What to drink: Bud, High Life, or Coors will earn you an approving nod from the bartender. A rocks pour of cask-aged rum does the trick too.  

Courtesy of Painted Lady Lounge

Painted Lady Lounge

Hamtramck

Hamtramck’s reputation as a paradise for the lawless has been around for a while, and its heady Prohibition days are no exception. This is the town, after all, that sent two mayors to prison for various drink-related charges over the course of Prohibition, so it’s no surprise that there were plenty of speaks there. This bar’s owner has a deed from 1911 in which the Victorian bar is dated simply as “very old." And there’s ample evidence in the (employees only, sorry) basement that a separate bar functioned down there at one time, most likely a private card room.
What to check out: The vintage beer signs and the bathroom graffiti.
What to order: Painted Lady carries some pretty swanky whiskies for a supposed dive bar. Try one or three.

Ye Olde Tap Room

Ye Olde Tap Room

East Detroit

Ye Olde Tap Room’s been serving frat boys on college break for some time, but long before that it was a comfort station for the nearby trolley line. All three floors of the place hummed with illegal activity during Prohibition: from the ground floor comfort station to the second floor gaming room and third floor -- you guessed it -- brothel. A dumbwaiter went from the basement (which, of course, also had its own bar) to other floors. At the same time, part of the building housed the first Pigeon Club in the US. Yes, a pigeon club, which is precisely what you think that it is. The vibe at Ye Olde Tap Room is still convivial, with old friends returning and mixing with newcomers.
What to check out: Owner Russell Mack’s truly prodigious collection of vintage tap handles.
What to order: Beer. They have dozens; you pick.

Nancy Whiskey

Corktown

The story of Nancy’s might as well be the story of That Detroit Bar. It started as a corner grocery for the Irish neighborhood, only to discover there was far better money to be made selling non-perishable booze. So after opening as Digby’s grocers in 1902, it became Digby’s saloon in short order. It’s been slinging Irish whiskey ever since, through ups and downs in the economy and neighborhood, through Prohibition, Jimmy Hoffa’s frequent visits (rumor has it he used the phone booth as his office on more than one occasion) and a devastating fire in 2009. Nothing holds Nancy down.
What to check out: The phone booth and the newly renovated back patio.
What to order: Tullamore Dew, especially if it’s your first time. It’s a tradition at Nancy.

Andrews on the Corner

Rivertown

Here’s another Prohibition-era “lunch counter” opened by a Greek immigrant. Gus Andreakos and his brother set up shop in 1918, although the building was older than that, operating as a grocery store at first. Tom Woolsey, Andrew’s current owner and Gus’s grandson, happily recounts family legends of Hiram Walker (of Canadian Club fame) customers and even Walker family members stopping into the bar at the corner of Atwater and Joseph Campau on their way to catch the ferry that left from the foot of Walker St over to the CC distillery. Alas, the ferry stopped regular service in 1942; you’ll have to take the bridge over to Walkerville these days. But in the meantime, pop into Andrews for some Rivertown memories.
What to check out: The hockey memorabilia, cultivated over decades of Tom’s love of the sport.
What to order: Canadian Club. Order the Dock 57 if it’s in: It was the Walkerville dock that saw the greatest volume of Canadian Club heading over to the American side in Detroit, despite it being technically illegal. If that’s not in, no worries: Americans drank more than their share of CC of all kinds during Prohibition, so you’re in good (historic) company.

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1. Tom's Tavern 10093 W 7 Mile Rd, Detroit, MI 48221

Ramshackle does not been to describe dive bar Tom’s Tavern, open since the 1920s: operating hours fluctuate, the floor boards bend, the bar is crooked, much like the standing structure itself. Yet, still the people come, drawn by cheap pints (don’t expect anything craft) in a homey space filled with mismatched chairs and vintage photos. Jukebox tunes play on nights when there’s nobody banging on the piano in the corner of the bar. Tom’s doesn’t have a food license, but take comfort in the fact that a pot of free chili just may be on offer. If setbacks over the years like a building fire and a truck plowing straight into this saloon didn’t stop it, what can?

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2. Abick's 3500 Gilbert St, Detroit, MI 48210

The longtime owner of Abick’s passed away in 2014, after a long stint living above the bar her parents opened in 1919, but the place still has the near-century-old familial charm it always has: original tin ceilings, a old-time brass cashier, walls filled with old family photos. A cigar lounge, all smoke and scotch, lives in the back of the dive, for puffing pleasure. You can find a reliable platoon of regulars shooting pool under the bar’s green-tinted lamps, but that doesn’t mean the atmosphere is exclusive to the old guard: the wave of young people moving into the neighborhood have adopted this anachronistic standby as their new favorite, too.

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3. Two Way Inn 17897 Mount Elliott St, Detroit, MI 48212 (Hamtramck)

The Two Way Inn, established in 1876 by Colonel Philetus Norris, is the oldest bar in Detroit having gone through many reincarnations as village jail and general store, brothel, speakeasy, and now as a “fine dive.” You wont find a menu here, but owner and bartender Mary will host a weekly “popup” or two with homemade comfort foods like pasta, meatloaf, and shepherd’s pie. The first Sunday of every cold-season month Danielle hosts a brunch where she makes drinks from her homemade stash of vegetable infused alcohol. You have to be buzzed in for a bottle of domestic, international, or local craft beer, or to catch a glimpse of Col. Norris who is rumored to have never left this dark, weathered, underground-style bar.

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4. Tommy's Detroit Bar & Grill 624 3rd St, Detroit, MI 48226

Tommy’s is a long-standing neighborhood joint that serves American diner food and shuttles guests to Detroit sports games. Tommy’s loves to support its city and offers as much Detroit-local products as possible like Wrigley’s corned beef sandwich, chicken wings, grilled cheese, and locally-sourced, thick beef patties that they hand roll and layer with cheese and specialty toppings. They also offer American craft beer on draft and a decent list of bottles … our favorite part is the happy hour, although the ghost tours to the old speakeasy is a top contender. While you play pool you might catch a glimpse of an old gangster fading through the nick knack-covered walls by the warm glow of the colorful neon bar signs.

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5. Jacoby's German Biergarten 624 Brush St, Detroit, MI 48226

It was just after the turn of the century when German immigrant Albert Jacoby opened Jacoby’s German Biergarten in 1904, and the sudsy legacy continues on Brush Street today. The Bricktown bar flags down drinkers with an old-time sign hanging on its brick facade, heralding the sizable selection of some 100 bottled and draft beers on offer. A classic tavern-style dining room decked out in dark woods makes a cozy station for German reliables like meatballs, sausage soup and wiener schnitzel. Modern ways make themselves heard in the historic haunt via live music from local bands in the upstairs lounge.

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6. Stonehouse Bar 19803 Ralston St, Detroit, MI 48203

This bar is so old-school, it is rumored to have been a hangout for Prohibition-era Detroit gangsters, the Purple Gang -- and even a brothel at one time. Hypotheses aside, this bar today has a coveted Victorian-style covered front porch, a jukebox, cold beer, and cheap prices that may explain all the regulars.

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7. Painted Lady Lounge 2930 Jacob St, Hamtramck, MI 48212 (Hamtramck)

Hamtramck’s Painted Lady lounge (rumored to be Detroit’s oldest) could use a paint job, sure, with turquoise and coral pink chips falling off of the wood-sided facade of a former Victorian-style home, but fixing that would betray the standby’s unpretentious, rough-and-tumble charm. Regulars gulp PBR on-tap after downing well shots as regular punk music acts keep them nodding their heads in the fashionably unfashionable orange-walled space. Weekly events, from movie nights to live comedy to bar-side taco nights keep the place full.

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8. Ye Olde Tap Room 14915 Charlevoix St, Detroit, MI 48215

Some things have longevity, and a beer-and-shot combos are one of them: Ye Olde Tap Room on Grosse Pointe Park’s edge is proof. The place has been around since 1912, when it transformed from a trolley repair garage into the local favorite it is today. You can see relics of its duration in the decor, with a wall displaying vintage beer taps and booze adverts from eras past. The beer bar doesn’t rest on its laurels, however: some 285 suds are available bottled or on draft, in addition to a scotch menu, which make a perfect pair with free peanuts in their shells. Feel free to just toss the cracked shells on the floor, as long as you don’t end up on it too.

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9. Nancy Whiskey 2644 Harrison St, Detroit, MI 48216 (Corktown)

Established in 1902, Corktown’s Nancy Whiskey holds one of the oldest liquor licenses in Detroit. Besides pour whiskey, the Irish pub, inhabiting the ground floor of an old corner building, does other thing right: fry seafood. Fish ’n’ chips, battered cod and seafood tacos are all the rage at a weekly fry. Live music on the weekends and television sets reliably tuned to Lions, Tigers and Wings games keeps the ‘Cheers’ atmosphere alive.

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10. Andrew's on the Corner 201 Joseph Campau St, Detroit, MI 48207 (Lafayette Park)

Rivertown’s Andrew’s on the Corner has survived Prohibition and a wave of demolitions that hit the town to make the way for casinos (a plan that ultimately fell through). That’s reason enough to drink, which is what the community pub was built for. Before you can finish your cold, cheap pint, you’ll realize that this is a hockey fan’s bar: the memorabilia and photos displayed make that clear (go Wings). The kitchen slings wings, nachos, and greasy sandwiches from plenty of tables within view of the game on tv.

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