DETROIT: Out On The Town

10 Mar

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Membership has it’s privileges….for years we have belonged to the Detroit Historical Society,  it’s enabled us to enjoy historical museums, sites and events locally and throughout the Midwest for free. Tonight we’re checking out the opening of the new exhibit “Out on the Town Drinking and Dining in Detroit Since 1920” at the Detroit Historical Museum; the entire museum, music, food and of course, drinks, are included. Non-members need only to fork over $25 for the same treatment, well worth the price of admission… Being a member also gives us access to special exhibits, programs and discounts on Behind The Scenes Tours and Historic Houses of Worship Tours. I love historical museums, they tell the story of a place; who first settled there, how they lived, how it evolved, how it became the city it is today. Both of us are fond of this building, there’s something endearing about a historical museum housed in an older building, this one was built specifically for the museum in 1951. 

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The temperature is frigid, we score the last space in the parking lot on Kirby, it’s a short walk to the door. Inside, the building has taken on a party atmosphere, greeters direct us to the coat check, food and drinks, music plays faintly in the distance. We begin on the first floor, America’s Motor City, exhibits here tell how Detroit built cars and how cars built Detroit. Folks have already filled their plates with delicious food prepared by Holiday Catering, they sit on benches in front of the “body drop” eating and watching, others carefully balance their food and drink as they wander through. We take our place in the food line, grab brown paper cartons, forks and napkins, I scoop out servings of tasty grilled vegetables with roasted garlic aioli, a fabulous pasta salad, Caesar salad with chicken and quinoa salad laced with plump dried cherries. The next table over offers wine, beer and ice-cold bottles of water. A large jar of Dutch girl donuts rests on the dessert table, the catering staff is just starting to prepare ice cream floats; a scoop of vanilla floating in your choice of Vernor’s, Faygo Root Beer, Orange or Red Pop, now that’s how we do it in Detroit!

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Passing the gorgeous mahogany Meijer clock, we make our way to the second floor; Out On The Town is in the Booth-Wilkinson Gallery. At the top of the stairs we hear the murmur of the crowd, a band plays in one of the galleries, the rooms are crowded, people stand in front of displays pointing, nodding and smiling. A collection of menu covers hang on the wall at the gallery entrance, some names are familiar, The Mauna Loa, Topinka’s, Dakota Inn, London Chop House. Others I have never heard of; Sapphire Room, Club Three 666, Mayfair, Blue Bird Inn, Tropics. The names create a sense of what Detroit was like back then; elegant, vibrant. Each section of the gallery highlights a different time period, from the Speakeasies of the Prohibition era, working men’s watering holes to the Jazz Clubs, Night Clubs and businessmen’s lunch spots. Vignettes are positioned behind glass, mannequins wear the fashions of the day, memorabilia such as menus, glasses, matchbooks and photos give a true sense of the time and place. Starting in the early days  a re-creation of the Woodbridge Tavern features a bar tender wearing a straw hat and apron, a butcher block table and seltzer bottles. The Flame Show Bar opened in 1949 and was hugely popular. Located on the corner of John R and Canfield some of the biggest entertainers of the day performed here; Billy Holiday, Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan, Della Reese, Etta James, BB King, Bo Diddly and Sam Cooke, amazing! We proceed through time and venues, jukeboxes and cigarette vending machines appear. Artifacts from nightclubs such as the Roostertail, Elmwood Club and 20 Grand Club are on display; did you know Detroit even had its own Playboy Club? A reproduction of London Chop House includes an old booth, signs and a couple of Hy Vogel’s infamous caricatures.

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Cliff Bells has set up a table off to the side, a bartender is mixing up craft cocktails, with a Manhattan in hand we hit the table of snacks Better Made has set up; pretzels, single serving bags of chips and shoestring potato chips all taste so good. Another table has an assortment of Greek finger foods; mini spinach pies, hummus, pita and salad, it looks to good to pass up. It is getting more crowded so we head down to the Streets of Old Detroit, this is probably the most popular permanent exhibit in the museum. We stroll past shop windows with bicycles and musical instruments, a showcase is filled with souvenir dishes and old Detroit postcards. A stop in the drugstore is a must, my favorite item is the antique Vernor’s dispenser. Old-fashioned street lamps light the narrow roads made of rock or logs, we pass the blacksmith, Fyfe Boots, Sanders, a barbershop and Dime store.

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We decide to take one more walk through before calling it a night. On the first floor a DJ is spinning records, modern versions of old songs, pretty cool. A large group of 20-somethings dressed to the nines arrives, all making their way to the main attraction of the evening. Back upstairs we take one last look around, we are reading about Kovac’s, Abicks, Cadieux Cafe and Anchor Bar when the Coney Islands show up. Large silver chafing dishes filled with hot dogs, buns and chili are set down on tables, chopped onions and mustard are readily available; within minutes everyone is indulging in one of Detroit’s most popular foods. What a way to end the night!

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