From Motown and motors to a burgeoning urban culture
Although infamous for becoming the largest city ever to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in July 2013, Detroit is resilient. The birthplace of influential music movements such as techno and MoTown, and the heart of America’s historic automotive industry, Detroit is an incubator for American-made culture and creativity. Low rents have allowed many to start their own businesses; half of the venues we recommended were built in the last few years—a testament to how Detroit is bouncing back. The urban agricultural movement is taking the city, which boasts a diverse number of community gardens and small-scale farms (some of which feed the needy), and changing the food culture in Detroit. Self-sufficiency and variety are key: Eastern Market, America's oldest and largest market of its kind, sells local produce, meats and more. Freshwater from Lake St Clair flows into the Detroit River, providing a gorgeous riverfront view. Let your guiding point be Woodward Avenue (Detroit’s Main Street), which starts from the river and divides the east and west sides of Detroit, cutting through the cultural heart of midtown, and extends all the way to the suburb of Bloomfield Hills.
With a view in mind to reinforce Detroit's rich creative community, Trinosophes stands as a multipurpose space worth a visit. During the day, the cafe offers up fresh food and drink, with natural light filtering in from large windows. The venue also houses many events, gallery exhibitions and art showcases but, on top of it all, it stands as a mid-sized venue for musicians—whether for locals or bands just passing through. Visitors are likely to catch jazz, soul, experimental, or any music that references Detroit's vibrant musical history.
After raising over $19,000 on Kickstarter, two cousins restored a vintage dinner in east Detroit and Rose's Fine Foods was born. All the from-scratch food incorporates local, seasonal ingredients—from produce to wood-stove-baked bread and pastries, it's all fresh, tasty and made with love. With a friendly and helpful staff, the environment is a charming take on what you'd expect of a traditional diner—only with more light. The building has been there since the 1960s and housed two previous diners, with this iteration boasting an award-winning baker, a deep concern for all the ingredients and a lot of heart.
Helmed and founded by George N'Namdi (a longtime art dealer and gallery owner), the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art is guaranteed to wow. An exhibition space with continuously changing showcases, the venue also houses events, performance art, experiential theater and more. The Center also carries lots of arts-related programming, including lectures and musical performances. N'Namdi himself has sought to preserve significant pieces, having built The N'Namdi Collection—one of the finest private collections of African American art in the world. With their artist-in-residence program, the Center offers a place for local creatives to flourish. Additionally, the complex also houses the vegetarian restaurant Seva, a wine bar and a handful of stores.
Seasonal changes to their incredible menu stand as just one reason that this cocktail bar is worth repeat visits. The folks behind The Sugar House are masters of the classic cocktail revival, as well as explorers of new and interesting craft cocktails—and you're unlikely to get one as good anywhere else in the city. If you prefer craft beers, they've got a substantial selection. Even wine lovers can rejoice in their offerings. The environment is intimate with some speakeasy invocation and the staff is knowledgable. It can get crowded but doors open every day at 5PM so an early seating (with some light bites) is always a great option.
Tucked away in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood, this French restaurant serves up delicious food—including the best crepes you'll find in the city. But it's perfect for a quick coffee or fresh juice while enjoying their outdoor area. The decor is quite charming and the service is always friendly, but the cuisine really stands out—especially with plentiful vegetarian options. With service ending at 4PM during weekdays and on Saturdays, and at 3PM on Sunday, it's the perfect breakfast and brunch spot.
Down the street from Traffic Jam & Snug and just a block away from Avalon International Breads in midtown Detroit is the Shinola store, which opened in June 2013. Originally known for shoe polish, the century-old brand is now a purveyor of watches, leather goods, bicycles, journals and more. Shinola is bringing production and employment back to Detroit, and a tour of their watch factory, just a few miles away, is highly recommended. The store also has a raw juice bar, Drought, started by five sisters from Michigan—an example of how the brand aids fellow community start-ups and supports the growth of small businesses. Other notable stores in the midtown district are Hugh (selling both vintage and modern housewares to stock a classy bachelor pad) and Nora (stocked with design-minded objects from Scandinavian housewares to handcrafted Detroit jewelry). Round out the night with a unique movie-watching experience at the Detroit Film Theatre—built in 1927, entrance to the historic movie palace interior, adorned with gilded fixtures, and access to an independent film selection (on a lucky day, silent films with live orchestral accompaniment) is only $7.50.
Corktown, the oldest neighborhood in Detroit where the Irish found refuge after the potato famine and also home to the abandoned Michigan Central Station (designed by the same architects as New York’s Grand Central Station), is becoming increasingly boho thanks to the growing number of successful, new small businesses and urban farms. This cozy artisanal coffee shop was started by couple Daisuke and Jess Hughes, whose Australian roots are the reason for the usually hard-to-find flat white on the menu. Astro sources its roasters from around the country, including favorites like SF’s Sightglass Coffee, Portland’s Heart Roasters and Durham’s Counter Culture, and their pour-over method produces stupendous-tasting coffee that brings the hipsters flocking. Although Astro closes at 6pm, Slows Bar B Q is right next door—and the food is famous enough to warrant a two-hour wait. Above the restaurant is a two-bedroom inn, Honor & Folly, which looks like a living spread out of Elle Decor.
How many restaurants can you name that make their own bread, ice cream, cheese and beer? Just south of Wayne State University in midtown Detroit, this two-level eatery grows ingredients on its rooftop garden and has an observation balcony so the curious can see how the beer is brewed (spoiler alert: following the traditional footsteps of Belgian monks, TJ’s makes its beer and cheese using the same equipment). Staples to order are the portobello mushroom soup, deep-fried pickles and the Carlotta Chocolatta Ice Cream Cheesecake, which comes sprinkled with ground espresso and can’t be finished alone. If it’s still light out, the Lincoln Street Art Park, a former lot turned into a public sculpture garden surrounded by colorful murals, is less than 10 minutes away by car. Closer still: Shinola is basically next door.
In the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills lies the “cradle of American modernism.” Out of all of Cranbrook’s different schools (which start from pre-K), the Academy of Art’s unique graduate program for architecture, art and design is especially renowned for not having traditional courses but teaching solely through apprenticeship—it’s effective, considering the list of alumni boasts past and present-day innovators from Charles and Ray Eames to Nick Cave. While the campus hosts science and art museums and even a not-to-be-missed planetarium, the best way to experience Cranbrook is by simply taking a stroll around the grounds. Wander through the Oriental Garden, around Kingswood Lake, or chance upon the outdoor Greek Theatre. Stepping on a specific tile causes a mysterious bust of Zeus to transform into a fountain as tears spill from his eyes. Finnish sculptor Carl Milles designed numerous sculptures that are hidden throughout the campus, including the Orpheus Fountain (keep an eye out for Beethoven’s face on one of the eight life-sized figures), which is considered to be his masterpiece. For those interested in more large-scale views, there are incredible contemporary structures from famous architects around the world such as Eliel Saarinen, Rafael Moneo, Juhani Pallasmaa and Steven Holl. Whether you're a student, artist or visitor, there's no shortage of visual inspiration here.
Former French teacher Torya Blanchard cashed in her retirement fund to start a crêperie from scratch and bring some French flair to the heart of midtown Detroit’s Cultural Center. Off Woodward Avenue, the space is decorated with her personal collection of vintage French film posters—a blow-up of Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” covers an entire wall. Choosing between 50 different sweet or savory crêpes (each named after a different lady) may seem daunting but there’s plenty of Intelligentsia coffee stocked at Good Girls to sip on while narrowing down a decision. The most popular crêpe is the “Sarah” (chevre, red pepper, mushrooms, spinach, balsamic vinaigrette) but we recommend indulging that sweet tooth with a “Fay,” which comes stuffed to the brim with freshly-cut banana, pecans, caramel, salted butter and brown sugar. After a Parisian breakfast, walk over to the Detroit Institute of Arts (just down the block) or venture a bit further for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. For a post-museum dinner and a place to rest sore legs, it’s a three-minute walk to Rodin, Blanchard’s new homestyle French restaurant, on the same block as Good Girls.
Artist Tyree Guyton started the Heidelberg Project 27 years ago as a necessary response to the decay of his childhood neighborhood in the notoriously dangerous East Side of Detroit. Slowly, the vacant houses on the block were transformed into colorful, whimsical structures of art, covered in painted polka-dots, stuffed animals, record vinyls, shoes and other recycled pieces. It’s a continually evolving art installation that becomes much more than a wordless political statement about the city of Detroit’s attitude towards these abandoned homes (enough to stir a response, for sections of the Heidelberg Project have been demolished twice in its history)—the movement is now a powerful community outreach program for kids. When perusing “Noah’s Arc” or “The House of Soul,” don’t be surprised to see kids (and a supervising adult) manning a little booth to sell T-shirts to support the non-profit organization or a youth art workshop taking place. The future of the “Funky Artistic Cultural Village” lies in their hands.
Located between Wayne State University and Downtown Detroit in Cass Corridor, Avalon International Breads opens its doors daily at 6am. The wide selection of breads, all made from 100% organic flour, ranges from classics like Motown Multigrain to the more funky Rocking Red Ale Beer Bread and even burger buns. Their breads are stocked in many local restaurants and markets, but that’s not all: coffee, fresh quiches, vegan soups and cakes, focaccia pizza and sandwiches all keep customers well-fed. The sea salt chocolate chip cookies are the most talked about (and cookies can be warmed up, just ask) for good reason. Once the harrowing decision of what to order has been made, escape the busy café and walk down the block to the North Cass Community Garden to eat that chocolate ganache brioche in peace.
A bright blue shipping container sits in a vacant lot next to Eastern Market; the interior is decorated with leftover wood scraps. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, First Container opened its doors in May 2013. It’s a prototype and teaser from Collision Works, a planned 36-room boutique hotel, co-working and public event space built from repurposed shipping containers that will complete construction by spring 2014. With prime real estate next to the epi-center of Detroit’s food and art culture, Collision Works wants locals and visitors to interact and share stories through this creative space, starting with First Container. The “Story Box” has already hosted storytelling seminars and served as a public library branch, and more community events featuring showcases from Detroit contemporary artists and maker classes are being planned during its six-month-long residence, after which it will be moved permanently to the Dequindre Cut. The lobby-like feeling of First Container is the perfect place to rest tired legs after a hectic day at Eastern Market—and to top it all off, there’s free Wi-Fi.
On Saturday mornings (and Tuesdays, in the summer-fall seasons), the historic Eastern Market makes downtown Detroit come alive with a vibrant bustle of farmers and home cooks who shop to the soundtrack of live music from local street artists under three enormous shed structures. So many fresh fruit and vegetables, herbs, wholesale meat and specialty foods like Mystic Kettle Corn, McClure’s Pickles and Avalon breads make it impossible to visit all the vendors in a single afternoon. The jaw-droppingly low prices for produce serves as a great reminder to the community that Michigan has around ten million acres of farmland and is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the nation. Be sure to bring a cart or large reusable bag, and plenty of cash! There aren’t many options for takeout food at the market but the enormous, thin-crust slices at Supino’s are considered the best pizza in Michigan, although its best to order that Affumicata (prosciutto, mozzarella, smoked Gouda, ricotta) on a non-market day, otherwise the line can get crazy. Eastern Market also hosts not-to-miss seasonal events like Flower Day in May (one of the biggest flower shows in the country).
Detroit’s history as the heart of the American auto industry, leading to the nickname Motor City, has often neglected cyclists. The Dequindre Cut Greenway is the beginning of many changes Detroit is making to become a more bike-friendly city. Formerly a Grand Trunk Railroad line and outdoor art studio for graffiti artists, the 1.35-mile long recreational path connects the riverfront to Eastern Market and residential neighborhoods in between, all the while keeping the urban art preserved. Grab some fresh produce at frighteningly cheap prices at Eastern Market and enter Dequindre Cut through its northern ramp on Gratiot Avenue. The smooth, pothole-free pavement eventually leads to the riverfront, which is filled with places to picnic and dine. Extend the outdoor adventures by visiting Belle Isle: Located in the middle of the Detroit River, the island park (designed by New York Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted) has a must-see aquarium and conservatory, and even a casino and nature zoo.
Traverse City, a freshwater equivalent of Cape Cod, is a beach town in Northwest Michigan and also happens to be the largest tart cherry producer in the country. Restaurants creatively incorporate the local cherries into entrees and Pleva's meat shop makes famous lean meat cherry burgers and dogs. The food adventure doesn't just end there—TC is also a growing wine region and home to award-winning vineyards like Brys Estate and Bowers Harbor (there's a reason why chef Mario Batali owns a lake-house here). Get a dose of caffeine with a cup of fair trade coffee (as well as organic jam and other local delights) at Higher Grounds Trading Co. The must-see is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore, where forest meets sand. Climb the huge dunes or hike the Heritage Trail for stunning views of Lake Michigan. For those daring types that want to try something different, Broneah Kiteboarding will take you to beaches or frozen lakes, depending on where the best wind is, for a one-day lesson of the extreme sport. The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is a historic psychiatric hospital-turned-shopping area and still in development, which makes it a great place to take a walk. Its centerpiece, Building 50, houses Trattoria Stella—a much-loved Italian restaurant whose menu details which local farm or company provided each ingredient. Before heading back, stock up on Grand Traverse Pie Co.'s sweet cherry and chicken pot pies.