Saving, Investing, Beer Drinking …
Your financial life is tricky, and hopefully you spend plenty of time getting the big parts of your budget right — house, car, health care. But good planning involves all aspects of your spending, so when it comes to the entertainment part of your money, I’m here to help you get the best experience for your beer buck in Detroit.
Many of us recall those long-ago college days when the budget was so much simpler. Rent Money. Food Money. Beer Money. Or in the case of some of my friends and roommates, Beer/Food money, interchangeable by whichever took precedence on any given day.
Now things are a little more complicated, right? Your financial plan probably includes some combination of Rent/Mortgage, Retirement, Taxes, Insurance, Travel. And Beer Money. Because as far as discretionary spending goes, you still want to be able to kick back, enjoy some of your precious free time with friends, and a cold brew in just the right place.
Here at Guided by Coffee – Financial Navigation, while the main focus is on personal finance, we are also guided by the everyday “finer” things in life – those things that give you the most satisfaction without the country club price (like a great coffee shop), and certainly without the pretentiousness that would be unbefitting of a true Detroiter. So as for stretching that budget, you want some experiential as well as pure monetary value from your favorite bar, right?
By the way, this is the first in the Motor City Money series, aimed at those financial decisions most relevant to the Detroit crowd. Also check out the Getting Started posts on Budgeting and Planning here.
Here are the factors that comprise my first Detroit Beer Money Index, or BMI. (I realize some of you fitness buffs may know BMI to mean something else, but I’m co-opting the term anyway). My weightings, with a table of results in more detail below, are:
Admittedly a highly subjective criteria, made up of that special something that says “that’s sooo Detroit!”, particularly where outsiders may not understand. Obvious factors would include history, some Detroit-specific décor, and that intangible something …
Atmosphere/ Outdoor Option 20%
Some places just rise much higher up the list when the weather is balmy (you know, that highly-coveted and sometimes fleeting time know as summer in Michigan?). While each of the finalists have good vibes, some stand out particularly for their outdoor spaces.
Live Music Options 20%
It certainly makes the beer-drinking experience more of a complete evening when you throw in some of Detroit’s best music. In fact, the BMI uses the live music score as an important differentiator, considering some of the legendary stages included in the Top 5.
Beer Selection 20%
Of course the selection of beers is included in a Beer Money Index, but this criteria is also used to weed out those places that are highly restrictive (i.e. those that consider a wide range to be Bud, Bud Light, Molson’s and a token IPA). Extra credit to those places that have their own proprietary brews or feature primarily Michigan beers on draft. For the most part, the finalists do just fine in meeting the key requirements.
Food Options 10%
Sure, food is important, but this is mostly a beer + atmosphere + music index. Still, some places rank higher than others when you’re looking to complement your suds with some surprisingly good food options.
As you can see by the finalists below, this is not a list of “best” places based on some restaurant poll, or “biggest” beer selection, or even “best beer value” (most have decent, comparable beer prices, along with a scattering of happy hour specials). At the end of the day what matters is your favorite places.
Also, while Detroit, and Michigan as a whole, has become nationally recognized for its quality of local brews, this list is not meant to highlight the beers themselves (and some of their specific venues). It is more about experiencing Detroit via beer as the backdrop. So in addition to this list, a huge shout-out goes to these local labels that have great places around town to enjoy them, such as Atwater Tap House or Jolly Pumpkin (and the brand new Founders Taproom, opening December 4 in Midtown).
Here are my Top 5 Detroit BMI spots.
They are all highly-ranked winners in my book, so you can give them all try with my money back guarantee (i.e. if you’re not happy, you get back what you paid for the advice).
1 – Northern Lights Lounge
Perhaps under-appreciated by some due to its tucked-away location on quiet, almost forelorn, Baltimore Street (just two blocks south of the Fisher Building in New Center), Northern Lights is the place to be discovered as having hit all the right buttons: Uniquely Detroit in its retro interior (from orangy 60’s entry lounge to the rounded red leather booths and “candy corn” lighting), and the nightly lineup of some of the city’s finest jazz and blues.
What I consider its secret weapon is the intimate but spacious outdoor patio — the perfect meeting place, with adeptly curated streaming music (in between live acts outdoors) that’s hard to describe, except that it greatly accentuates the already-cozy atmosphere.
This is technically a scoring tie with a very worthy #2 below. My personal tie-breaker is that if you want to meet with your faves as a group to just chill, perhaps showing visitors some Real Detroit for the first time, this is the place to gather (especially if it’s too cold to take advantage of the outdoors).
Northern Lights has an adequate draft beer selection, with most of the Michigan beers in bottles. The menu is mostly bar fare like sandwiches and burgers, with the freshly corn-dusted chicken strips as a standout.
In the end, who needs a huge draft beer selection or gourmet food menu when get a wonderfully diverse clientele in this kind of irresistible atmosphere? Just don’t tell too many of your friends. I’d love to keep this our little secret. (BTW, I met some new friends Jim and Geri hanging out there on a recent Monday afternoon, and they were downright exuberant about Northern Lights being number one on their list. They are even bringing their wedding party there next spring!)
2 – Old Miami
With its history as an ode to Vietnam veterans since 1979 (the name is an acronym for Missing In Action Michigan), and staggering list of great music that has shared the stage, Old Miami has been referred to extensively as the “CBGB of the Midwest”. From the untouched décor of college-couch furnishings to small but serviceable stage hosting both DJ nights and a huge range of live music (punk/funk/disco and everything in between), Old Miami is an undeniable classic. The bar even hosted Detroit icon Rodriquez (of “Searching for Sugarman” fame) earlier this year, not to mention past Detroit legends like the MC5 and Eminem.
While you may not seek it out for the food, you will want to just chill and let the sheer Detroitness seep in while ordering the next round amongst an eclectic crowd from bikers to local med students. And like Northern Lights, the place climbs many lists with perhaps the best outdoor beer-drinking space in the city – a giant lawn out back, with plenty of tables and chairs scattered amongst the various yard sculptures, separated just enough so that you feel you’re having a hip private party with the outdoor bar just steps away.
Old Miami even has a hot dog stand outside for those $3 after-midnight cravings.
Check out the music lineup in advance (there is a cover most nights, but vets get in free), or just drop in and let whatever is onstage surprise you!
3 – PJ’s Lager House
With “lager” in its name, and more importantly some mega-Detroit musical history in its bones similar to Old Miami, this Corktown hangout deserves a lot of love. Talk about the ghosts of legends, acts like Jack White and hundreds of others have graced the small rectangular back room in years past. As for the beer, there is the affordability of $3 Bud bottles to slightly more expensive local beer pints. And the food is surprisingly good. In fact, there is a distinct emphasis on a higher quality of bar food, and PJ’s even hosts events centered on bringing in guest chefs for theme nights.
Back to the music stuff – PJ obviously keeps up the tradition with a steady flow of both local bands and touring acts several nights a week. The sad part (if there is to be a “sad part”) was evident when I was there on a mostly-deserted Wednesday night a couple of months ago witnessing a great two-band set (including Detroit’s own and very accomplished Old Empire) that should have been appreciated by the masses. So please make a date to check out the event schedule and get yourself over there to support live music in Corktown! Also to just hang out at a fabulously grungy bar stalwart.
4 – Grand Trunk Pub
Speaking of history of another kind, Grand Trunk Pub may have them all beat with their ties to an 1879 jewelry company, right on Woodward, that originally occupied this downtown space. That business was sold to the Grand Trunk Railroad in 1905 to become a ticket station and railroad offices (see the complete history here). Fast forward 100 years, when the pub was established in 2006 with the goal of preserving the name and history of the ornate building.
As for my rating criteria, Grand Trunk does beer exceptionally well, with a few dozen Michigan-only beers on draft, and the staff is extremely knowledgeable of each. The menu is large, and bartender Phil explained to me on a recent day of beer research that most of the ingredients are locally sourced (I can vouch for the house specialty reuben sandwich and half-pound burgers).
Its location just a block south of Campus Martius caters to the downtown crowd without seeming the least bit “commercial”. And while it does not host live music in-house, it gets credit for its next-door and up-the-stairs affiliate Whiskey Parlor, which offers its own funky vibe of jazz and indie artists in a speakeasy setting.
5 – Motor City Brewing Works
Motor City is just an awesome, no-frills blend of authenticity, local beers, and location. In what is now risking being known as the “hipster” part of Midtown, with Shinola and Third Man Records directly across the street on Canfield, Motor City maintains its grass-roots identity offering up real Detroit beers (they absolutely brew their own, including the world infamous and personal favorite Ghettoblaster) and some nice food surprises like the gourmet cheese plates and specialty pizzas.
The upper deck is also nice, weather permitting, but the charm of this place is that it is the perfect hangout when you just want to be in the middle of Midtown whiling away an afternoon before a game, shopping at City Bird and other local places on the block, or for no particular reason at all.
So there you have it. My top 5 will undoubtedly spur some arguments, so I challenge you to reply with your favorites. No matter how you slice it, I hope you feel your beer budget just got a lot smarter.
And as always, spend (and drink) responsibly!
As long as we keep it real and keep it Detroit, there are no losers here.
Oh yeah, here’s the scoring matrix, for further debate: