“Detroit is a city of un-entitled authenticity,” says John S. Neely, a self-described “activist, humanist, bartender, and supporter of all things Detroit.”
The food and drink community is made up of “a long list of heavy-hitting industry veterans who have grown from bartenders to owners and operators,” he says. “Without them, I wouldn’t be here; Detroit would not be the city it is without these humans.”
Neely is currently head bartender at Barter, a cocktail bar and community arts venue that opened in March 2019 in Hamtramck. In the past, he’s worked at The Whisky Parlor and Wright & Company, and was one of the youngest-ever contenders in the global cocktail competition Bacardi Legacy.
With bars, restaurants, and hotels opening in Detroit left and right these days, there’s no better guide than one of the city’s great talents at the heart of the movement. In this installment of Bartography, John Neely takes us on a personal itinerary through the Motor City.
“Barter is a cocktail bar with a black box theater started by Cait Pluto, Jake Goodrich, and Jen Sandella. I am currently the head bartender; the bar holds a list of great cocktails at an accessible price point for all to enjoy, and we have a different event going on just about every single day of the week, which draws people from all over. Try the Panorama, an all-star drink with bourbon, vanilla Earl Grey syrup, grapefruit juice, lemon juice, salt, egg white, and dried rosebud.” Location.
“Detroit’s new rooftop hotspot, led by food and Beverage Director Mike Eisenberg and Head Bartender Ryan Arvin, boasts a lovely list of classic cocktails with high-end spirits. Their Sasha Says drink (El Jimador Reposado, maple, egg) sums up the space: simple yet elegant. The beer is not be overlooked by any means, and a wine list not to be missed. They also carry a list of small bites that are easy to share in big groups. The view shows the city in a light and way that is truly breathtaking.” Location.
“Standby, Deluxx Fluxx, and the Skip can be found in one of the original enclaves of Detroit: an alleyway called The Belt. All owned and operated by Joe Robinson (one of Detroit’s most beloved bartenders), this is a high-volume cocktail bar with zero ego. The cocktail menu boasts over 50 cocktails along with a fantastic beer program by Ian Ross of The Skip and a killer wine program curated by Eren Watts. The Snake in the Grass, a modified Gimlet with liquid nitrogen-muddled mustard greens, is a banger; it’s light, bright, and fun. The food at The Skip is perfect for a night out on the town (Wagyu hot dogs for the win). At Standby, try the confit wings with blackberry agave, jalapeños, and cilantro. Get them, they will make you happy.” Location.
“Second is the dive bar made anew. It’s home to one of the best draft cocktail programs in town, overseen by Will Lee. The cocktails are on a gun, and Champagne bottles of High Life are the move. You can still get just about any cocktail you want along with your favorite dad beer. It’s kind of like the ‘90s called and then the team added love, care, great food, awesome cocktails, and soul to the mix. Even when it’s tooth and nail, the hospitality is always second to none, thanks to the solid team led by Megan Long and Robbie Sperry. This is a great spot to grab a late-night dog and beer after a long shift.” Location.
Candy Bar at The Siren Hotel
“This slick cocktail lounge inside of The Siren Hotel has an all-pink, Art Deco spice to it … the cocktails [are] some of the most interesting in the city. The program is headed up by Chuck Gallasch (beverage director for Lady, Candy Bar, and upcoming project Karl’s) and Head Bartender Andrew John. The Lola Old Fashioned will knock your socks off and leave you wanting more and more. The menu is going to be changing up soon, so get it while you can. You should also keep a look out for Karl’s, opening in the same space led by Head Bartender and Beer Director Eric Angus.” Location.
“The original staple of Downtown Detroit, this space created most of the bar legends of Detroit that we know today. They have the best happy hour and Impossible Burger in the city, hands down! The dinner menu is not your average fare; it is rife with eclectic dishes curated by Executive Chef Kirk Whittemore (who worked his way up from a line cook) and Detroit pastry icon Shannon Kellet. On the bar, you have Beverage Director, General Manager, and Sommelier Joseph Allerton, a local legend in his own right, and Bar Manager Taylor Schmidt.” Location.
“Grey Ghost is one of the best restaurants in Detroit, hands down. They have a long list of house cocktails curated by staff; the Midnight Marauder by Lead Bartender Asher Miller, a luscious black Manhattan riff, is a must have. If you’re there for brunch, get the Carne Asada with Chimichurri, grits, and poached egg along with the Golden Child (Scotch, rum, Bärenjäger, cereal milk, lemon, and turmeric). For dinner, try the oysters, fried bologna, and the best New York strip you’ll ever have in your life. There is something for everyone here but in true Detroit fashion, the hospitality will have you coming back for more.” Location.
“This is a true hidden gem tucked away in Southwest Detroit. Chef Luis Garza came to the U.S. in 1985; his inspiration comes from Puebla, Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon and many other places. There’s a mural on the restaurant known as the “Deity of Southwest Detroit,” which is just as stunning as the food. There is a long list of takes on Latin dishes, along with a few things of Chef’s invention, all at an accessible price point. There is alcohol here but the space is also BYOB, so feel free to grab a nice bottle of wine at The Royce and then head to dinner.” Location.
SheWolf Pastificio & Bar
“SheWolf is so much more than pasta … all of the staff do their part to make sure that you have a top-of-the-line experience. The selection of cocktails, wine, and vermouth will blow you away, all curated by their bar manger, Nelson. Order the Orata: a whole roasted Mediterranean sea bream with braised greens and roasted fennel. The carpaccio is also one of the best things that I have had in my life.” Location.
Lady of the House
“James Beard-nominated Chef Kate Williams’s Lady of the House offers innovative comfort food pointing back to her Irish heritage; here, the space will make you want to stay, but it’s the experience that will keep you. The happy hour is worth getting there early for, with $6 dollar gin Martinis, Old Fashioneds, Daiquiris, wine, and simple, $7 bites. The Parisian ham is a one-of-a-kind experience, and the wine list by Sommelier Catherine Kurth is out of this world.” Location.
“Led by three-time James Beard semifinalist Chef Andy Hollyday, Pastry Chef Lena Sareini, and Bar Manager Kayleigh Previte (one of the few female bar managers in the city), Selden Standard is a place that perfectly demonstrates how food highlights different components of beverage; it is simply harmony. The rabbit ragu hold a special place in my heart, along with the fried perch. The Midnight Streets is a killer drink, made with Madeira, Jamaican rum, apple brandy, and Creole shrub.” Location.
The Siren Hotel
“One of the new kids on the block, The Siren Hotel is a beautiful restoration of a local historic building. They have a coffee shop, barbershop, and the fabulous Candy Bar. They are also working on opening up a few other projects, including Paramita Sound (a record shop and bar concept) and a new restaurant called Karl’s.” Location.
“This new Downtown hotel is beautiful place to get lost in. There is a long list of things going on here that will keep you on your feet, including Living Room, Evening Bar, Italian restaurant San Morello, and much more.” Location.
Midtown (Formerly Cass Corridor)/New Center
“This part of town is the central hub of the city as Wayne State University draws in people from all over. So there’s this great mix of college students, young professionals, and old-school Detroiters. You have just about everything you need in the neighborhood, and Downtown is a quick walk away. The Motown museum, Detroit Institute of Arts, the Masonic Temple (a must-see), and Detroit Symphony Orchestra are all here; Temple Bar is a must. Go on the weekend and dance your heart away.” Location.
“This is off the beaten path but well worth the adventure. West Village is new school meets old school … this mashup will just leave you wanting more. You are a quick hike to Belle Island, which is the place to be in the summer. Rose’s Fine Foods holds it down super hard, along Craftwork and Marrow. It is a city all on its own, and those flavors shine.” Location.
“This is where you go to play (a night out on the town can very easily start and end here). You have a countless list of bars and restaurants in Downtown, along with music venues and many events. I have to say for me, it is not a night out on the town if you don’t end up at Standby. Dinner at Wright and Company is a must-do always; the wait is worth it. Candy Bar and Bad Luck are perfect after-dinner spots to wind down the night.” Location.
“One of the oldest neighborhoods in Detroit, home to some of the best gems in the city. Take an afternoon walk and check out Old Tiger Stadium. From there, have lunch at Folk or dinner at Lady of the House (always power moves). I would also recommend having cocktails at Sugar House or Two James; either one will blow you away. Taoki and Gold Cash Gold are not to be forgotten. Southwest is just a quick walk away, offering some of the best street food you will ever find.” Location.